Friday, May 14, 2010


(tenth in a series)

It was (nearly) twenty years ago today,
Monica Seles had the joy to play.
She was never to go out of style.
And was always guaranteed to raise a smile.
So may I introduce to you,
the player you've known for all these years...

the one who was almost the best ever.

Even with the bulk of her career having taken place before the birth of Backspin, I've managed to go on quite a few flights of memory-filled fancy in this space about Monica Seles through the years. She was the subject of the very first "What If?" special, and her 1993 Australian Open run, the last slam before her stabbing in the spring of that year, was chronicled in another recent "Time Capsule." I suppose she'll forever be a compelling tennis figure, both for what the younger version of herself accomplished on the court in a such a short period of time -- she blazed an incredible path, making "best-of-her-generation" Steffi Graf seem almost "ordinary" for a time -- and for what might have been had her career not been forever altered on that afternoon in Hamburg in April '93.

If not for the resulting two-years-plus absence from the tour following the incident, and the never-the-same big match mentality and fitness questions that dogged her "second" career from 1995-03, Seles might very well have put together the most storied career, well, EVER. In an alternate universe, her career-long quest to master the grass courts of the All-England Club and win an elusive Wimbledon crown could have resembled the "all-he-needs-to-be-declared-The-Best-Who-Ever-Played" trek of Roger Federer en route to his first Roland Garros title in 2009.

In many ways, the beginnings of the Graf/Seles rivalry was much like that of Federer's with Rafael Nadal. Just as we've seen with those two in recent years on the ATP Tour, Seles usurped Graf's power position in the sport and seemed to have taken up residence inside the German's psyche. Federer persevered through Nadal's big-match mastery, returned to the #1 ranking and won in Paris; but we never really got to see how Graf would have had to struggle to manage to find a way (or fail to manuever) around Seles. Graf never HAD to improve and learn how to take down the only true equal she ever encountered in the prime of her career. After having lost the ranking to Seles in 1991, Graf returned to #1 because a crazed lathe operator desired that it happen, then did all he could to make it so during a changeover. After rising back to the top of the sport by default, Graf continued to go mostly unchallenged (though Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario had her moments) on her way to twenty-two career slam titles (Seles' presence DID at least prevent her from breaking Margaret Smith-Court's record of twenty-four) until age and injuries finally brought her back to the WTA pack just as Martina Hingis, and soon after the Williams Sisters, Belgians and Russians, stepped into the void. Left to her (and Seles') own, normal devices, Graf might have produced similar career numbers. But we never got to find out. She never got the chance to battle back against an in-her-prime Seles and raise her game to another, otherwordly level. It's a great "lost chapter" in tennis history that we never got to experience.

Oh, well. Maybe there actually IS an alternate tennis universe out there somewhere where that "unwritten" history actually played out in front of millions of fans. Lucky them.

Back in this reality, it's hard to believe it's been twenty years since Seles won her maiden slam singles crown in Paris in 1990 (at the same tournament where Andre Agassi reached his first slam final, as you'll read in the recap of the men's final that I wrote that spring). Two years later, while winning her third consecutive Roland Garros crown, an inspired young Justine Henin watched from the stands with her mother and said that one day it might be HER holding up the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen. Umm, I guess we know how that story turned out, huh?

Ah, tangible success rears its lovely head once again. So, on that note, here's how I saw it, from the "underground notes" of a Soon-to-Be-Backspinner around the same age as a certain Yugoslav, back when she tasted her very first grand slam success twenty years ago next month:

June 11, 1990 - "Once Again, Paris Hosts a Coming Out Party on the Clay"

Over the past two years, Paris has gained another reputation to add to those for elegance and rudeness that it already possesses -- that of the greatest host to a coming out party in all the sporting world.

