I must urge everyone not to drink or eat anything while reading this. Yes, really. The British media is about to declare war on Monica as only the British media can, and it's not going to be pretty.
Ace without grace - Monica Seles
The Sunday Times
Sunday, June 21, 1992
Monica Seles is a phenomenon. She is battle-hardened at 18, a multi-millionairess, the winner of the last five Grand Slam tournaments in which she has competed, the winner of three consecutive French championships, the undisputed best women's player in the world.
But she has something of an image problem. At Wimbledon, after her celebrated no-show last year (when seeded No1), her name was mud. Among Yugoslavs who believe that sportsmen should nail their colours to the mast while their country is torn apart, her silence on the issue is lamentable. And for lovers of tennis, her game, incredible and brutally effective as it is, is horrible.
The images she conjures on court are certainly unattractive: a figure scuttling along the baseline like a crab; a face screwed up like a rodent's; a racket wielded like a hag with a frying pan; each blow, forehand or backhand, a grotesque double-handed mirror of the other, punctuated by an exclamation from the torture chamber.
To think that tennis, and especially women's tennis, was once as much an art form as a test of strength and efficiency, an expression of grace as well as power, joy as well as pain. And to think that the evolution of women's tennis, stretching from Suzanne Lenglen through such doyennes as Helen Wills, Alice Marble, Maureen Connolly, Maria Bueno, Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, should have arrived at this.
In Paris, where Seles recently won her third consecutive French title, the legacy of Lenglen goes beyond the name of the trophy awarded to the Ladies champion. Tennis as Lenglen played it between the wars was balletic, emotional and daring. She attempted perfection, could never resist the flourish, and was prepared to risk ludicrous failure.
Something of her spirit remains in the preferences of the Paris crowd, whose affection in this era for such players as Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte (once he had won them over), has had as much to do with the exuberance of their play as their nationality.
Perhaps it is fanciful, but in this year's dramatic final beween Seles and Steffi Graf one sensed that the crowd's passionate support for Graf was not merely sympathy for the underdog, but sprang as well from an understanding that what was before them was as much a battle for the aesthetics of the game as for personal superiority.
Graf, once monolithic herself, could be appreciated in a new light. Her strokes, never the prettiest, were pleasing. Her movement around the court was wonderful under the severest pressure, proving that she remains by far the best athlete in the women's game.
But brave, almost regal, though the attempt was to beat the machine, it was not quite enough.
"What do you have to do to win a point against this she-devil?" (diablesse was the word used), asked one incredulous French television commentator, and indeed Seles was remorseless, amazing in her elimination of unnecessary error and her ability to retrieve: the ultimate hacker.
For however unsightly and discordant her game, her virtues deserve to be recorded: will to win; tactical intelligence; the ability, thanks to her double-handed groundstrokes, to find unlikely and unpredictable angles from the baseline; excellent footwork; great power; and prodigious concentration.
The gaining of these attributes has been her life since the age of nine, and the means of escape of her family from the rigidity and comparative poverty of Eastern Europe.
Of Hungarian extraction, Seles was brought up in a small apartment in the centre of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Her mother Esther was a computer operator, and her father Karolj worked as a newspaper cartoonist and graphic artist. He was also a former triple jumper, with his own ideas on sports coaching and motivation. After failing to persuade his son Zoltan to become a champion, either as an athlete or a tennis player, he found his daughter Monica a more willing pupil.
The early years were the familiar story (Lendl and Navratilova spring to mind) of hitting tennis balls for countless hours, of a parent's constant attendance, and of the sacrifice of a normal adolescence for the great objective.
When Monica's attention slipped, Karolj resorted to painting cartoon characters on the balls to keep her interested. One was a mouse. "That's Jerry," he would say. "You be Tom, and chase the mouse."
By the age of 11, Seles had begun to grunt ("because one of my opponents kept doing it. She stopped, but I continued"), was world junior champion for her age, and had come to the attention of Nick Bolletieri, the former American marine, who runs a tennis academy in Florida.
For four years, from the age of 12, she submitted herself to the rigours of Bolletieri's training regimen. Bolletieri's pupils include Jimmy Arias, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, and his methods are harsh and simple: teach youngsters to hit the ball from the baseline harder and more often than their opponents.
Who should be credited, if that is the word, with the making of Seles's game, is a matter of dispute. She and her father claim that he was always the main influence. It has to be said, however, that Karolj is by all accounts a warm and fun-loving man, and generous enough to have jumped to his feet to applaud a shot by Graf during the French final, and that precious little of his joie de vivre has been transmitted to his daughter's tennis.
Bolletieri, who helped to bring Seles and her family to the United States, claims that "for four years I was her trainer. She and her family ate every meal at my place".
What is not in doubt is that Seles's emergence on to the senior women's circuit at the age of just 15 was extraordinary. In her second tournament, the Houston Open, she became the youngest player to win a tour event, defeating the inimitable Chris Evert in three sets in the final.
In that year, 1989, she reached the semi-final of the French Open. Having served notice in her first year, she all but took over in her second, thrashing Martina Navratilova 6-1, 6-1 in the final of the Italian Open, and beating Steffi Graf, the world No1, in the finals of the German and French Opens. That year, the Seles family had dispensed with Bolletieri, which produced a bout of public acrimony, and her father resumed as her coach.
Since, her rise has been inexorable. She has replaced Graf as the world No 1, adding the US and Australian Opens to the French title. Only Wimbledon remains.
Last year she failed to turn up, returning to her home in Florida after winning the French Open. Four days before Wimbledon was due to begin, she sent word that she would not be playing. A belated explanation, thin as it was, was supplied last week as part of her attempt to win over the Wimbledon faithful. She claimed she hadn't realised what a fuss there would be, that she had simply suffered a stress fracture of the leg. "I couldn't have climbed up the steps to the Centre Court," she said, "let alone play a tennis match."
If she did have a stress fracture, she made a remarkable recovery, for 10 days after the Wimbledon championships Seles played in a minor tournament in the US, for appearing in which she was paid Pounds 200,000.
Her record at Wimbledon is hardly remarkable. On her visit in 1989, seeded 11, she was beaten 6-0, 6-1 in the fourth round by Graf. In 1990, seeded third, she was beaten by Zina Garrison in the quarter-finals.
This year, such is her dominance, one suspects that Seles will start the Wimbledon championships as favourite. Only perhaps Graf can deliver us from the unappealing prospect of her winning the title at her third attempt.
The French Open final showed that Graf, having recovered from the shock of being consistently beaten and overtaken in the rankings by Seles, has found the determination to make a real challenge.
Graf's best chance of beating Seles must be on grass. The speed of the surface, which has done so much to reduce rallies and promote boredom in the men's game, has worked beneficially for women's tennis by reducing the metronome effect of interminable baseline rallies.
While Seles thrives on attrition, Graf, with superior movement, a respectable volley and a much better service, as well as a vastly superior grass-court record, may have enough advantage to overcome the remarkable machine that is Monica Seles.