Old-timers open with wins at Wimbledon Graf and Seles show they're still factors

June 23, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- Once, they were the future of women's tennis. Now, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles are old-timers out to show a new batch of teen-agers how to win, grow up and survive in a spotlight.

And yesterday, they showed everyone how to make dramatic entrances at Wimbledon.

There was Graf on Centre Court, a year after undergoing knee surgery, less than two months after nearly giving up the game, belting out winners in a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Gala Leon Garcia of Spain. As her match ended, Graf smiled. But moments later, a woman whose icy demeanor defined an era was quietly weeping, overcome by the emotion of returning to Wimbledon.

"It is a pleasure to be here," Graf said after twice wiping away tears during a post-match interview.

And out on Court 1 under a slate gray sky was Seles, with a new dress, new hairstyle and new attitude, defeating Maria Alonzo Sanchez Lorenzo, 6-3, 6-4. Seles has overcome so much these past few years, from her 1993 stabbing, to an assortment of injuries, to the recent death of her father, Karolj.

Yet in the last month, Seles has rediscovered joy on the court, advancing to the final of the French Open, enjoying practices, concentrating on the future.

"It's the first time in a long time I've had time to focus really on tennis, and I'm very glad for it," Seles said. "I just hope I can keep going like that for the next couple of years."

Graf, the seven-time champion and No. 4 seed, and Seles, the No. 6 seed, may not be able to win this Wimbledon, but they're sure going to give the tournament a ride.

The game is supposed to belong to the teens now, like top seed Martina Hingis, who begins defense of her title today against Lisa Raymond.

It's a launching pad for the likes of Serena Williams, who made her Wimbledon debut yesterday by defeating Laura Golarsa of Italy, 6-4, 6-3.

And it's a stage for Anna Kournikova, the No. 12 seed who was forced to put off her Wimbledon dreams for a year after withdrawing because of a thumb injury she sustained in a victory over Graf last week at Eastbourne.

"I was hoping a miracle would happen, that it would maybe get better," Kournikova said. "Of course I'm very sad about it."

The kids may rule, but they don't yet have the heart and history of Graf and Seles.

A year ago, Graf wasn't even here. She was in Austria, recovering from surgery on her left knee.

"I was basically lying in bed, not being able to do anything," she said.

Graf didn't stay in front of a television, though. She put in hours of physical therapy. She pushed herself to get back on the tour and back to Wimbledon, overcoming new injuries, defeats and uncertainty.

And there were times she wanted to quit -- the last crisis coming "six or seven weeks ago," she said.

"I had so many little injuries and every week something else came around," Graf said. "Two or three days I tried to play and every day I had to stop again because of something else that happened, like little strains. I had to stop for a few weeks. So, I barely got to play at all."

Yet she got herself in shape, and on grass she's a threat to win every time.

Still, Graf takes nothing for granted. She was even surprised to be on Centre Court, admitting she is not yet at the top of her game. "I feel my muscles are not as strong as they used to be," she said.

Wimbledon may bring out her best, though, may help her regain whatever magic is left.

"It is my favorite tournament," she said. "But winning is a long way. There are a lot of matches."

Seles also downplays her chances of winning in the only Grand Slam that has eluded her. Like Graf, she loves Wimbledon. But she has never been able to conquer the contours of grass play.

What she has grasped over the years is a sense of accomplishment in merely competing. She may never be No. 1 again, but that is no longer the goal that drives her.

"I cannot say it made me happier when I was No. 1, and for me the ultimate achievement is to be happy," she said. "But I do want to win the Grand Slams."

To win this one, though, she will likely have to meet a familiar foe. If the seeds hold, one quarterfinal will produce a colossal match: Graf vs. Seles.

Featured matches

Men

Marcelo Rios (2), Chile vs. Francisco Clavet, Spain.

Greg Rusedski (4), Britain, vs. Mark Draper, Australia.

Carlos Moya (5), Spain, vs. Mahesh Bhupathi, India.

Women

Martina Hingis (1), Switz-

erland, vs. Lisa Raymond, U.S.

Jana Novotna (3), Czech Republic, vs. Sandra Kleinova, Czech Republic.

Venus Williams (7), U.S., vs. Jana Nejedly, Canada.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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