When 17-year old Arantxa Sanchez and Michael Chang emerged as victorious French Open champions (the youngest ever) in 1989, Roland Garros looked as if it was trying to be an alternative prom site. "No," scoffed the sane, "it was only an aberration. Our champions will at least be of drinking age from here on out." Well, so far that opinion has proven only partially correct in 1990. For it is true that a 30-year old acted as an usher in one final this year, but the other was treated with the blossoming of a 16-year old fire-breather with a Toontown laugh and Buster Douglas power who proved once again that Goliath(a) is still vulnerable to the many David(a)s scampering around the tennis circuit. No, this wasn't a circus sideshow or a fairy tale -- even though while the cats were away an Eduadorian mouse DID play -- it was the French Open. 1990's style.

Yugoslavian (by way of Florida) dynamo Monica Seles and Ecuadorian giant Andres Gomez emerged this spring Paris fortnight as first-time grand slam singles title holders by defeating two 20-year olds, #1-ranked Steffi Graf (a French final loser two years running) and American glamour boy Andre Agassi, respectively. When Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander joined retired Chris Evert as Paris no-shows and #1-seed Stefan Edberg, #2-seed Boris Becker (both 1st Round losers) and '89 champ Sanchez (2nd Round) failed to survive the first week, it looked as if the new decade would not begin nearly as grandly as the last had ended on the red clay. But when the dust (red, of course) had settled, what had come into view was the youngest French Open champion ever (it was good while it lasted, Arantxa) and youngest slam winner since Lottie Dodd won Wimbledon in 1887 on the women's side; while the men's side gave us the oldest slam champ since Jimmy Connors won the '83 U.S. Open.

The comebacks of Gomez (from near retirement after the '89 French, which led to him giving up beer and lifting his game) and Seles (from 5-0 and 6-2 deficits in the final's 1st set tie-break to win in two sets and prove her mental toughness -- or is it naivete?) made this Open one to remember, after all. The Parisian springboard is certainly still in working order, whether it be for twelve-year vets or two-year wunderkinds. Or, as "Twin Peaks'" Agent Cooper might say, "Damn good working order. Make a note of that, Diane. Paris is both the fountain of youth and a coming out site. Maybe it's that clay. I'll have to alert the press when I get around to it. (Pause) You hear that, Diane? It's silence. It's as incredible thi-."

Sorry, I had to stop that before I went into a trance. Well, let the dancing dwarf commence.

On Saturday, the match that everyone had been hoping for finally became a reality.

Steffi Graf and Monica Seles had met in the 1989 French semis, where then 5-foot-5 15-year old Seles gave Graf a surprisingly stiff battle which the West German ultimately won in three sets. Since 1987, Graf had compiled record of 265-8, was appearing in her thirteenth consecutive slam final (having won nine of twelve, and eight of nine) and her fourth straight in Paris. She'd been the dominant woman player by far until she lost to Sanchez last year and showed that she was vulnerable (at least to illness in the French).

Much had happened since the '89 loss to the Spaniard, though. For both players. Graf went on a 66-match winning streak (second only to Navratilova's record 74) while Seles grew four inches and became a wiry double-handed (from both sides), double-grunter who was starting to make good on the promise that she had shown in Paris. Graf endured a two-month absence from tennis after breaking her right thumb in a skiing accident while fleeing papparazzi, and rumors of an illegitimate child parented by her father, Peter. Then, Seles stung her for the first time, with an easy 6-4/6-3 victory over Graf in the German Open three weeks ago, as the Yugoslav won her fifth straight title and stopped Graf's winning streak cold (and maybe allowed some doubt to seep into her already convoluted mind). Add to this a victory over #2 Navratilova in Italy and one couuld see that that 16-year old was a young lady on fire. In the past two weeks, Graf's French allergies acted up once again, and Seles struggled through her early matches to eventually stretch her winning streak to thirty-one with an impressive win over another tennis whirlwind, 14-year old Jennifer Capriati, in the semis. But the final proved to be the real benchmark for where this one woman and single girl are at this point in their respective tennis careers.

