Big, Bad Seles Prevails and Navratilova Cries 'Wolf'
November 23, 1992
Big, Bad Seles Prevails and Navratilova Cries 'Wolf'
By ROBIN FINN
After a merely mortal 36-year-old Martina Navratilova was pounded into submission by an 18-year-old phenomenon who wears a double-decker hairdo and keeps a double grip on her racquet, the loser referred to the winner as a "big, bad wolf."
This was a compliment.
Monica Seles, who used her special brand of radar to create a demoralizing new shot, the service-return ace, and who blithely splashed the sidelines with sonic winners, secured her third consecutive Virginia Slims Championships title yesterday, winning by 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.
This time, as it did in 1991, the year-capping title came at Navratilova's expense.
"Today is probably as well as I've ever played and still got beaten in straight sets," mused Navratilova, who went on to call the performance "hard on the heart."
"By the third set, the match was over," she said. "I was in a big, big hole and unless she sprained an ankle, I wasn't going to get out of it."
But besides playing like a "big, bad, wolf," a description that covers Seles's formidable predatory presence, the No. 1-ranked player in the world also rumbled along "like a Mack truck," Navratilova noticed. Mack trucks, added Navratilova, don't get sprained ankles; they simply flatten whatever gets in their way.
Seles is actually neither wolf nor truck, but she's certainly the most pernicious competitor in women's tennis, an unteen-agerlike teen-ager who winces as if she has been stung by an electric shock anytime she commits a mistake. Which is rare.
That's why she has collected six Grand Slam titles in the last two years and won 10 tournaments a year in that span, and why this year she reached the final of all but one of the 15 events she entered.
In 1991, Seles went to the finals of all 16 events she played.
"I do hope this is not the height of my career yet," said Seles, who has also earned more money in a single year than any other player, male or female. Her $2,622,352 for 1992 breaks the record of $2.4 million she set last year.
But Seles claims it isn't money she's after. It's personal perfection.
"It's to play the game I envision," said Seles, who longs for a bigger serve, a more ambitious volley, a one-handed groundstroke to widen her range off both sides, and, while she's in the mood to dream, the ideal athlete's body.
Somehow she manages to get along without all of that and still, according to Navratilova, "command that aura that goes along with being No. 1."
"At her best, she's as good as anybody ever," said Navratilova, who is ranked No. 5 and has won this event eight times.
Yesterday, Seles committed only 10 unforced errors, had no double faults and undermined Navratilova's serve by earning 16 break points against it while allowing only three against her own.
"I don't think both of us were playing it safe," Seles said of the opening set, in which Navratilova earned and converted the first break point of the match to take a 5-4 lead that Seles instantly attacked and negated.
With service returns exploding at her feet like land mines, Navratilova caused herself even more problems by ignoring a return she assumed would soar long, and later double faulting at deuce. Seles then smacked a forehand return off the baseline to tie the set at 5-5, and used a backhand return to claim it, 7-5.
"If I had won the first set, it would have been a different story," said Navratilova, who instead gave Seles the only window of opportunity she required. "Give her an inch and she blows the doors wide open."
Navratilova didn't surrender right away. In the second set, she broke Seles at love to take a 2-1 lead, and then, in the fourth game, she played her most animated tennis of the match to grab a shortlived 3-1 edge. From 'Wow' to 'Ouch'
"Wow," Navratilova exclaimed after standing tough at net and turning a Seles forehand screamer into a backhand volley winner for herself.
"Ouch," she exclaimed at game point after a pair of pyrotechnic volleys put her in front.
But like any good phenomenon, Seles, instead of being cowed by the incredible, determined to outdo it. Navratilova took a good-natured bow after winning the game, but it was Seles who took the last bow.
"She started hitting the ball harder at that point," said Navratilova. "It was like: 'Ha, I'll show you. I'll do better.' I don't think she missed a shot after that."
The loser, appearing in her 14th and possibly last championships final, was moved to tears twice yesterday: once by the frustration of trying to keep up with Seles's bombardier tactics in the final set, and once by the standing ovation she received when she made her consolation speech.
"I do think the time has come," Navratilova said, reiterating her intention to make 1993 her final full-fledged singles campaign. "It's just really hard for me to keep everything together at a top level at this age."
The ever-enigmatic MONICA SELES was more animated about being caricatured in a "Saturday Night Live" skit, "At Home With Monica," than she was about her $750,000 payday. "I made it?" she asked, and correctly guessed, between giggles, that her grunting was the punchline vehicle. "Oh well, it's all in good humor. I hope my friends taped it for me."
Photos: Monica Seles reaching wide to return ball during her straight-set victory over Martina Navratilova.; Martina Navratilova as she accepted her runner-up check. (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times) (pg. C3