Thursday, May 05, 2011


(fourteenth in a series)

When it's come to "Time Capsules" the last few years, Monica Seles has been THE pre-Backspin starlet.

Already the subject of two previous editions -- 1990 Roland Garros and 1993 Australian Open -- as well as the original "What If?," Seles' remarkable-but-ultimately-lamentable career trajectory has led me on more than one occasion to ponder what might have been had her career not taken the near-tragic turn it did one spring afternoon in Hamburg.

But, as enticing a subject as it remains to this day, I'm going to try to avoid dwelling on what Seles WASN'T able to accomplish this time out. Instead, I think this "Capsule" should try to simply attempt to serve as a brief peek through a keyhole at a moment in history that, as hard as it is to believe, is already twenty years old. For 1991 was the time where it became apparent that Seles was truly blossoming into a singular personality and presence on the sports -- not just tennis -- landscape.

That spring in Paris was where she began to spread her wings and reach full flight, both on and off the court, and become a star. At the time, she was being favorably compared to groundbreaking 1920's tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen and pop star Madonna, not only for her abilities within her chosen profession, but also for her opionated personality and tweaking of the media machine in ways that served to make her the center of attention... sometimes for good, sometimes for possibly something less than that, as was the case immediately after her defense of her Roland Garros title. With a giggle and a smile, Seles often won over the hearts and minds of the public, then picked up a racket and stomped all over those of her opponents' between the lines.

The legacy of Seles' two-fisted-from-both-sides, angle-heavy, grunt-filled attack is still seen and heard on the courts of the WTA to this day, but it's when you dive head-first back into the short-lived Seles Era that you appreciate just how thoroughly she'd managed imprint her personality on the game while she was still just a teenager. In 2011, players in their early twenties -- even top-ranked ones -- are still considered works in progress. Seles arrived in championship form almost from Day 1. As she proved to be in so many ways, she was far ahead of the game.

Here's what I was thinking back then, when Seles was the Queen of Paris:

June 11, 1991 - "The 'Hair' is Apparent"

She's taller than a year ago (by about half a foot). She's become a talkative (that's not new), more thoughtful (that is) mouthpiece not only for herself, but for all of women's tennis. She's become the "Cosmo Girl" of the tour that Ted Tinling always felt she could be -- her new short 'do and her now-famous shopping binges attest to that. Sports Illustrated recently called her a cross between "shocking" 1920's tennis star Suzanne Lenglen and Madonna. Now there's something a 17-year old girl can take pride in. And, hmmm... what else?

Oh, yeah. She's also the #1 player in the world. SHE, of course, is Monica Seles.

While many other things HAVE obviously changed in the past twelve months for Seles, other important things have remained the same. Namely, her famed grit in big matches, her unqualified two-fisted power and angle-making ability and, lest we forget, her trademark grunts. She used all of her assets on Saturday when she knocked off 19-year old Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the '89 French Open champ with the improved attacking game, 6-3/6-4 to claim her second consecutive French singles crown in only her third Paris appearance.

Both Seles and Sanchez-Vicario are known for their all-court games, and neither disappointed on that front in the final. In fact, the match was much closer than the final score indicated. It was just a matter of which woman would tug on the championship cup the hardest. Seles is about half a foot taller than Sanchez-Vicario, so maybe the call wasn't so difficult after all. Plus, the trophy IS named for Lenglen.

Actually, Sanchez-Vicario was up a break in both sets, but still never won a set off Seles after, going into the final, the Spaniard was the only woman of the two who was yet to lose a set in the tournament. Sanchez-Vicario was up a break at 1-0 in the 1st, but was broken twice later in the set, with the final break coming in game #9 as Seles closed out the set at 6-3.

In the 2nd set, it was much the same story. Sanchez-Vicario held a 4-1 advantage before letting it slip away when a slew of errors led to two consecutive breaks and a 5-4 Seles lead. This kind of comeback should by now be old hat for Seles after her remarkable come-from-behind win over Steffi Graf in last year's French final. But Sanchez-Vicario wasn't finished yet, as usual.