Seles' 7-6(6)/6-4 victory proved that she was no fluke in Germany and that she may be, at least for now, the new "best player in the world." For Graf, it opened a new can of worms even though she still remains a dominant force in the game. Are the other players catching up to her power game? Can she get better and remain on top? Has she lost her confidence in her shots, as she hinted after the match? Only time will tell.

But on the first pont of the match there was no question -- it was an easy Seles return winner. For that matter, it was the same with the first game, as Graf's serve was broken. In fact, Seles broke Graf's first three service games after the German has been broken only six times the entire tournament coming into the final. Graf seemed to come alive a bit when, down 0-3, she broke Seles at love. But after a 55-minute rain delay, Seles returned to break back to go up 4-1. Graf's champion's heart brought her back to 6-6 and a tie-breaker for the 1st set. Basically, it was where the championship would be decided.

Graf rattled off five straight points to build a seemingly insurmountable 5-0 lead in the breaker. But, then again, it seemed as if a 5-3 3rd set Graf lead versus Sanchez in 1989 looked insurmountable, too, and the end result there wrote a new page in the tennis history book.

So will this one.

Playing points one at a time, Seles drew to within 5-2. But Graf would get to 6-2, and had numerous chances to lock away the 1st set and probably put the match nearly on ice. But Seles' youthful vigor and menacingly-angled powerful two-fisted shots continued to land inside the court's boundaries. When Graf double-faulted at 6-6, the end definitely looked near. And, indeed it was. Seles won the tie-break 8-6 (just like Sanchez did in '89) to take the opening set and spur herself to even better championship play the rest of the match.

The Yugoslav again went up 3-0 in the 2nd set before Graf managed to catch her at 4-4. But it wouldn't matter, as Graf continued to look like a paper lion on serve as Seles converted a break point successfully for the fifth time to take the title with her second straight win over the #1-ranked Graf (only Gabriela Sabatini in '88 had ever achieved that feat).

Graf admitted after the match that she is "lacking confidence" in her shots and that she is now doing things that she is not accustomed to doing (like blowing leads and being broken five times in a match). With two consecutive losses to teenagers in the French final, either Graf has a mental block in Paris or the rest of the field is starting to recognize her weaknesses and exploit them by hitting the ball back at her as fast as she hits it at them. Sabatini, Sanchez and Seles have all found ways, at times, to control Graf and emerge in triumph. Who's to say that Graf isn't starting to feel the pressure of four years at the top of her sport without question or legitimate challenge? How she handles that pressure at Wimbledon could determine whether or not she will continue to be ranked #1 in the world at the end of the U.S. Open in September.

For now, though, Seles is unquestionably at the top of her sport, as the nemesis to Graf that Sabatini is turning out NOT to be. Graf said, "She's not a nightmare yet... I hope she's not becoming one." Maybe not, but she certainly has been a daymare in the past month -- and a dayDREAM for women's tennis.

The game is riding a surprising high even though Evert has left the game as Graf, Seles, Navratilova, Sanchez, Sabatini and Capriati are all proving to be able to contend for prominance. Of that group, two can't get a driver's license (though Seles wants a Lambourghini), one is 18, one is 19, one 20, while only 30-plus Navratilova's years are numbered. The 1990's should be quite something as the youth movement continues to ride high.

Let's see, a 17-year old won the French in 1989, then a 16-year old did it in 1990. What's next, a 15-year old? Well, guess who'll be 15 in 1991. Oh, Jennifer?

In Sunday's men's final, Andres defeated Andre. I guess it was the extra "s" that did it. Maybe it stood for "serve," for that is what Andres Gomez rode heavily during his 3-6/6-2/6-4/6-4 victory over Andre Agassi in a battle of totally contrasting individuals.

The stoic and somewhat anonymous six-foot-four Gomez has been playing on the pro tour for twelve years without even reaching a grand slam final before this French Open (including ten previous trips to Paris, four of which ended with losses to Ivan Lendl). Agassi, on the other hand, is tennis' answer to the immature Hollywood child prodigy. In his four pro seasons, the appropriately Las Vegas-born Agassi has built quite a reputation -- not all of which centers on his tennis talents.

