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Steve Flink: Monica Seles Retrospective

2/11/2008 12:17:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Every great tennis champion wants to leave the game on his or her own terms. Those who rule the sport, by and large, dream liberally and realize many of their highest aspirations. They grow accustomed to the roar of the crowds, to the energy and vitality of the illustrious arenas, to the ineffable feeling of standing in front of exhilarated fans at the end of the premier events, holding up trophies while admirers shower them with applause. Nearly all of the towering figures discover that saying goodbye and moving into retirement is one of the toughest decisions they will ever make.

And so it was for Monica Seles, who elected last week to put an end to her shining career. She had last played a match at the 2003 French Open, losing in the opening round on the clay at Roland Garros to a young Nadia Petrova. Seles probably had been close to irrevocably putting her racket aside on many occasions since, but understandably she did not want to make such a critical decision without knowing at a gut level that the time was right. She is 34 now, far removed from her heyday, and the view here is that she will not regret the choice to leave her competitive days behind and get on with her future.

Let's look closely at what Monica achieved across the years. At 16, in June of 1990, she claimed her first major title at Roland Garros, toppling Steffi Graf 7-6 (6), 6-4 in a spirited final, establishing herself as the youngest ever female champion at the French Open. It was on that occasion that Seles declared her resilience and greatness as a competitor, recouping boldly from 6-2 down in the opening set tie-break to turn the contest around with a flurry of dazzling ground strokes. She concluded 1990 at No. 2 in the world behind the redoubtable Graf, impressing everyone with her boundless energy and crackling intensity. The stage was set for a player who would settle for nothing less than being the very best in her profession.

In 1991, Seles soared to another level, holding back a determined Jana Novotna in the final of the Australian Open, coming from behind to win in three sets. In the penultimate round of that event, she saved a match point against Mary Joe Fernandez. She defended her title at Roland Garros convincingly, taking apart 1989 champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the title match. Seles bypassed Wimbledon with an injury, but closed her Grand Slam tournament campaign in style, taking the U.S. Open crown.

In the semifinals of that memorable Open, Seles prevailed in one of the epic matches of her career, somehow eclipsing Jennifer Capriati 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 after the Floridian twice served for the match in the final set. Monica accounted for Martina Navratilova in a straight set final to capture her third Grand Slam championship of a stupendous season. In that scintillating year, she won 74 of 80 matches, took 10 of 16 tournaments, and reached at least the final of every tournament she played. Her 1992 record was a virtual replica of 1991. Once more, Seles was head and shoulders above the field, winning three of the four majors again. She crushed Fernandez in the Australian Open final, handled Sanchez-Vicario easily in the U.S. Open final, and won ten tournaments for the second year in a row. But the highlight of her season, and one of the defining moments of her career, was her final round triumph over Graf at Roland Garros.

In that stirring contest, both women performed majestically. With Graf serving at 3-5 in the final set of this classic encounter, Seles had four match points, but was stifled every time by an obstinate adversary. The German surged back to 5-5. Seles had to serve to save the match at 5-6 and 6-7, but she kept her composure remarkably well both times. Seles broke again for 8-7 and served for the match. Graf displayed immense grace under pressure, breaking back defiantly for 8-8. But Seles was unshakable. She collected two games in a row to prevail 6-2, 3-6, 10-8, coming through on her sixth match point. She had halted a prodigious rival on a big occasion in the best clutch performance of her career. In the Wimbledon final the following month, Graf's grass court acumen was too much for Seles, who was granted only three games in two sets.
But the fact remained that Seles had made it to all four major finals in 1992, and thus came into 1993 brimming with optimism. Once more, for the third time in the last four Grand Slam finals, Seles confronted Graf in the championship match at the Australian Open. Both women produced another gripping clash on the hard courts of Melbourne, with Seles battling gamely from behind to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. That was the seventh triumph in the eight majors Seles had played since the start of 1991. Seles was on her way to immortality. She was still only 19. It seemed entirely possible that she could eventually become the greatest female player of all time.

