Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Carlos Moya reigned for Spain, but the story of the French Open was Monica Seles's run to the final, three weeks after her father's death
by Alexander Wolff
Posted: Wed June 10, 1998
In a gesture of pre-World Cup hospitality, the French handed their Open over to the Spanish. As a way of showing respect for women of a certain age, they carded each of tennis's teen queens at the door, reserving spots in the final at Roland Garros for a couple of dowagers, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Monica Seles. But le plus beau geste of all was provided by Sánchez Vicario, who after her 7-6, 0-6, 6-2 victory turned to her opponent on the podium and said, "I'm so sorry I beat you."
Seles overcame her grief and focused on the task at hand. (Simon Bruty)
So was everyone else. On May 14, just 11 days before the French Open began, Seles's cartoonist father, Karolj, died after a five-year fight with stomach cancer. Back in prewar Yugoslavia, Karolj had jury-rigged a net in a parking lot, drawn portraits of Tom and Jerry on a couple of tennis balls and beguiled his daughter into giving chase. With his guidance, Monica won eight Grand Slam titles and held the No. 1 ranking almost continuously from March 1991 until April '93, when a deranged Steffi Graf fan plunged a knife into Monica's back during a changeover in Hamburg, forever turning the phrase "unemployed German lathe operator" into one of those Headline News save-and-pastes, like "Libyan strongman" or "war-torn Chechnya."
Karolj would comfort Monica when she awoke at night screaming during the 27 months off the WTA Tour that followed. After extensive therapy for both mind and body, Monica made a promising comeback, only to be sidetracked again, first by injuries and then by Karolj's illness. This year she took off the first 10 weeks of the tour, including the Australian Open, so she could be with him, and a month ago she hurried back from the Italian Open to join her mother, Esther, and brother, Zoltan, at the family's home in Sarasota, Fla., for the final days of Karolj's life.
"There will be other French Opens," her coach, Gavin Hopper, told her. Yet Seles decided that the prospect of staying in Sarasota—staying among the artifacts of her father's life and the friends making condolence calls—would be more difficult than playing. Arriving in Paris on May 23, only two days before the tournament began, she took up the challenge of shearing away the future and the past, of paring time down to the moment at hand. If she were to worry about life without Karolj, or about the impudent teenage talent that has been shaking up the tour, or about shots two or three ahead of the ball now on her racket, she might be overwhelmed; if she were to dwell on the mistrust that followed that episode in Hamburg five years ago, or her father's final days of suffering, or the fact that she had won only nine singles titles since being stabbed, things wouldn't be much easier.
In Hopper, a fitness-first Aussie she hooked up with in late March, Seles had the perfect coach for her state of mind. "I stress working in the here and now," he says. "On focusing on the ball you're going to hit, how you're going to hit it and the intensity you're going to hit it with, right here, right now."
In Paris, Seles had no more ambivalence about the right here, the right now. At home with Karolj in his final months, she had felt the pull of the tour; on the tour she had wished she were home with him. "In a weird way, I have peace of mind," she said last week. "In Rome I felt like I played well, but my mind wasn't really on the court. After deciding I'd play here, I felt really content with my decision. And the last years I've never really been content with any decision."
She strung a necklace through her father's wedding ring and wore it with dark-colored tennis outfits, but there would be no maudlin dedication of this event that she had won three times. "My dad just really wanted me to do what I wanted to do," she said. "Whenever I stepped on the court, it was for me."
Indeed, there was no noise more joyful than Seles's familiar high-pitched grunts during her matches and giggles after them. And this French Open reverberated with many other sounds: from the wails of Anna Kournikova in the gloaming of her round-of-16 elimination, when the chair umpire refused her request that the match with Jana Novotna be suspended on account of darkness ("The first time a guy has ever said no to her," huffed one witness); to the rattle of Venus Williams's beads, audible as she rushed the net after one of her 120-mph serves (faster than any unleashed in Paris by Andre Agassi, Jim Courier or Marcelo Rios); to the gasp of the crowd when Venus's younger sister, Serena, peeled off her warmup jacket to reveal her rippling deltoids; to the haughty protestations of Martina Hingis, who dismissed the idea that she was party to any rivalry because "if you look at the rankings, I'm, like, almost 3,000 points up."
Before, after, even during their matches these teenage arrivistes engaged in all kinds of woofing and adolescent gamesmanship, taking advantage of any allowable bathroom break, opportunity for a dress change or excuse to appeal to the umpire to descend from the chair to hunt down some mark in the clay and overrule a line call. The French Open: Not just tennis, it's archaeology!
Seles, 24, couldn't be bothered with such trivia. "I just don't have the strength and intensity anymore," she had said in Paris a year ago, after losing in a semifinal to Hingis. This time in the semis she had both, beating Hingis, the 17-year-old world No. 1, for the first time in six tries, 6-3, 6-2, by playing what the loser would call tennis at a different level.
