Seles returns to court with spark for game

July 28, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- When Monica Seles stopped playing professional tennis after being stabbed during a tournament in Germany more than two years ago, women's tennis lost its sizzle.

Gone from the scene was the giggling teen-ager who provided Steffi Graf with her biggest challenge. Gone was the bright young star who would change her hair color on a whim and give the game the panache it needed to generate interest.

Gone was the WTA Tour's most dominant player, its No. 1 player.

"No matter how great a sport is, it needs superstars," said WTA Tour president Martina Navratilova. "For example, when Michael Jordan quit, even though basketball has a lot of other great players and stars, Michael Jordan was its biggest star. When he left, he was sorely missed, and when he came back, it was a great boost to the game.

"I believe the same will happen to women's tennis -- and tennis in general. When Monica got hurt and couldn't play, we lost our No. 1 star. That will hurt any sport. To have her back on a part-time or full-time basis will be a great boost."

Women's tennis begins getting Seles back tomorrow at 2 p.m. in a made-for-TV exhibition match against Navratilova at this city's Convention Center.

"I think women's tennis was there before me and it will be there without me," said Seles. "I think women's tennis did go through a pretty tough time at one point because I left and Martina left and Jennifer [Capriati] left. Before that point, it was a lot more competitive. It missed the three or four of us who were not playing."

It has taken 27 months for Seles to get to the point she is now, willing to go back on a public tennis court in front of large crowds.

The stab wound was about two centimeters deep, less than an inch, just below her right shoulder blade, several inches from the spinal cord. It did not do serious damage.

"It was a soft-tissue, muscle-severing injury," Dr. Richard Hawkins, the Colorado-based orthopedic surgeon who has been handling Seles' physical treatment, recently told Tennis magazine. "Although affecting the entire shoulder complex, it was severe only in its psychological impact."

Seles has said she was willing to come back as a wild-card entry if she had to, but behind the scenes, her representatives lobbied for a number of concessions to which the WTA Tour agreed.

Seles returns as the co-No. 1 ranked player, with Steffi Graf, for her first six events, and she also returns with an exemption for the 12-tournament rule. That rule automatically divides a player's annual point total by 12, the minimum number of tournaments each player is expected to enter each year, to determine her ranking.

Normally, if a player plays fewer than 12, she is credited with a first-round loss for each tournament under 12 that she plays. Seles' ranking will be determined by dividing her points by the number of tournaments she has played.

These are big concessions on the women's tour, which has several members who have benefited from Seles' absence.

Graf, whom Seles had bumped to No. 2 in the rankings by winning seven of the previous eight Grand Slam events she entered before the stabbing, has overcome a chronic back problem to reclaim the No. 1 spot.

Conchita Martinez has won Wimbledon. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario has won two Grand Slam events, including the U.S. Open. Mary Pierce has won the French Open.

"While Monica was gone, two or three players emerged and have become contenders," said veteran player Pam Shriver. "Steffi, I think, would have continued to win her share of the big titles, but I'm not sure the others would have had those opportunities if Monica had been playing.

"And now she is coming back," Shriver added. "And she should be coming back. It is a big deal. What happened to her on the court was a worldwide event and to get her back is everything it could be said to be."

But Shriver said tennis should be careful not to expect Seles' return to be the answer to all of its problems. The women's tour continues to try to build its popularity and is still looking for a major sponsor to replace Philip Morris, Kraft and Virginia Slims.

While some suggest Seles' return could make finding the elusive sponsor easier, Seles seems only interested in playing as well as she can.

"I'm looking so, so forward to getting back to the Grand Slams, I can't even say how much," said Seles, who has committed to play at the U.S. Open next month.

"I think I rose above my game at the Grand Slam events, and for me the hardest thing was that when I won the Australian Open in 1993, it was the first time I really felt happy being No. 1.

"It was OK off the court and with all the things that come with it. And then this whole thing happened after that.

"I just feel like I didn't get a chance to play all those Grand Slams. I was stopped at the peak when it was getting kind of wild. But then I said, 'That happened.' Now I have a chance to play great tennis again and go back to something I love to do and would have done if this would not have happened."

MATCH FACTS

What: Monica Seles vs. Martina Navratilova, exhibition match.

When: Tomorrow, 2 p.m.

Where: Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Center.

TV: Channels 13, 9.

Tickets: Still available by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 736-1420.

Outlook: The Convention Center doors open at 11:30 a.m. and there will be a celebrity doubles match at 12:30. Confirmed to play are former New York Giant Ron Johnson, Philadelphia 76ers coach John Lucas and New York radio personality Christopher Russo. The fourth player is to be named.

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