The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy-trained American is not someone who one could say would be an anonymous individual either on or off the court. Whether it be his blond-over-black mane of hair or his hot pink-and-black with tights tennis outfit (which drew rumblings from French Tennis Federation President Phillipe Chatrier about adopting a predominantly-white rule on outfits -- Agassi called him a "bozo"), Agassi can be a sight to behold. His behavior has been questionable at times, also. Tempter tantrums, seeming nonchalance on the court, a running feud with U.S. Davis Cup coach Tom Gorman, taunting of opponents and hints of arrogance have all contributed to giving Agassi the reputation as one of the least-liked players on tour (which his Muhammad Ali-like entourage does not help to put to bed).

But even though Agassi still refuses to practice between matches or play Wimbledon, he seems to have matured at least a little in the past year. After bursting onto the scene in 1988, 1989 saw Agassi win just one tournament in what he now looks at as a "burnout" year where the pressure got to him. Agassi & Co. went heavily into an intensive weight training program to help end the endurance problems which had caused him to tank some sets at love in the past. He gained ten pounds of muscle and was rewarded with a fine French Open performance which included an easy win over Michael Chang and his first grand slam final appearance. Agassi got down to business in the second week in Paris and concentrated. The result was the best tennis of his career. Amazing what a little drive can do. Now he must continue to devote himself to playing championship tennis rather than clowning and vogueing.

The 1st set in the final was dominated by the powerful and finally consistent serve of Gomez as he started on a quest that would eventually result in ten aces by match's end. The 2nd set, though, saw the return of the thing that had kept the Ecuadorian veteran out of all of those finals in the past. That, of course, being inconsistency in his service game. After dominating the initial set with his serve, Gomez was broken an incredible four straight times by a fastly improving Agassi. But the rest of the match would be different.

Seeing that this may end up being his only real shot at a grand slam title, Gomez settled down and reached for the one thing that has eluded him in his long career -- glory. Showing that he DID possess the will to win that some, at times, have doubted, he used his once again powerful serve to take Agassi out in the final two sets to win the French Open championship. In all, Gomez produced an impressive fifty-eight winners on the red clay. Good thing, too, since he had an equally umimpressive seventy-two errors. But this time, the luck was with him along with that "s" as he climbed into the stand ala Pat Cash to celebrate with his wife and young son. The newly-ranked #4 player in the world (after dropping to #28 after last year's French) almost retired in the past year, but he dedicated himself to winning this title after his nemesis Lendl announced he would skip Paris to prepare for Wimbledon. It's safe to say that he owes a big thanks to Ivan, too.

As for Agassi, he wasn't satisfied with second place, but he's happy with the progress he's made in the past year. He may not have been able to become the second straight American men's winner in Paris after the long drought from 1956 to '88 that Chang ended a year ago, but he is still the U.S.'s best hope for the present and future in the men's game. With a little more maturity, he could even become a merchandising giant (he's already getting there without having won a big title). I guess that's good, isn't it?

Now, it's off to Wimbledon (well, at least for everyone but Agassi) in two weeks. We will not see Gomez emerge victorious there, and we probably won't see Seles holding up the big plate on the final weekend, either. No, Wimbledon is for the serve-and-volley games of the Beckers and Navratilovas (and big groundstrokes of Graf). Will Martina's dedication result in yet another title? Will Lendl's get him his first? Will Graf's game get untracked? How good is Seles on the grass? What about Capriati? Can Becker take title #4? Stay tuned.

"Got that, Diane? Tennis on grass -- what a concept! I wonder if they have ants on Centre Court? Remind me to check up on that, all right..."


...of course, the newsy tidbit that would have blown everyone's mind back in 1990 was that those "two 20-year olds" who lost the Roland Garros finals -- Agassi and Graf -- would end up marrying in 2001 and having two children, Jaden and Jaz, now 8 and 6.

