Women's game eager to serve up Seles' return

July 03, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

WIMBLEDON, England -- They are waiting for Monica Seles.

This is the whispered talk in the tea rooms and sponsor tents at Wimbledon, where the crowds flee every time reigning champion Conchita Martinez takes the court and where Steffi Graf is one awkward movement away from having her back give out -- perhaps for good.

So much is riding on one woman who has been under wraps since being stabbed by an unemployed lathe operator in Germany on April 30, 1993. Seles, the talk goes, can bring back the sponsors, the crowds and the television ratings.

"We need her," says Pam Shriver, former Women's Tennis Association president. "She was our young superstar, the one player who transcended the sport."

Forget Saturday's Wimbledon women's final. The most important women's match of the year takes place in Atlantic City, N.J., July 29, when Seles meets Martina Navratilova. CBS will be there. So will 10,000 fans.

It's the match that can help bring back a sport. For if Seles gets through the encounter without anguish, she is scheduled to play a tour event in August and then, maybe, the U.S. Open.

"I'm just thrilled Monica is going to play again," Navratilova says. "It will be fun to be on the same court with her again.

"I don't know what she is feeling. I know she wants to have fun. She loved competing. That doesn't go away."

In an age of sporting whims, women's tennis could use a healthy dose of Seles. Teen-agers Venus Williams and Martina Hingis are still in the wings, the young hopes who might be able to carry the tour at the turn of the century. But until then, the sport needs a star.

Once, tennis had the market cornered on women's sports, with Billie Jean King and Chris Evert leading the charge from drafty high school gymnasiums to modern sports arenas. But women's tennis is fighting for money and ratings against figure skating and college basketball.

"Don't forget beach volleyball," Shriver says.

"Ten or 15 years ago, tennis was the showcase sport for women," Evert says. "These other sports should thank us. We brought them out of the woodwork."

But suddenly, a sport such as figure skating has surpassed women's tennis. Evert concedes that skating made the most of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga.

"With ice skating, you have to wonder if that sport would be where it is without that tragedy," Evert says. "Unfortunately, it may take another tragedy for us to get back to that spot."

The tragedy is the Seles stabbing. To understand what her absence has meant to tennis, just come to Wimbledon, where the women have had a tough time gaining recognition in the first week. Graf vs. Hingis, 14, provided a Wimbledon blip. But it's hard to generate interest in a sport where a player such as Helena Sukova, long past her prime, still can command a No. 16 seeding.

"What we lack now is star power," Shriver says.

Seles got stabbed. Jennifer Capriati got arrested. Navratilova retired. Their replacements as stars just haven't captured the fancy of the public. Aranxta Sanchez Vicario may win titles, but she has few fans in America. Mary Pierce remains an uneven performer. Lindsay Davenport, the top American, is a delightful off-court personality with a glowering on-court demeanor.

Women's tennis has ridden this low cycle before.

"When Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger left the game in the early and mid-1980s, that was definitely a weak time," Shriver says. "I slid in at No. 3 in the world. It was really just Chris and Martina. But they made us feel pretty good. We had two all-time greats slugging it out, and they carried the tour alone for about five years."

Graf is the dominant player of the present, but until recently, has done little to carry the tour. Shy by nature, she has been content to let her tennis speak for itself.

"Steffi knows she has to be more of a leader," Shriver says. "And she has been trying."

Davenport would like to pitch in and sell the sport, but she says all too often the women's tour has been its own worst enemy, failing adequately to publicize its new stars.

"It's not like we don't have good personalities on this tour," Davenport says. "We have a lot of fun out there. The quality of play from 25 to 60 has been raised. The game itself has changed with the new rackets. People now just go for their shots."

But few know who these potential stars are.

Women's tennis rarely has sold itself well. The sport has been hampered by infighting as agents and players battle for turf. Even when Seles was healthy and on tour, she was subjected to behind-the-scenes sniping by her rivals.

Now, just getting her back in the game with a decent ranking has been a source of consternation.

"It's almost a done deal," says Navratilova, the current WTA president. "I'm surprised at how long it has taken. But there are a lot of different avenues, a lot of different people you have to talk to about the situation and a lot of people you don't want to offend."

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