The first time Monica Seles came to Baltimore to play in what is now called the Chevy Chase Bank Tennis Challenge, she was a 16-year-old, in her second year on the pro tour and the winner of just one Grand Slam tournament. Now, 12 years later, Seles is a mature, reflective woman, the possessor of 11 Grand Slam titles and more dedicated than ever to the game.
"I call these my gravy years," Seles said from Dublin, Ireland, where she and Lindsay Davenport, her opponent here tonight, were in an international competition last week. "I have nothing left to prove. I have fun and really enjoy it. I hope the fans are enjoying watching me play. And, hopefully, the little kids will see the delight I am getting from the game and want to play because they see how much fun it is."
For Seles, part of the fun will come when she makes her fourth appearance in the Tennis Challenge, the creation of Baltimore's retired Hall of Fame player, Pam Shriver.
Seventh-ranked Seles will play No. 12 Davenport in the main singles event, preceded by the Smith Barney Legends of Tennis Match and followed by the Orioles Challenge Match.
Seles said she is looking forward to helping out Shriver, her friend, once more.
"Gosh, Pam and I go way back," Seles said. "We even competed against each other - I don't want to think how far back. And I've played her event and it's a wonderful event. I think it is the best, in terms of a celebrity match. She has great athletes playing - Brady [Anderson] plays some great tennis - and there is a great atmosphere there. The crowd just seems to love it and comes year after year.
"I love helping her, because she's made an exceptional transition from the game, given back to the sport we both love and done so much for children in Baltimore with this event. She's definitely a role model."
Shriver and Seles first hit tennis balls together in practice at Wimbledon in 1989. At the time, Shriver said, it seemed unlikely that a real friendship would develop.
"It's this way with a lot of tennis players," Shriver said. "In the beginning, you see only the differences, the age difference, being from different countries, the way you play the game. Then, as you get older, you see the 11 years between us mean nothing, you see that you both love the game and, in our case, we developed a bond because we both lost loved ones about the same time. Now, we're at the stage where we see all the similarities, not the differences."
Seles remembers being warmly welcomed by Shriver and her family from the moment she first set foot in Baltimore.
"I played Jennifer [Capriati] there," Seles said. "She was 15 and I was 16, and it was just fun. And I met Pam's grandmother [who bought Seles' racket at the event's charity auction]. She has been a big supporter of mine from that time, and it was a time, in those early years, when I didn't have many fans.
"Then later, Pam lost her sister Marion and I lost my father [six months apart in 1998]. It was nice to have someone who could relate. It was nice to talk to her. And now, to see Pam so happy with George [Lazenby], it's wonderful. It's a very happy stage in her life with her new husband and being inducted into the Hall of Fame."
It's also a happy stage of life for Seles.
She saw Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario retire earlier this year, but said that did not spur her to follow the Spaniard's path.
"Arantxa is in a different stage in her life," said Seles, a former world No. 1. "She's two years older than me. As long as I can play Top 10, I'll play. The last three, four years have been good, except for a foot problem. But I'm injury-free now. And to have a good solid year like this is very encouraging. I know I have another three or four years if I want them. Retirement, it's not even crossing my mind. I'm just going out there because I love it."
What: Chevy Chase Bank Tennis Challenge
Where: 1st Mariner Arena
When: Tonight, 7
Scheduled matches: (in order) Jana Novotna and Patrick McEnroe vs. Martina Navratilova and Richey Reneberg; Monica Seles vs. Lindsay Davenport; Seles and Brady Anderson vs. Davenport and Gary Matthews
Tickets: $15 to $90, available at arena box office
Benefits: Children's charities through the Baltimore Community Foundation
Information: 410-296-2929 or www.tennischallenge.org