With Seles serving and up 30/love, the nerves set in and, she later admitted, her "hands started shaking." The Spanish mighty-mite seized upon the opportunity and fought a fight which maybe only Seles could have answered. After seven deuces, four unconverted break points by Sanchez-Vicario, and three blown match points by Seles, the Yugoslav sent back a screaming two-handed crosscourt forehand bullet which her opponent could only slap into the net. The championship was her's. Again.

** ** ** ** **

But the fact that the #1 and #5 seeds met on the red clay and gave the Parisians the first women's final since 1969 which pitted two former champions was not the most interesting story that revolved around the women's draw the past two weeks. No, those stories were elsewhere.

The biggest of them all, of course, was the race for #1. The battle fatigues were handed out in three different directions as Seles, Graf and Gabriela Sabatini all had a chance to leave France as the #1 player in the world. Seles came in as numero uno, and she left the same way. But the race was so close that, even on Saturday, if Sanchez-Vicario had won, Graf would have reappearaed at the top of the rankings despite her semifinal thrashing at the hands of the Spaniard. This in spite of the fact that Seles appeared in her eighth final in eight '91 tournaments (she's now won four), is 41-4 for the season and is now, after having won the Australian Open final over Jana Novotna in January, half way to the first Grand Slam since Graf's in 1988. Come Wimbledon, we'll go for a ride on this merry-go-round one more time. In August in Flushing Meadows, we'll do the same.

But that battle isn't the only one raging. The competition on the women's tour isn't relegated to just the "Big 3." The top seven to eight women are easily the class of the tour, and are all capable of emerging victorious. Which leads us to Story #2 -- the much-debated issue of equal pay among the sexes.

It's no secret that the most intriguing tennis in the past year has taken place on the personality-filled women's tour, not the sometimes-faceless men's. With Seles leading the cheers, many women players have been demanding equal play as compared with their male counterparts. The Australian and U.S. Opens pay equally, while the more staid European-based slams in Paris and London still hand the men handsomer paychecks.

But dominance of the select few has ironically played against the women's demands. Arguments against equal pay often have centered on the fact that men play best-of-five matches, while women play best-of-three, but it was the belief that the men's field is more solid and deeper that was given the bigger boost in Paris. Seven of the eight top women's seeds made the quarterfinals, while the men's seeds were dropping like flies from Day 1. Sure, the women's game IS more exciting, but one might say that it's mostly so "from the quarters on," though those ARE the "money rounds" that define the slams. Does that warrent equal pay? Probably. For quarterfinalists to the final two, certainly. As for the rest of the field, that is where the argument will continue to be waged into the foreseeable future.

This issue, and the fact that Seles has taken such an active role in it, leads us to Story #3. That is, Seles herself and what she may represent. Seles' growing awareness of the responsibility to the game that she needs to assume as it's #1 player is in sharp contrast to the quiet Graf and Sabatini. Where they choose to remain silent on basically everything concerning the game itself, Seles speaks her mind freely and intelligently.

It has been wondered many times just who would assume the mantle of the game's "conscious" now that Chris Evert has retired and Martina Navratilova reaches her mid-thirties. It has been a while in coming, but the answer may finally be appearing on the horizon. Seles has combined toughness and intelligence (on and off court), a sense of history (she's become a bit of a tennis historian), press savvy, and a combination of athletic dominance (she's 19-1 in Paris) and femininity not seen since Evert's heyday. In one short year the little girl has matured into a young woman. She still has the love of the game, the love of the grunt, and the love of the gab. But, nowadays, it seems as if she has so much more to say.

So, as Seles held up the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen over her head for what surely won't be the last time, the tennis world had to be smiling with her. For it seems that the elusive role of ambassador for the game may finally be close to being filled... by a 17-year old. And if she can do it, Seles herself will be better for it.

The same thing can be said for the game itself.

