Wimbledon, England — There’s a dream match in the Wimbledon women’s singles that nobody talks about. It’s certainly not Williams vs. Williams — that’s something even Venus and Serena don’t want to see — or the looming, inevitable showdowns between Jennifer Capriati and the sisters.
By the conclusion of Saturday’s play, with the British springtime weather once again cooperating magnificently, it was evident that Monica Seles is alive, well and vibrant. At 28, she continues to make one of the most heartwarming and important psychological recoveries in the history of sports. What if she played Venus in the semifinals? What if Seles won Wimbledon?
It’s the one Grand Slam tournament Seles didn’t win in her brief, unprecedented dominance of the women’s tour in the early 90s. She was too inexperienced on grass back then, too unfamiliar with the pace and funny bounces, but after she lost the 1992 Wimbledon final to Steffi Graf, the general feeling was that Monica had plenty of time.
She had less than a year, it turned out. The horrible on-court stabbing occurred the following April, in Hamburg, Germany, and Seles didn’t return to Wimbledon until 1996. Her best performances since then have been a couple of quarterfinal appearances, and she rarely seemed a legitimate threat to win the tournament — or any other event, for that matter.
To watch Seles being interviewed on Saturday, after her 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, third-round victory over Ai Sugiyama, was to venture back in time. Curious as it seems, you’re something of an old-timer if you remember those days. Back when Seles was not only the most dynamic teenager the game had ever seen, but the tour’s glamour girl, as well.
Hers wasn’t a heartthrob brand of glamour. People didn’t fawn over Seles the way they did over Gabriela Sabatini or Bettina Bunge and still do over Anna Kournikova. But they fell in love with her, all the same.
Seles grew up in an ethnic Hungarian enclave of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, and when she came to America, by way of the Nick Bollittieri tennis camp in Florida, she embraced it like a brand new toy.
She idolized Madonna, socialized with royalty and looked stunningly good in the finest international fashion, but at heart she was innocent and kind. In news conferences, she giggled after everything she said. When she took the court at the ’89 French Open flipping roses to the crowd and her opponent, Zina Garrison, she had no idea that the gesture spoke of arrogance.
Scanning the tour, people had reasons to feel distant from Chris Evert (a machine), Jennifer Capriati (too young), Graf (ice cold), Sabatini (nobody home) and Martina Navratilova (topics abound). Unless you couldn’t stand the frightful sounds she made on each point, there wasn’t a reason in the world to dislike Monica Seles.seemed she was the youngest everything: Youngest to reach No. 1 (at 17), to win the French Open, to win the Australian Open. She began to dominate Graf, who had owned the tour to that point. She won seven of the first 13 Grand Slam tournaments she played in. To this day, in the category of pure ball-striking for a flat, hard and angled shot, observers place her in the heady company of Andre Agassi. Navratilova once took a 6-1, 6-1 loss to Seles at the Italian Open and said it was “like being run over by a truck.”
By the time her wounds had healed, she was fighting more than a cruel, inconceivable incident. She was bitter that the man, a Graf devotee named Gunther Parche, walked free. She was devastated by the death of her father, Karolj, a wise and generous filmmaker who used to paint cartoon characters on tennis balls to make her practice more fun.
She gained weight, at a disturbing pace, claiming that a good meal was the one thing that could calm her down. And she was horrified by the warfare in her native Yugoslavia, once saying, “I see images from my childhood, bridges where I used to run as a kid being blown up.”
Through it all, and finally a sweet serenity that characterizes her life these days, she has moved only forward. She not only avoids the tapes of the glory years, she says she can hardly remember those days: her behavior, her tennis game, any of it.
Perhaps it’s that she’d rather not remember. They are moments that will never be recaptured. No longer silly and carefree, she’s more the voice of reason on tour now, a paragon of class and perspective. And that seems to suit her just fine.
So you glance at the draw, just on a whim. You imagine Seles outclassing Tamarine Tansugarn in the next round, then somehow getting past Justine Henin or Elena Dementieva, and then it’s the semifinals against Venus, whom she defeated in a taut three-setter at this year’s Australian Open. It’s the only time she’s beaten Venus in eight tries, but it’s the evidence you keep. In a Wimbledon gone mad, it’s quite all right to dream.