Once more, with feeling
Monica Seles aims to win one more Grand Slam title before she retires from tennis, the sport she loves
By JANIS CARR
LOS ANGELES – Monica Seles leans back from the table and laughs, letting out an infectious chuckle that has become as much her trademark as her two-fisted forehand and grunts.
These days the laughs come easily. At age 28, and after more than a decade on the professional tennis tour, Seles finds plenty to amuse her. There's the thought of retirement and those who think she should retire. Her work ethic or lack thereof. The Williams sisters, whom she calls "good for tennis." The women's tour. What life has presented to her and taken away. The world in general.
And from her perch, the view is good. She consistently has been ranked among the world's top 10 since 1989. No other current top player can say that. Of course, no other top player has been around that long. Seles is ranked No.7 and is one of the seeded players in this week's WTA Championships that begin Wednesday at Staples Center. Serena and Venus Williams hold the Nos.1 and 2 spots in the tournament, which features the world's top 16 players.
"I don't want to say it surprises me because she still hits the ball better than anybody," Lindsay Davenport said of Seles' longevity. "She hits amazing shots and returns so well. Her game is a great game, and her serve is good. ... She always seems to beat the players she's supposed to beat and get to the quarters, semis or finals of tournaments."
Then why are people rushing to push Seles, a quarterfinalist at this year's U.S. Open, out the door? Because she is over-the-hill by tennis standards.
"In tennis, you are washed up by 25. But that's not as bad as gymnastics when you are finished at age 20," Seles said with a laugh.
Seles emerged onto the tennis scene 14 years ago, bringing with her a confusing forehand, groundstrokes packed with power not seen before and that laugh. At 14, she became an instant fan favorite with her bubbly answers, her strident grunts and tenacious tennis.
So why would anyone who appreciates tennis want to see Seles retire? So what if she can't beat Venus or Serena, or Lindsay or Jennifer Capriati? So what if she hasn't won a Grand Slam title in six years and has had more injuries than titles this past year? She is still grunting, still going for winners, still playing with passion.
"I just love to play tennis," she said. "I do know that if I'm not playing in a day, year or two months from now I would still want to practice and play."
Surprisingly, Seles is not having a hard time envisioning life after tennis, though she realizes the transition from playing in front of thousands of fans to a quiet game in her Florida back yard will be more difficult than chasing a lob on her creaky feet.
"One part of me wants a normal life, the other part of me is a bit apprehensive," said Seles, who has been plagued by foot injuries the past few years. "In some ways I would like to stay (in the sport), but I don't know. But in other ways I would like to do something different.
"Maybe go to college. But that's a lot of work."
Maybe married, with a child like her former nemesis, Steffi Graf?
"No, not right now. Down the road maybe. I'm only 28, so I have time I hope."
She laughs even more.
Inspired by Pete Sampras' improbable victory at the U.S. Open, Seles is giving herself at least two more years on the tour to win another major tournament. First stop, the 2003 Australian Open.
"But who knows? If I go to Australia in January and I feel 'Gosh, this is not what I want to be doing,' then I'm going to stop," she said.
And if and when she stops, Seles, who turns 29 in December, promises she would not return like Martina Navratilova, who is back playing doubles at age 46.
"I think when you look at the history of sports, all the great champions have had trouble making that transition. Few succeed," Seles said. "It's not easy because for such a long time that is your focus, and there is so much attention and if you like the attention, its very difficult to get out.
"It depends on personality. Everywhere you go everyone is 'Oh how great you are' and everything. Then once you stop, you're as good as your last result."
Davenport, a Laguna Beach resident who also has begun to think about life after tennis, said it would be difficult for Seles to stop.
"She's always up high. She always has these great, great years," Davenport said. "She always is giving herself a chance at Slams. You know, that's unbelievable."
Seles, holder of nine Grand Slam tournament titles, has not won a major event since the 1996 Australian Open, a watershed victory, it being her first Grand Slam tournament victory since being stabbed by a deranged fan in 1993.
After that incident, Seles stayed away from tennis for the next 27 months, not picking up a racket for a year. Although she missed tennis, Seles was far from bored.
She skied. She hiked. She hung out with friends her own age. She spent time with her parents, became a U.S. citizen, picked up the guitar and got involved with the Special Olympics.
Today, she can talk about those lost years with perspective and without hesitation.
"In a weird way I think that was a positive," she said. "When you first come out (onto the tennis scene) you play junior tournaments, then satellite tournaments, and you don't experience the other stuff that kids your age experience. Then you kind of live in an adult world at age 14, 15. So that was really nice for me, to spend time with kids my own age.
"If I wanted to go skiing, great. I didn't have to worry about breaking my finger. Little things. Yet, at the same time, you miss out on being No.1 like I was when I got stabbed. It's a Catch-22. But, in the long run, it definitely helps you see there is life outside of tennis."
Seles said before she leaves her beloved sport there are a few things she would like to see, starting with out-of-tournament drug testing. She said the rumors of steroid use among some of the players warrant such a move.
"To make sure the sport is clean, they should test. It's a simple procedure," she said. "Some are making a big deal about it when it should be standard. Tennis and other sports hopefully will go to that."
Seles said she also would like to see the Williams sisters stick around a little big longer, even if it does make for monotony in Grand Slam tournament finals.
"Tennis would be great if they stayed in there long," Seles said of Venus and Serena. "They have a nice balance in their lives because they have a lot of other interests."
But who can beat them? Seles beat Venus in the quarterfinals of the 2002 Australian Open, and a few others have been able to knock them aside. But no one has beaten the sisters with any consistency the past two years.
"Initially it will be tough (to beat them), especially if you have lost to them six times in a row," Seles said. "Lindsay definitely has the game. If Martina (Hingis) can play well, she has a chance.
"Everyone goes through a cycle."
And for Seles, this could be the final spin.