** ** ** ** **


Steffi Graf, 21: Graf appeared to be on the rebound from her stormy '90 season on and off court after winning two straight tourneys and breezing into the semis in Paris. But, once again, Sanchez-Vicario kicked her in the teech. This time it was with an astonishing 54-minute 6-0/6-2 (it was the first set lost at love by Graf since '84 to Mary Lou Daniels, and her first in a slam since '83) thrashing -- the worst loss of her career. It was only the second loss to Sanchez-Vicario in twelve meetings, with the other being in the French final in '89. Graf now has not won a slam since the '90 Australian Open more than a year and a half ago. During the semi loss, Peter Graf once again created headlines when he got into a scuffle with a former Graf benefactor, Jim Levee, who's now supporting Seles. Steffi brushed the incident aside, possibly finally showing signs of escaping her father's web of control that helped to nearly crush her in 1990.

Gabriela Sabatini, 21: Gaby, with the help of coach Carlos Kirmayer, continued her rage after winning the U.S. Open last year by storming into Paris with the best record in women's tennis this year. She left with a 40-4 record, her fourth straight French semifinal loss, a 2-8 record in grand slam semis and wonders about whether this was just a lapse that will be corrected in time for Wimbledon.

Jana Novotna, 22: After a fine Australian Open it looked as if Novotna had finally gotten over her bouts with nerves in big matches. Wrong. She continues to have good success in slams ('91 Aussie final, '90 U.S. quarters, '90 Wimbledon quarters, French semi in '90 and quarters in '89 and '91), but she still can't get over that final hump to a point where she can win a title. Her problems were crystal clear in Paris. In a three-hour QF match against Sabatini, Novotna won the 1st set 7-5 and led in the 2nd by 3-0 and 5-2 scores. She served for the match at 5-2, 5-4 and 6-5 but was broken all three times. In the tie-break, she had two match points (one on her serve), blew both and eventually lost 12-10. Then, instead of putting it behind her and playing one set for the match, she could never put her 2nd set mistakes out of her mind (she was even yelling at herself after WINNING points) and nearly sleepwalked through a 6-0 pasting in the 3rd set as her serve was broken seven of eight times to end the match. Even Sabatini said that it seemed as if Novotna almost wasn't trying. It was the third straight match against the Argentine that Novotna has held match points and lost (including the '90 Virginia Slims Championship when she knocked a match point into the net as she set up for the deciding overhead smash). After the match, she skipped the post-match press conference. It seems as if Novotna has regressed, nerves-wise, since January. And one wonders what her coach, Hana Mandlikova, can do about it. Mandlikova suffered from the same problems while still winning three slam titles (no telling how far her talent could have taken her had she ever been able to conquer that problem). Novotna has yet to win one, even though she certainly has the talent to do so. But does she have the mindset? Maybe she should hire a psychologist ala Sabatini. Novotna is #7 in the world, but can go higher. To #4, at least.

Jennifer Capriati, 15: She couldn't continue the French Open's streak of progressively younger champions. Good. She doesn't need the attention. In fact, she needs a break. She's just a kid, and the pressure seems to be starting to get to her a bit these days.

Anke Huber, 16: The "Other German" was seeded 16th after an injury to another player. She performed well. Look out.

Zina Garrison: One question: Why did she even come to Paris in the first place?

Martina Navratilova: See you at Wimbledon. And now, thanks to ex-companion Judy Nelson's palimony suit, so will the tabloids.

Anna Smashnova, 14: No, it's not a misprint. It's her real name. She's a tiny Soviet emigre who has lived in Israel with her family for the past eight months. She's barely over five-feet tall, weighs just 103 pounds, and hits with power. She's originally from Minsk, and is quickly learning English and Hebrew. She has a big heart, too. She came from a set and 0-4 down to win the junior championship 2-6/7-5/6-1 over Ines Gorrochategui. Her's is a name to remember -- for more than one reason.

** ** ** ** **

[A month later, Seles was making more -- but different -- headlines. Here's what I wrote then, taken from what will eventually be a future "Time Capsule" centered on Wimbledon 1991:]