Roland Garros' long history of entertaining first-ever women's slam titlists has continued, with the likes of Iva Majoli, Anastasia Myskina, Justine Henin and Ana Ivanovic all achieving their first slam championship moments of glory in Paris in recent seasons. Seles' youngest-ever slam champion record was broken by Martina Hingis (16 years, 3 months, 26 days) at the Australian Open in 1997. The Swiss Miss still holds the record, though she never managed to win in Paris, losing to Majoli and Graf in Roland Garros finals.

Seles rose to #1 in March 1991 (becoming the youngest-ever women's #1... until Hingis broke that record, too), and held the spot for ninety-one consecutive weeks beginning that September until her absence following Hamburg finally allowed Graf to return to #1, where she stayed for the next eigthy-seven weeks (and 187 of 199).

As I've noted before in "Time Capsule" and "What If" editions of Backspin, Seles, after having won seven of the last eight slams she played (losing only in the '92 Wimbledon final) before her stabbing, ended up only winning one more ('96 Australian Open, after reaching the '95 U.S. Open final in her first slam back) after she returned to the tour late in the 1995 season. She had a fine career from there on, finishing in the Top 10 from 1995-02 (after receiving a special protected ranking in 1995-96 following her return) and reaching her final slam final in Paris in '98, but hardly the one that she seemed destined to pull off back in '90. A foot injury led to her final tour match being a 1st Round loss in Melbourne to Nadia Petrova (her worst-ever slam result) in '03, though she didn't officially retire until 2008. She was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.

Gomez's best slam results other than his '90 Roland Garros title included three QF in Paris, and one each at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In 1984, he was a quarterfinalist in Paris, London and New York. In all, he won twenty-one career ATP singles titles, but only one (in '91) after winning his only slam crown (after which his #4 ranking on June 11, 1990 was his career high). Gomez won just one slam match the remainder of his career after defeating Agassi -- in '92 in Paris, after missing the tournament in '91. For his career, the Ecuadorian notched thirty-one match wins at Roland Garros, but had only thirty at the other three slam tournaments combined.

Agassi ended up winning sixty career tour titles (tied for 7th all-time), and rose to #1 for the first time in 1995 (he was later the oldest-ever #1 at 33 in June '03). After refusing to play Wimbledon for so long early in her career, he finally did in 1991. A year later, he grabbed his first career slam title in London. After reaching two of his first three career slam finals at Roland Garros in 1990-91 (along with the '90 U.S. Open), Agassi didn't finally win the title in Paris until 1999. The title made him only the fifth man (now sixth, with Federer) to ever achieve a career Grand Slam, winning at least one crown at each of the four slams. In all, he won eight slam titles in his career.

Off the court, Agassi's personal (and visual, of course) transformation was miraculous. By the time he retired due to persistent back/nerve pain folloiwng the U.S. Open in 2006, after having reached the final at age 35 a year earlier, he was arguably the most beloved and respected player in the game. His recent autobiography, in which he took swipes at Pete Sampras and admitted to using crystal meth and failing an ATP-sanctioned drug test (and lying his way out of a suspension), threatened to tear down some of the good will he'd built up over the previous twenty years with his good off-court work, including his charitable Andre Agassi Foundation and charter school in Las Vegas. But his reputuation seems to have weathered that temporary storm, and in the end the furor that resulted because of the book's release will eventually serve to allow everyone to see Agassi for what he's been over the ENTIRE course of his time in the spotlight, not just the defiantly unlikable person he appeared to be in his younger days, nor the "seemingly irreproachable" person he appeared to be later. He's the sum of all his parts, and all his years... and that's not such a bad legacy for him when everything is weighed out.

Seles, too, has recently been in the news and on television screens. After her retirement, she appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" (how she performed is probably left unmentioned) and released her own autobiography.

