Serena hits town but Monica takes centre stage

The state of play in womens tennis as it stands may suggest that Serena Williams stands head and shoulders above the rest, what with her three straight grand slam victories heading into Australian Open 2003, but at Melbourne Park, Monica Seles still holds sway.

So while Williams was sweating it out in steam bath conditions on Court Two on Monday, Seles was enjoying the relative comfort of the centre court at Rod Laver Arena in her first serious workout since arriving in Melbourne.

Williams may be the undisputed queen of the game, but Seles is a four-time champion at Melbourne Park and boasts an awesome 42-3 record since first contesting the Open in 1991.

She might just be the most popular womens player to have played at Melbourne Park and with the start of the tournament still seven days away, was enjoying being the centre of attention.

“Oh, it’s great to be back. I love being here and it’s great to be injury free,” she said, playing down reports of a foot injury suffered while playing a warm-up event in Hong Kong last week.

“I started practicing a lot and when you get back (on the court) it plays up a little bit, but we have great physiotherapists at the WTA so I’ll be in good hands this week.”

At 29, Seles is truly in the veteran class and her build-up to the Australian Open is deliberately low-key. This is why she has bypassed Sydney’s adidas International this week – the traditional tune-up for so many of the women players.

“I think at this stage of my career it’s important to take off the week before Melbourne and just rest because the conditions here are tough and they take a toll on your body,” she said.

“I had my matches in Hong Kong. If I was 18 I would have played Sydney, but I’m 29 and I have to save all my energy.”

The Rebound Ace courts at Melbourne are reported to be faster this year and doubtless, plenty of her colleagues will weigh in with their assessment of the court speed before the championship has ended. Seles herself noted that they appeared a touch faster this year. “But each year is a bit different. I remember one year when they were really fast and everyone complained…I’m really happy with it.”

So why the love affair with Rebound Ace? “It bounces a lot higher and you have to adjust your footwork because the ball doesn’t come to you; you have to get to the ball…there’s so much give for your body, which is great compared to hard courts.”

Seles made the semi-finals at Melbourne Park in 2002. She eliminated Venus Williams in three sets in a memorable quarter-final before losing to Hingis in the semis. Hingis lost to Jennifer Capriati in the final and then womens tennis was engulfed by the phenomenon that was Serena Williams. And Seles couldn’t help but be a fan.

“Last year Serena was the undisputed champion and was really amazing. If she can do that again this year then all power to her. Very few athletes could do that…so to do it in this competition was great. But on the other hand, it was great to see someone like Kim (Clijsters) beat both of them (Serena and Venus).”

“The great thing about womens tennis is that every year, there are more and more talented players. There are so many girls that are tall and can hit the ball.”

But if history teaches a lesson, it is that despite all that, they still won’t get the better of Monica Seles in Melbourne.