Monica Seles, 17: The world's #1 player withdrew from Wimbledon on June 21, just three days before the tournament was set to begin. She became the first #1 seed to ever withdraw in Wimbledon's 114 years. But, after previous mature-well-beyond-her-years behavior, the teenager then showed her age over and over again. All she and her family would say was that she had a "minor accident." This led to rumor after rumor (the British tabloids even suggested she was to become a "Wimblemum") which led to questions about whether her career was somehow in jeopardy. She was even reportedly seen at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate and, in true fashion similar to that of her idol Madonna, had a sensational photo taken of her "incognito" self as she stepped from a limo headed for parts unknown. It was later revealed, well after the fact, that she had been suffering from shin splints and leg problems that caused her to pull out. A simple explanation early-on would have ended the commotion, but Seles didn't allow that to happen. Seles living out her teenage years as an actual teenager is fine as long as she doesn't shirk her new responsibilities as the #1 player, which she did when she allowed the whole sorry show to go on and on and one without any explanation whatsoever just so that she could garner the publicity and attention that she so loves after the damage had already been done. She was fined $6000 by the WTA for her late withdrawal and failure to provide a reason for her absence.

...the 1991 crown wouldn't be Seles' last in Paris. She won her record-tying third straight title there one year later, becoming the first woman in fifty-five years to do so (Justine Henin matched the feat fifteen years later to become the fourth three-peat champ). But she wouldn't play another match in Paris until 1996, a four-year stretch during which Steffi Graf gobbled up three RG titles.

I had totally forgotten about the story revolving around Seles' late withdrawal from Wimbledon. Actually, a '91 Los Angeles Times account shows that it turned out to be an even wilder situation than I'd noted at the time. In retrospect, it all seems like great fun. And, remember, all that wildness played out before the age of the internet. Imagine a world #1 pulling such publicity stunts in today's media environment (some of Serena's far-more-minor "moments" in recent years caused her to be lambasted by some). Today, Seles' obviously trumped up (no pun intended... well, almost none) actions would have made her the most talked-about, ever-present athlete in the world for a few weeks, or totally turned her into a pariah until she scheduled a media-savvy interview on "60 Minutes" or "Oprah" where she promised to reveal THE REAL TRUTH, immediately after which she'd return to the sport's good graces until she raised an eyebrow in a manner to which someone objected. And then we'd start the whole merry-go-around all over again.

As it is, the Wimbledon incident is a minor, mostly-forgotten footnote.

Seles continued to dominate the tour through the '93 Australian Open. After skipping Wimbledon, she won the next three slams, giving her titles at seven of the eight slams she played from 1991-93 (she was runner-up at SW19 in '92), as well as back-to-back WTA Championships in 1991-92, prior to her April '93 stabbing. At that point, the 19-year old Seles had eight slam crowns in her column, while the 23-year old Graf had eleven. Forced to miss ten straight slams while dealing with the physical and psychological damage associated with her attack, Seles won one more slam in her career (compared to Graf's eleven).

After playing her last match, a 1st Round loss in 2003 at Roland Garros, Seles failed in her attempt to overcome a foot injury and return to action. She finally officially retired in February 2008, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame one year later.

As far as some of the players who were included in the '91 RG Notes section, here are a few comments/updates:

Graf: considering how classy and successful Graf was in extricating herself from the media nightmare that had become her relationship with her father, it's now easy to forget that she was ever included on the list of players with parental "issues" that threatened to sidetrack their careers. Kudos to her, never one to offer up an excuse for anything.

Sabatini: the '90 U.S. Open champion would rebound to reach the Wimbledon final one month later, losing to Graf. She's never reach another slam final in her career, but would extend her streak of fifteen QF-or-better slam results through the Australian Open in 1994.

Novotna: the Czech was still two years away from her "Capsule"-chronicled '93 Wimbledon final collapse against Graf. After losing again in the Wimbledon final in '97, some seven years after I'd talked about her quest for an elusive slam crown, her perseverence finally produced glory at the All-England Club in 1998. It was a long, frustrating escapade... but it was worth it.

Navratilova & Capriati: dogged by the tabloid-friendly palimony suit, Navratilova lost in London to Capriati, double-faulting on match point. Playing in culottes, Capriati became the youngest-even Wimbledon semifinalist, breaking a mark that had stood since 1887. She reveled in her huge win over Navratilova, calling it a victory over a "lege" (or "ledge," shorthand for "legend," in Capriati-speak). Of course, the pressure ultimately did get to Capriati, leading to her famous mugshot and thought-wasted talent. She pulled off a Second Act, though, returning to prominance to reach #1 and win three slams in 2001-02 in one of the sport's greatest comeback efforts. A shoulder injury ulitmately ended Capriati's career. She played her last match in 2004. Meanwhile, Navratilova was still playing doubles -- and winning a Mixed Doubles slam title in NY -- when she was nearly 50 in 2006.

