Teen trials over for these three Tennis: Amanda Coetzer, Monica Seles and Chanda Rubin, who'll appear in Pam Shriver's annual event, know all about rallying.

November 23, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Pro tennis is littered with fragile young women who tried to play too much too soon. But at Pam Shriver's 12th First Union/Signet Bank Tennis Challenge on Tuesday at the Baltimore Arena, fans will see three survivors.

No. 3 Amanda Coetzer, No. 5 Monica Seles and No. 28 Chanda Rubin are young women who began playing on the pro tour as teen-agers and appear here at a time when each seems headed for new frontiers.

In Coetzer, who began on the tour at 16, the charity event has come up with one of the hottest players on the tour -- her first-round defeat in the Chase Championships in New York last week notwithstanding.

The smallest player on tour, Coetzer has had to strive for every inch in every match.

"I've accepted that I'm smaller," said Coetzer, who is 5 feet 2. "I've also accepted that I have to work harder. I'm stronger than I look, and I think that has been a benefit. I think when I hit the ball, it's very deceptive to my opponent, and I think that that has worked to my advantage most of the time."

At the age of 26, Coetzer is a big-game hunter, climbing through the rankings by upsetting the likes of Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Jana Novotna and Mary Pierce to reach the highest ranking in her career.

But, in a nice twist, Coetzer has yet to beat Seles, whom she faces in the main match here.

"Anyone who beats Steffi, 6-0, 6-1, you've got to watch out for," said Seles. "Amanda is one of the hardest-working players on tour. She's also very strong -- physically strong and mentally strong. You don't get to be No. 3 in the world without that.

"But I've never lost to her -- and I'd like to keep it that way. Whether we're playing in front of two people or thousands, I play the same way. I play to win."

Seles, 24, admits she is not the same player she was when she began as a precocious 15-year-old and reached No. 1 for two consecutive years before being stabbed in Munich, Germany, in 1993. But she is an experienced competitor who can look at Coetzer and Rubin and appreciate where they are and what they're going through.

Seles captivated the Baltimore Arena crowd a year ago in her win over Mary Joe Fernandez, just as she did the first time she played here, in 1991, when she played Jennifer Capriati, who as a 15-year-old was then the new teen-age sensation.

A lot has happened since then.

Seles has dropped to No. 5 in the rankings; she has struggled this year to balance her tennis with the illness of her father, who is suffering from stomach cancer. Capriati is no longer a tennis darling, having gone through burnout and an arrest for marijuana possession. At 21, she is trying to make a comeback.

Still stranger, Coetzer, who had never had a year-ending ranking higher than 15th, is No. 3, and Rubin, a Capriati peer, seems

ready to live up to some of the headlines she made as a rookie.

When Rubin, 21, came on the pro tour as a 15-year-old, she was described as a natural. She was supposed to be the next Althea Gibson, But 16-year-old Venus Williams assumed that role at the U.S. Open this year.

After making it to her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 1996 and earning a Top 10 ranking for the first time in her career, Rubin missed most of last season with a hand injury that required surgery.

This year, she again started strong, winning her first tournament last February in Linz, Austria. But after making it to the round of 16 in Amelia Island, Fla., in April, Rubin began losing first-round matches with regularity through the U.S. Open. Then she reunited with her former coach, Ashley Roney, and her ranking has risen through the 30s to her current No. 28.

"She lost some close matches and it seemed bad things started happening to her," said Roney. "Mentally, I think she was tired. I think she was trying to play too much after the injury and I think she felt some pressure because she knows there are young girls coming up."

Seles can relate to Rubin's struggles to regain her game. She says there is nothing worse for a player than to have a lapse of six months or more.

"Your concentration level comes and goes," Seles said. "Everything has to come together. You have to have concentration and consistency because there are no more easy matches. That's been hard for me and for Chanda, who is very talented. The layoff couldn't have come at a worse time for her last season. It takes a long time to get back."

Even harder than maintaining focus for Seles has been "regaining that competitive edge." Observers have been quick to notice that she doesn't seem to have the same killer instincts that finished off opponents when she got the slightest edge.

"It doesn't irritate me that people talk about that," she said. And then she laughed a little. "You know, before I was hurt, a lot of people didn't like it that I had such a strong killer instinct. But what I'd like is to be a little more focused on winning like I used to be."

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