April 5, 2007, 11:38PM
RIVER OAKS INTERNATIONAL
Monica Seles has had a great run in tennis, and she wants to go out on her own terms
Driven by love of game
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Monica Seles does not look back with anger or remorse, only with occasional regret. And Seles' regret is tempered by two truths, that she was a victim of bad luck, not bad behavior, and that her life has been almost incomprehensively wonderful.
Yes, she got stabbed in the back in the middle of a match, derailing a career that might have broken all the records. Yes, a chronic foot problem, resulting in two operations, has made these last few years frequently hellish while prolonging her official tennis swan song. But there is no hint of bitterness when she speaks.
"I had terrible luck, that's true," Seles said. "What happened to me has never happened to any (athlete). But what happened was beyond my control. I didn't do anything wrong. Even the foot ... it just happened. I'd be lying if I didn't say there were a lot of bad days, but I've always tried to roll with it and stay positive."
Seles, 33, misses competitive tennis, and that as much as anything explains this long goodbye. Almost four years after her last tour match, a first-round loss at the French Open, she remains unretired.
Taking on Navratilova
That's why she played Martina Navratilova at River Oaks on Thursday. The exhibition, which Seles won 6-7 (1), 6-2, 10-1, served as the first step to determining the when, the where and the why of the last step.
"My personal theory is, if you're retired, you're retired," Seles said. "You don't come back. And I don't feel like I'm ready to say that. I'm in such good shape. I only wish I was in this good a shape when I was playing. It's hard to accept that, just because of an injury, you're finished."
Seles dreams of playing the French Open again. The Australian and U.S. opens, too, if not Wimbledon.
She believes she has maybe five tournaments left in her reconstructed foot and, she said, "I want to make sure I'm fully prepared. The tournaments I played injured were the worst times of my life. I told myself I'd never do that again."
Wear and tear had caused a bone in the bottom of her foot to disintegrate, causing pain.
"The last three years have been so frustrating," Seles said. "For me, it's so simple. I just love to play tennis. Anyone that's been close to me can see the ups and downs I've been through, feeling that it's going to be OK, then being very disappointed and down all over again. I could write a book on rehab.
"Finally in December, when I started hitting again, I thought, 'Hey, this is feeling pretty good.' I still have to be very cautious, to take every other day off, but I called Martina and said (playing an exhibition) would be really fun. I told her, 'I know you're done, but I'm not really sure I am.' "
Navratilova sort of owed her. When she was coming out of retirement again a couple of years ago, she had recruited Seles for a pair of matches in New Zealand, winning both. Back in the day, as Seles was coming up and Navratilova was going down, they squared off 17 times in less than four years. Seles won 10, including the 1991 U.S. Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal in 1992.
Navratilova's career would become the antithesis of Seles' interrupted one, enduring and fruitful. Seles has been forced to settle with fruitful.
"What happened to Monica," Navratilova said, "was ludicrous, so unfair."
Seles collected nine Grand Slam titles, eight of them before she turned 20 — and seven of the last eight she contested before being stabbed in the back by an unemployed Steffi Graf-obsessed lathe operator in Hamburg 14 years ago this month. With Seles gone from the tour for the subsequent 2 1/2 years, Graf collected six of her record 21 majors, three more than Navratilova's total.
There are plenty of players like Seles. She invented a genre. Her two-fisted power game from the deep backcourt, accompanied by a guttural symphony of grunts, moans and shrieks, foretold where women's tennis was headed.
Beating an idol
But she would prefer to write the final chapter. And, if that's going to happen, it will have started in Houston, where the story began. In 1989, Seles, then 15, beat Chris Evert at Westside Tennis Club to claim the first of her 53 WTA titles. She remembers every detail.
"You're 15 years old, you've watched Chrissie who is kind of your idol and suddenly you're across the net from her," Seles said. "I'd lost to her pretty bad a couple months before in Boca Raton and, to just actually win a tournament, against Chrissie, that was amazing.
"Growing up, everybody says, 'Oh, Monica is going to be great, blah, blah, blah.' But, until it happens, you never really know. As a player, you have doubts. (Beating Evert) was almost a validation. I said I don't care if I ever win another tournament. At least I won one. I'll never forget taking that big (cardboard) check they used to give you in the old days onto the airplane with me. I still have it somewhere. It was for more money than I'd ever seen — $50,000. How could I forget that?"