In many ways, Seles has become the Maureen Connolly of the second half of the last century. Ah, "Little Mo'." Aside from being the player subtly referenced in Melanie Oudin's "Little MO" Backspin nickname, she has her own wonderful, horrible story of tremendous early highs (winning six straight slams from 1953-54), and unfortunate occurrences (her career ended when she broke her leg when hit by a cement truck while riding her horse, then dying young at age 34) that prevented her from becoming the all-time champion she might have been... but that's another story for another day. Interestingly, both ended their careers with nine slam titles, but could have won so many more if fate had been in their respective corners.

When all is said and done, future generations will look at Seles' career numbers and see impressive statistics that speak to a Hall of Fame career, but they'll only tell a portion of the story. It's sometimes fun and intriguing to speculate about the career she might have had, but anyone who saw her burst onto the scene in the early 1990's should never let themselves forget how great she ACTUALLY was. Sometimes, I admit, I probably fall victim to that "what if" trap. I shouldn't... and, thankfully, these "Time Capsules" allow Seles' greatness, as it was and forever will be, to breathe another breath of air TODAY. No matter what DIDN'T happen, what Seles DID do proved her to be a spectacular talent. That should never be lost. As incredible as Serena Williams' slam exploits have sometimes been in her career -- and they've been the most spectacular of any player in the post-Seles/Graf generation, including Henin and Venus Williams -- she never pulled off the 7-in-8 slam run that the then-Yugoslav (she later became an American citizen) did from 1991-93, the closest being her five-in-six stretch during "Serena Slam" in 2002-03.

It's been seventeen years since she did it, and there's a decent chance that no woman will ever again match the stretch of two dominant years that Seles pulled off with such unrelenting tenacity. Ooh, but if one ever does... seriously, how g-r-e-a-t will SHE be? But, better yet, if/when that unnamed player does such a thing, it'll mean we'll get to hear about Seles' accomplishments all over again.

It was wonderful to have her here. It certainly was a thrill.

Yes, we surely did enjoy the show.

16 years, 4 months - Martina Hingis, 1997 Australian Open
16 years, 6 months - MONICA SELES, 1990 ROLAND GARROS

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

167...Martina Navratilova
154...Chris Evert
107...Steffi Graf
92...Margaret Smith-Court
68...Evonne Goolagong
67...Billie Jean King
55...Lindsay Davenport
55...Virginia Wade

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

24...Margaret Smith-Court
22...Steffi Graf
19...Helen Wills-Moody
18...Chris Evert
18...Martina Navratilova
12...Billie Jean King
12...Suzanne Lenglen
12...Serena Williams
9...Maureen Connolly

16...Roger Federer
14...Pete Sampras
12...Roy Emerson
11...Bjorn Borg
11...Rod Laver
10...Bill Tilden
8...Jimmy Connors
8...Ivan Lendl
8...Fred Perry
8...Ken Rosewall

109...Jimmy Connors
94...Ivan Lendl
77...John McEnroe
64...Pete Sampras
62...Roger Federer
62...Bjorn Borg
62...Guillermo Vilas

[in chronological order]
Fred Perry
Don Budge
Roy Emerson
Rod Laver
Roger Federer

All for now.

1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez/Chang), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna), 2003 & '05 U.S. Open (Henin/Clijsters), 2001-09 Australian Open (Dokic Down Under)

NEXT: 1987 Wimbledon (Navratilova rules in London & Cash climbs into history... literally)


Blogger jo shum said...

again, beautiful writing to get us remember seles. it has been most unfortunate. just thought that, whatever happened, happened for a reason. sure it must be devastating for a tennis player who's life was just nothing but tennis. still, she had achieved much in the world of tennis, and not just so, but also a life outside tennis.

Fri May 14, 12:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I wish I'd been able to read Seles' autobiography before posting this so I might have been able to add something she says there on that subject, Jo.

I have the book, but I haven't started it yet. :(

Sat May 15, 10:31:00 AM EDT  
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