And then, on April 30, 1993, while competing in Hamburg, Seles was the victim of a sports tragedy that reverberated around the world. Facing the Bulgarian Magdalena Maleeva in the quarterfinals, holding a 6-4, 4-3 lead, Seles got up from her chair at the changeover and was stabbed in the back by Guenter Parche, a deranged fan of Graf's. Seles was out of the game for nearly 28 months, and did not return until August of 1995, when she swept through the field at Toronto. Not long after at the U.S. Open, Seles lost an emotionally wrenching and first class final to Graf in three sets. She seemed to have recovered much of her old zest and sense of self, but it did not last.

Seles managed to win a fourth Australian Open at the start of 1996, taking her ninth Grand Slam tournament title in the process. But she never won another major, and it became increasingly apparent that she had been permanently altered by the tragedy. She could no longer summon her old brand of intensity, although Seles remained a formidable player. Thereafter, riddled by injuries, she stayed among the top ten in the world through 2002, but seemed understandably content to accept a lesser status. In essence, she had been robbed of her champion's mentality on that horrific afternoon in Germany.

Who knows what heights Seles might have explored had her world not been invaded? Here was a woman who transformed the women's game in many ways. Graf had introduced the most explosive and potent forehand ever developed by a female competitor, but Seles was the first woman to blast away relentlessly with overwhelming power off both sides. No one had ever displayed that kind of two-way aggression from the baseline. Her two-fisted, left-handed forehand and backhand were the twin motors of her success. Time and again, Monica would wallop her relatively flat strokes with astonishing depth and unerring ball control, seizing the initiative in the vast majority of her matches.

As if that combination was not devastating enough, Seles brought something else to the game that made her a singularly phenomenal player. She explored the width of the court more effectively and imaginatively than any player I had ever seen. Not only could she pick apart her opposition methodically with impeccable timing and incomparable depth from the back of the court, but Seles could also create and even invent angles with her two-handed shots that were almost beyond reason. She was surely headed toward a good many more Grand Slam championship triumphs. My guess is she would have won 10 to 16 additional majors had she not been taken out of her mindset by the tragedy. Rather than finishing with a very respectable nine “Big Four” crowns, the view here is that she would have won somewhere between 19 and 25 majors.

Had she achieved those kinds of numbers, she would have surely made herself an authentic candidate for the label “best of all time.” The Australian Margaret Court garnered 24 majors in singles, but I ranked her only No. 5 of all time behind Graf, Navratilova, Chris Evert, and Helen Wills Moody in my book, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century”. Court's record was padded by too many relatively easy triumphs at her nation's championship over weak fields. I placed Suzanne Lenglen at No. 6, Maureen Connolly at No. 7, and Billie Jean King at No. 8. Seles was my pick for No. 9. I have no doubt that, without being held back severely by her trauma, Seles would have earned, at the very least, a top five all-time ranking, and perhaps the golden place at the top.

When Seles was stabbed in Germany nearly 15 years ago, she already had collected eight of her nine Grand Slam titles. At that moment, Graf, who eventually secured 22, had only won 11 of her major crowns. I firmly believe that she and Seles would have taken their rivalry to another level in the mid-nineties. Seles had clearly demonstrated that she was the best player in the world in 1991 and 1992, and would have probably maintained that status for some time to come. But Graf was so prideful, such a magnificent athlete, and so estimable on big occasions, that she still would have still won most, if not all, of the big prizes she secured after the Seles tragedy. These two superstars conceivably would have divided the four majors between them year in and year out through much of the nineties.

In any event, their rivalry would have flourished. Graf would have retained her clear edge on the Wimbledon grass, Seles would have maintained her mastery on clay, but the decisive battles would have been fought indoors and on hard courts; in those conditions, both players would have done very well against each other.

Sadly, we can only evaluate Seles on the basis of her record, rather than grading her on what she almost surely would have accomplished. Be that as it may, her life will go on productively, and she will find a niche for herself somewhere in the tennis world now that she has made up her mind to no longer compete for a living. She would undoubtedly make an excellent commentator. She could become an outstanding coach if that was her inclination. Maybe she will align herself with an academy. No matter what she decides to do with her life, Monica Seles is bound to succeed. At her core, she is a winner.

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