In the final Seles won more games than Sánchez Vicario. More points, too.
Alas, winning the popular vote doesn't count, for tennis matches are decided by the electoral college—although the heavens seemed to interject their commentary on the result when, minutes after the end of the match, rain began to fall.
To be fair, Sánchez Vicario, 26 and the victor at Roland Garros in 1989 and '94, has scaled obstacles of her own. For two years she had looked in vain for her form, struggling with the first serious physical ills of her career, among them wrist and thigh injuries suffered after winning the first tournament of this season, in Sydney. The attention that has turned the teens' way "can help me," said Sánchez Vicario, whom trophy presenter Ilie Nastase called Vieja
(Old Lady) during the awards ceremony. "You don't have any pressure, you know. You can sneak around." Losing the second set of the final at love, constantly being pressed against the baseline by Seles's flat, angled ground strokes, she kept points in play with sliced retrievals, humpbacked saves and other conjurings, forcing Seles to rip many more responses than she would have liked and ultimately tuckering her out.
Sánchez Vicario is from Barcelona, which deserves credit for the ascent of the Spanish men. Too many computer points and too much prize money were going elsewhere as a result of Spain's emphasis on clay court play, so in recent years the country's tennis federation established a hard-court training center in the Catalonian capital and installed a nationwide feeder system to identify and develop promising prospects. The French Open champion of 1993 and '94, Sergi Bruguera, might be dismissed as "a Spanish clay courter," but neither Carlos Moya nor Alex Corretja, whom Moya beat 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 in a final on Sunday that had all the tension of a practice session back in Barcelona, can be so easily clay-pigeonholed. Moya reached the '97 Australian Open final and beat four of the Top 5 either indoors or on hard courts last year; Corretja nearly beat world No. 1 Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals of the '96 U.S. Open and reached the semis in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March.
For all their newfound versatility, Spanish men haven't forgotten how to win on clay: Of the 19 Spaniards who qualified for the draw in Paris, six made the round of 16 and three reached the semis. "I'm surprised that we're not four in the semifinals," said Corretja, referring to Alberto Berasategui, who got knocked out in the fourth round. Semifinalist Felix Mantilla says he dyed his hair blond on a dare from Argentina's Luis Lobo, but he could hardly be blamed if he took the bottle simply to distinguish himself from his many dark-haired compatriots. So thoroughly were Spanish men dominating every category at the French that a 20-year-old righthander from Barcelona, Julian Alonso, has become Hingis's steady. (Alonso is 1-10 since the two started seeing each other in March, encouraging speculation that "Julian Alonso" is Spanish for "John Lloyd.")
There's an old-school gentility and camaraderie among the Spanish men. After Corretja, Mantilla and Moya had qualified for the semis, a paparazzo caught them at a cafe on the Champs-Elysees, sharing the same dish of ice cream, and each of the countrymen freely swaps tips with any of the others who's about to play a non-Spaniard. "We didn't need the umpire or the linesmen today," Corretja said after the final. "Every time we were giving the call to each other. I just trust him. I never check the mark, and neither does he."
In her own earthy charitability, Seles too is something of a throwback. During her quarterfinal loss to Hingis, Venus left to change her skirt as Hingis was preparing to serve for the match. "I was dirty," she sniffed later. "I can't appear that way." Compare and contrast: In beating Novotna in the quarterfinals, Seles got sullied while lunging for a ball. She took a moment to towel off her shirt, her hands and her racket handle and turned to resume her position on court. "Derriere!"
cried a helpful voice in the stands. Seles smiled and then dusted off her hindquarters. There'd be no rushing off to wardrobe by this woman, who knows calamities much worse than a soiled skirt.
Compare and contrast again: Four times in her match with Williams, Hingis appealed a line call, and three times she got her way. But when Hingis and Seles hooked up a round later and the chair ump stood ready to make a critical reversal to her benefit, Seles conceded the point. "It's better to be honest and move on," she said later. She wasn't going to risk the snare of a guilty conscience when she had finally found the security of the here and now.
Early in the tournament, as her courtesy car turned into the grounds of Roland Garros, Seles saw Arantxa's mother, Marisa, through the window. She was cradling Roland, the Yorkshire terrier that Arantxa had acquired nine years ago after winning the French for the first time. (Garros, her other pooch, is too big to travel, so he stays home.) Seles asked the driver to stop, rolled down her window and got in some quality chitchatting with Marisa and petting with Roland. The scene illustrated how at odds Seles's instincts are with the imprisonment that has been an abiding part of her life.
With Seles savoring each stroke of her racket as she hadn't since she herself was an on-the-make teenager, that chapter ended in Paris with a kind of serenity. Consider the evidence: When her effort fell just short of a Grand Slam title, she didn't seem nearly as disappointed as everyone else.
Issue date: June 15, 1998