Seles takes it all in with a giggle or 2

September 09, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- "What is so funny?" someone finally asked Monica Seles yesterday after she had beaten Conchita Martinez in a U.S. Open semifinal that was shorter than Peter Angelos' speech on 2,131 night.

Seles blushed and giggled -- her choppy, rat-a-tat giggle, as opposed to her loopy, grunting giggle -- and barked back an answer.

"Everything," she said, twisting her body in her chair as she spoke, as if she were being tickled by someone from beneath the dais in the interview room.

Then she giggled again -- her honking, snorting giggle, as opposed to her high-pitched, slightly hysterical giggle she had used on national television a few minutes earlier.

"Everything about life is funny," she said, twisting a strand of her dark, curly hair. (Her third hair color of the week.) "I mean, if you can't laugh at life, then why are you living?"

This was shortly after she had given the following answer to a question about the irony of her being such a killer on the court and such a Serbo-Valley Girl off it:

"On court, when I step on court I try to be so focused because I think, for me, to play the best tennis I can, I have to be, and I try not to have too many distractions, but I think as soon as I step off the court, I almost, like, I am a little bit of a different person. I am much more looser, and much more outgoing while on the court I am just so focused on the ball. But as soon as I am off, I mean, you could ask my friends, I am just as anyone else. It is just that you practice hard and you have a little luck and I don't know."

And, after reading that, you're expecting me to cast today's Open final between Seles and Steffi Graf as the dramatic epic everyone wants it to be?

Sorry. (Ha ha ha.) Seles is giggling too loud. (Ha ha ha.)

Sure, the match is the event of the year in tennis, maybe the event of the past few years, a sporting soap opera brimming with emotional elements. It was, after all, a deranged fan of Graf's who stabbed Seles in the back two years ago, turning her into a living martyr. And it is true, after all, that Graf's father is in prison right now on tax evasion charges, a trauma that Graf is wearing plainly on her sad face these days. (While she waits to see if German authorities have enough evidence to arrest her, too.)

But it is simply impossible to sit and listen to Seles give these breathless, Looney Tunes answers -- chopping off sentences, changing directions in mid-thought and breaking into peals of laughter for no apparent reason every few seconds, as if she can't keep a straight face in church -- and give this match the "high serious" treatment.

Maybe for Graf, who looks as though she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, because she does, today's match is indeed a solemn occasion. What does she have to gain? If she wins, well, Seles is just coming back from 27 months off. If she loses, every title she won while Seles was away will be devalued. Pretty heavy stuff.

But there is just no such thing as a solemn occasion in Seles' life right now. After struggling through depression and self-doubt for more than two years, she has rediscovered the joys of playing tennis and living the diva's life she abandoned.

During the Open she has gone to a Broadway show, been a presenter at the MTV Music Awards show, watched the Cowboys-Giants game from the sidelines (at the request of Nike) and painted each fingernail on her left hand a different color.

But nowhere has her joy, relief and sheer happiness been more apparent than on the court, where she has clobbered six opponents without losing a set. Her ground strokes are breathtaking, hit with unmatched power and accuracy into the deep corners of the court, giving her opponents no chance to take the offensive.

That was no bum she was playing yesterday. Martinez won Wimbledon a year ago and was seeded fourth here. But she was gone in 61 minutes yesterday after winning four of 16 games, unable to keep up with Seles' powerful ground strokes. You had to keep reminding yourself that this was a U.S. Open semifinal, not an early-round match in Philadelphia or Eastbourne.

"What was your game plan and why didn't it work?" someone asked Martinez.

"Well, I was trying to play high balls, and apparently she likes those because she was smacking them very good," Martinez said.

Smacking them very, very good.

Then Seles was in the interview room, grinning and guffawing and mixing up her giggles like Mike Mussina mixes up his pitches, a loud one here, a long one there, ha ha, you know, it is, like, very much fun, yes, like, oh, wow, ha ha, I can't believe how much fun.

And then came the best question of the tournament: Just what is so funny, Monica?

MA And you heard what she said. Everything is funny. Everything.

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