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Seles not done yet

Posted: Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Trapped in her hotel room by the rain, Monica Seles broke her own rule about not looking back.

There on the TV screen she saw herself, for the first time, in the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals match against Jennifer Capriati that changed their lives and women's tennis.

Seles was a lanky 17-year-old with pipe-stem arms, short hair and a fearless face. Capriati was ponytailed at 15, equally intrepid and just as strong, drumming groundstrokes down the lines.

Now Seles crinkled her nose and gave a thumbs-down to the hairstyles and dresses. The tennis made her happier as she watched herself win in a third-set tiebreaker. How good was she back then?

''I was very good,'' she said, laughing.

Seles rarely revisits the past or gives herself credit. That she was able to do both says a lot about how she is coming to terms with the downslope of her career.

Moments after thumping Martina Hingis 6-4, 6-2 in Tuesday's sunshine to reach the quarterfinals against Venus Williams, Seles quashed rumors of her imminent retirement and spoke about her undiminished love of the game.

Some great athletes walk away when they can't win anymore. Seles can handle it. She's handled a lot more in her life and has her own priorities.

''Each time I say it, people just roll their eyes,'' she said. ''I really never played tennis for winning the Grand Slam or to be No. 1 and stuff like that. Maybe it was a very naive thought. But truly, it's really not the driving force in me today.

''I love to play tennis. I said it many times. I wish we didn't have to go out there and win and lose, because that part is very tough emotionally. If you win a tournament, next week you have to play again and you never get time to enjoy it.''

All the people pestering Seles about whether she's about to retire ought to take a rest from their own jobs. They harp on the same refrain day after day, on television and in post-match interview sessions, eliciting from her the same weary sighs and denials.

Enough already.

No one who appreciates tennis should want to see Seles retire. Not after what she went through with her lost years, the prime of her career, after her stabbing. So what if she can't beat Venus or Serena Williams. So what if she's 28 and hasn't won a Grand Slam title in six years. She's still grunting on every shot, going for winners, playing with passion.

That's how she played 11 years ago against Capriati, only then Seles was slimmer and quicker and squeakier in her grunts.

It was the first Grand Slam women's match to feature the kind of two-fisted power shots from both players that is so common now. Capriati had come into the Open expecting to win her first major and when she lost, feeling the match was in her hands and had slipped away, she fell into the tailspin that would drive her from the tour for several years.

For Seles, it was the match that showed, perhaps more than any other, the stubborn refusal to be beaten that would mark her reign as No. 1.

Seles watched virtually the whole match during Monday's rainout, experiencing a sense of nostalgia and perspective. She also saw her late father and coach, Karolj, at courtside.

''It was fun to see that, just to see even my dad's reaction to certain points,'' she said. ''During a match you never realize it. ... It just brought back some great memories.''

Seles has had one of the most dramatic careers in sports history. From her early rise to fame as a teenage phenom to the stabbing in Germany in 1993 that sidelined her for two years, Seles has known more than her share of highs and lows.

That anyone would urge her to retire, or even ask her about itwhile she's still playing at the level she's at, seeded No. 6 at the Open, seems thoughtless and rude. Why not savor the time she has left rather than pushing her out?

''It's been a question every time,'' Seles said. ''I've seen it with Agassi and I've seen it with Pete. I do believe tennis is a young game. But you look at other sports, you can peak later on in your life.

''I'm just going to play it competitively as long as I enjoy it, as long as my body lets me play it. I do know one thing, that I'll play forever, really. It's a sport that I love.''

She just loves hitting the ball, not necessarily competing, and when she's done playing on the tour, Seles said, she'll slip into club tennis. Imagine her posting her name on the tennis ladder at her club, taking on challengers.

''I'd be playing right-handed, I think,'' she said.

Considering that she's ambidextrous, that her backhand mirrors her forehand, that probably won't be much help to the rest of her club.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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