Charting a Graf-like path - Seles faces same trials that tested '91 champ
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Saturday, JULY 4, 1992
WIMBLEDON, England - Steffi Graf knows exactly how Monica Seles feels because she has been there.
When Seles and Graf, the top two players in the world, meet in the women's final today, Seles will be trying to overcome an unusual amount of negative press to win her first Wimbledon title. Graf, who will be going for her fourth title in five years, lost under similar circumstances in 1990.
Seles, 18, also is halfway to tennis' Grand Slam - achieved by winning Wimbledon, the Australian, French and U.S. opens in a calendar year. Graf, 23, is the last player to win the Grand Slam, in 1988. Of course, if Seles wins today she would look ahead to the U.S. Open in September to complete the slam, but her immediate dilemma is the British press.
Normally, a player's relationship with the men and women who report on tennis is an insider story. At Wimbledon it gets attention because of the almost daily questioning and hammering, mostly by reporters working for Britain's infamous tabloids, which sometimes takes on a life of its own.
In 1990, Graf was tortured by British reporters during Wimbledon over stories that her father, Peter, had an affair with a German model and had fathered the model's child. Graf, the two-time defending champion at the time, was beaten in the semifinals. The story had a happy ending, as Graf returned a year later and won her third Wimbledon title.
"The British press can be very cruel," said Graf, who got another dose this year when the tabloids published the address of her rented house and unwelcome visitors began showing up. "It can affect your tennis. You get frustrated with the stories, and then if your game is off, you feel it even more."
Seles tangled with local writers last year - and she didn't even come to Wimbledon . Her conspicuous, unexplained absence led the tabloids down one of their most creative roads. Their stories ranged from Seles hiding out with Donald Trump to her being pregnant.
This year, things have not drastically improved for Seles. She prepared for the onslaught of questions about her 1991 disappearing act, but none came. Instead, the tabloids declared open season on her grunting.
Although Seles has been grunting since she came on the tour, it has not received serious consideration until Wimbledon this year.
"They picked on me three years ago here for the grunting," Seles said. "I never got a warning during the year, nobody ever talked about it, and now it is a pretty big issue.
"I've said a million times that I am not doing it on purpose, and I would like to get rid of it."
The press coverage has been so overwhelming that two of Seles' opponents have complained about her noisemaking, and the chair umpire in her semifinal match twice asked her to tone it down. Nathalie Tauziat and Martina Navratilova both said they could not hear the ball coming off Seles' racket over her grunting.
"It's always been an issue, but it's the first time that umpires have reacted to it," Graf said. "There are times when it gets close that she gets really loud, and if players are disturbed by it, then it's fine that they say something."
Seles dismissed the possibility that she might begin to lose her concentration because she is trying to curb her grunting. Whether or not it affects Seles' game, the issue is clearly grating on her nerves.
As if the grunting issue wasn't enough, Seles also has had to contend with other negative stories. Those include death threats allegedly made against her, a story that she has abandoned her childhood tennis club, another that she has a starving grandmother in Yugoslavia and still another that if she and Croatian Goran Ivanisevic both win, Ivanisevic not join in the traditional champions dance with her because she is from Serbia.
Still, Seles managed to beat nine-time champion Martina Navratilova in a tough, three-set match in the semifinals. She did not lose a set in the early rounds, and her comfort level on the grass courts is as high as she could expect.
Graf, meanwhile, has struggled in a couple of her early-round matches. British reporters have tread lightly on Graf's personal life, except for a brief spat when they photographed her with a man who supposedly is her boyfriend.
Graf has learned how to handle writers and she knows how to win Wimbledon finals. For Seles, this is all a relatively new experience. The question to be answered today is, does Seles need another year before she is ready to win the title?
MONICA SELES (1) vs. (2) STEFFI GRAF
* Head-to-head: Graf leads 5-3.
* Road to final: Seles - 1. def. Jenny Byrne 6-2, 6-2; 2. def. Sabine Appelmans 6-3, 6-2; 3. def. Laura Gildemeister 6-4, 6-1; 4. def. Gigi Fernandez 6-4, 6-2; QF def. (14) Nathalie Tauziat 6-1, 6-3; SF def. (4) Martina Navratilova 6-2, 6-7, 6-4.
Graf - 1. def. Noelle van Lottum 6-1, 6-0; 2. def. Marianne Werdel 6-1, 6-1; 3. def. Mariaan de Swardt 5-7, 6-0, 7-5; 4. def. Patty Fendick 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; QF def. Natalia Zvereva 6-3, 6-1; SF def. (3) Gabriela Sabatini 6-3, 6-3.
* Outlook: The two best players in the world contest their second Grand Slam final of the year. In the French Open final on clay in May, Seles beat Graf 10-8 in the third set with an incredible display of shot-making and tenacity. Seles, winner of the last five Grand Slam events she has played, is hoping to win her first Wimbledon title. Prior to this year, she had never advanced past the quarterfinals. This year, she has played better than expected considering her lack of grass court results. She has lost only one set in six matches, and that was to Martina Navratilova. Although Graf was pushed to three sets twice in the early rounds, she showed her stuff against Gabriela Sabatini in the semifinals. In last year's final, Sabatini served for the title twice against Graf, but this year, Graf never gave her a chance to find her rhythm. In every regard, the win was a confidence-builder for Graf. Technically, Seles and Graf are baseliners. While Seles is admittedly scared to go to the net, Graf doesn't mind going there to close out points. Graf also serves better than Seles, while Seles has a better put-away shot from the backhand side. The match should have its share of exciting baseline rallies. Graf clearly has the edge on grass against Seles. The two played here once, with Graf winning 6-0, 6-1, but that was in 1989. Seles has been the best player in the world since she took the No. 1 ranking from Graf in March 1991. Still, Graf seems like the better bet on grass, under the circumstances.