Timeless Seles wows S’pore fans

SINGAPORE — She was all smiles, gracious and paid special attention to the newbies at a tennis coaching clinic yesterday.

But it was clear nine-time Grand Slam singles champion and former women’s world No 1 Monica Seles still has a competitive streak.

During an hour-long session with the media yesterday at the Singapore Sports Hub, where the WTA Finals Singapore are being held, shots she missed were accompanied with exclamations of “Noooo” — and then, compliments delivered to the participants who sent the clever shot her way.

Known for her on-court grunting during her playing days, the 42-year-old quipped at the start of the session: “If you don’t hear me grunting, don’t worry about it.”

Some players from the National University of Singapore tennis team were part of the group, and were not even born when Seles hit her peak in the early 1990s. But they were clearly as pleased as the rest of us to be rubbing shoulders with her.

There is something timeless about the champion, who remains the youngest winner of the French Open title at 16, has bounced back from setbacks in her career and is today an ambassador of the sport and an author.

While at her peak as a player, Seles was stabbed in Germany by a deranged fan of fellow champion Steffi Graf in 1993. She returned to the tour two years later and won an Australian Open the following year, but was not consistently at her best thereafter.

Known for her double-handed backhand and forehand and court angles, she played her last official tour match in 2003, retiring after a foot injury.

In between drills on the practice court yesterday, facilitated by coaches from Savitar, Seles shared nuggets about her younger days. The Yugoslav-born American loved her childhood, where her father would draw cartoons on tennis balls for her.

“He would draw Jerry and I would be Tom,” she recounted, referring to the cat-and-mouse cartoon Tom and Jerry.

As a 13-year-old at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy, she would be made to spar with boys like Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, who would later become men’s Grand Slam winners. It did not matter if her opponent was a girl or boy, Seles would give it her all.

When she beat former world No 1 Chris Evert at the age of 15, the latter told her in the locker room that she would one day be bested by someone from the younger generation. And Seles said she recognised a “better version” of herself, years later, when she played a young Venus Williams.

Asked how she dealt mentally with being behind in a match, she said to just never to let her opponent get a free point.

I had been a fan of hers from the 1990s and never expected to meet her in person more than two decades later.

All too soon, the session had to wrap up. Seles shook hands with us, posed for pictures and signed some wristbands. And then, with a sunny “Bye and thank you!”, she was gone.