NEW YORK – At first, it all seemed so simple and then, quite suddenly, it all became quite complicated for sixth-seeded Monica Seles at the U.S. Open. That’s been the story of her tennis life lately.
Facing qualifier Yoon-Jeong Cho of South Korea, who had never defeated a top 20 player, Seles cruised through Saturday’s first set 6-1 and was up 5-1 in the second.
At 0-30 on Cho’s serve, Seles was two points away from a ho-hum victory, the kind that was once so routine for the former No. 1 player in the world. She was twice a winner of this final Grand Slam of the season.
But those championships and that ranking, were a lifetime ago for Seles who, at age 28, struggles with her game from week to week, never quite knowing how she will play.
Sometimes, the struggle is from set to set.
She was in trouble in the second round of the Open, dropping the first set to Barbara Schwartz of Austria, two points away from losing the match in a second-set tiebreak, before recovering to win it.
Against Cho, it was the exact opposite with Seles in position to complete an easy victory instead of being forced into a frantic comeback. But suddenly, it turned into another crisis for her.
With the wind swirling on center court, Cho made one point, then another and the match turned. She strung five straight winning games together to take the set before Seles recovered in time to salvage the match.
So what happened?
“It’s not something I’m happy about,” Seles said as she tried to explain the meltdown. “My brain went away from the court. It just went away. Definitely checked out of the tennis court. Lesson learned.”
Part of it, Seles said, were Cho’s slowball serves. Part of it was a lack of power on her own returns. All of it was disturbing to the former champion.
Seles had played Cho before. She recalled a tough two-setter in Japan. She knew this player could be trouble. For a long time Saturday, though, there was no trouble at all.
“I was actually surprised how easy things were,” Seles said. “But definitely, I thought of that too soon.”
After letting the second set get away with 21 unforced errors, Seles restored order and won the match to advance to the round of 16. At that stage, there are no more qualifiers on the other side of the net. Lapses like the one that occurred against Cho are frequently not forgiven.
That left Seles reflecting on what had happened.
“It’s always great to pull through matches, but at the same time … definitely I’m not playing as well as I would have liked to,” she said. “The games that I lost went by really fast. I tightened up a little bit out there on my serve. I just was getting a little bit frustrated with myself. I was just happy that I could calm myself down and not kind of lose it out there mentally.”
Then she brightened a bit.
“But Monday, it’s a new ballgame,” she said. “It’s a different level of match you have to play.”
It will have to be a better level for Seles to remain in this tournament.