Smashnova: the Israeli had a long, successful pro career. A year-end Top 20 player in 2002-03, she went 12-0 in the first twelve WTA finals in which she appeared. Playing until 2007, she retired as the only player in tour history with ten or more singles titles, but zero grand slam QF-or-better results. Maybe, considering her regular tour success, "the worst slam player" ever, Smashnova lost in the 1st Round twenty-eight times in forty-eight slam appearances. Just last week, Anabel Medina-Garrigues won career title #10 to join Smashnova on that short "10+/0" list.

Meanwhile, looking back at what was happening with Seles twenty years ago, it's interesting how many similar stories can be found in the news today. Equal pay for the men and the women, and the arguments about the comparative "quality" of the two tours. Rather than Seles' "mysterious" injury before Wimbledon, last year we had Serena's "mysterious" injury AFTER Wimbledon in that German restaurant. Even Donald Trump never... seems... to... go... away, does he?

There, I think I got through this "Capsule" -- not the last Seles-centric jaunt back through time, by the way -- without harping on what didn't happen in her career, or about what could have been an even-more-historic back-and-fourth rivalry with Graf.

Ah, maybe in some "Fringe"-worthy alternate universe, the truth is out there about all that for tennis fans. Lucky them. But, hey, at least we got to enjoy the "unvarnished" Monica for a little while.

7...Steffi Graf
5...Gabriela Sabatini
5...Martina Navratilova
3...Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere
3...Conchita Martinez
2...Sabine Appelmans
2...Jennifer Capriati
2...Lori McNeil
2...Jana Novotna

16...MONICA SELES (10-6)
10...Martina Navratilova (5-5)
9...Steffi Graf (7-2)
7...Gabriela Sabatini (5-2)
5...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (1-4)
4...Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere (3-1)
4...Jana Novotna (2-2)
3...Conchita Martinez (3-0)
3...Sabine Appelmans (2-1)
3...Jennifer Capriati (2-1)
3...Lori McNeil (2-1)
3...Katarina Maleeva (1-2)
3...Leila Meskhi (1-2)

3...Helen Wills-Moody, 1928-30
3...Hilde Sperling, 1935-37
3...MONICA SELES, 1990-92
3...Justine Henin, 2005-07

377...Steffi Graf
331...Martina Navratilova
260...Chris Evert
209...Martina Hingis
122...Serena Williams
117...Justine Henin

All for now.

1987 Roland Garros (Graf/Navratilova), 1987 Roland Garros (Lendl/Wilander), 1987 Wimbledon (Navratilova-Graf/Cash-Lendl), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez-Graf/Chang-Edberg), 1990 Roland Garros (Seles-Graf/Gomez-Agassi), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova/Garrison), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles-Graf/Courier-Edberg), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna), 2003 & '05 U.S. Open (Henin-Clijsters/Clijsters-Pierce), 2006 U.S. Open (Day-by-Day & Sharapova-Henin), 2001-09 Australian Open (Dokic Down Under)

NEXT UP: 1989 Wimbledon - Graf & Becker Claim Centre Court for West Germany


Blogger Diane said...

What a walk down memory lane! Monica wasn't like anyone else. She played differently, talked differently, did everything in her own unique Monica way.

It's probably long gone, but there used to be a Seles tribute website, which--when you clicked on it--gave you the grunt. It probably scared some unsuspecting people. I thought her American Express (am I right? Was it Amex?) ad was hilarious.

Seles always seemed like a complex creature to me. I enjoyed all the top players of that era, especially Sabatini and Sanchez Vicario. I found Seles quite fascinating, however, and was never sure what she was going to say or do next. And you're absolutely right--in today's Internet culture--there would be so many Monica "items" deconstructed.

(Mandlikova, by the way, won four majors--she won the Australian twice.)

Thu May 12, 12:40:00 AM EDT  

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