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Seles remains sentimental favorite

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England -- The noise was the same as ever, raw and loud, primal and triumphant. It started from somewhere deep inside of her, then emerged like a force of nature to crease the perfect English afternoon, carrying across the courts and across the calendar.

WIMBLEDON, England -- The noise was the same as ever, raw and loud, primal and triumphant. It started from somewhere deep inside of her, then emerged like a force of nature to crease the perfect English afternoon, carrying across the courts and across the calendar.

Ah, yes, you thought upon hearing it.

Monica has won.

She has spent half her life as a professional tennis player now, and the sight of Monica Seles has changed. She is older, heavier. The look of innocence, of course, disappeared from her eyes long ago.

The sound of her remains the same, however. Seles still has that trademark grunt, that glass-shattering, siren-like bleat that sounds part anguish and part achievement, part shriek and part battle cry. It is sharp, and it is shrill, and the truth of it is it used to annoy the heck out of many of us.

As the winning point blew past Japan's Ai Sugiyama on Saturday, it sounded very much like music.

The tennis world has heard from Monica Seles again. Turns out, she might have more to say. Turns out, there are a few grunts left in the old girl after all.

Wouldn't it be grand to see? Wouldn't it be fabulous to see Seles charge after one final moment before she says farewell? Wouldn't it be great to see her capture Wimbledon, the one major that has eluded her, before her light fades completely?

Wouldn't it seem, somehow, like justice?

People forget. Everyone agrees what a horrible thing it was on April 30, 1993, when deranged Steffi Graf fan Guenter Parche shoved a knife into the left shoulder of Seles, the blade a millimeter away from leaving her paralyzed. But not enough people seem to remember how dominant Seles was at the time.

She was Tiger Woods. She was Michael Jordan. In the spring of '93, Seles had taken over the game. She had ripped it out of the hands of Martina Navratilova and Graf, and she was on her way to being compared with anyone who had ever played.

From 1991-93, Seles won seven Grand Slam titles out of eight she entered, finishing second in the other. She was only 19 years old, and she seemed to be getting better. Who could guess how good she would become, how often she would win?

Then there was the tournament in Hamburg, and a fan rushing behind her. There was pain, and there was blood.

And Seles would never be the same.

It was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of sport, one of the cruelest moments in the history of humanity. It was as if Parche cut into her shoulder blade and cut away all the greatness that seemed promised to her. Seles was absent from the tour for 27 months. The player she had become was gone forever.

Can you imagine what it must be like to be Seles, to lie in the dark and try to count the titles, the money, the moments that were taken from you? Can you imagine the anger that most of us would feel? The bitterness?

Ask Seles to compare herself to the old days, and she is lost for an answer. She doesn't watch what she was, she said. You don't ask her why. It would be too painful to see. Ask her if she ever thinks of what was lost during those 27 months, and she corrects you.

"You mean that one day," she says simply. "Definitely. There would be a different standing in the history books. But that wasn't my choice."

What might women's tennis have become if not for that day? In '93, Seles beat Graf in a stirring Australian final. At that point, Graf had 11 Grand Slam wins and Seles eight. Since then, Graf won 11 Grand Slams and Seles one.

Who knows how different those numbers might be? Who knows if Graf would have raised her game to create a wondrous rivalry? Consider this: In 1999, a poll in Tennis Magazine ranked Graf the best player of all time. Seles was ranked second.

Since returning from her injury, Seles' only Grand Slam victory was in the '96 Australian Open. She can flash the old skill at times, but she has never been able to remuster the focus that being No. 1 demands. She did not keep up as athletes became stronger, better conditioned. Who can blame her? When you are haunted by what might be behind you, how can you look to the future?

Oh, Seles has had a fine career. She has been in the top 10 most of the time, and she has made a lot of money. But when one has been a legend, when one has had greatness snatched away, how can life as a quarterfinalist be enough?

Somewhere along the way, Seles got old. She is 28 years, six months old now, exactly twice the 14 years, three months she was when she turned pro. The most common question she hears is about retirement.

"I don't know," Seles said. "I don't want to have that pressure on me to say, "Okay, I'm going to definitely retire by a certain date or the year.' There is no need to do that. I'm not a person who is going to have a farewell tour or that stuff."

Still, she dreams. One more Grand Slam. One more moment.

"That's the one thing that really drives you," she said. "You want to win any Grand Slam. That's one of the reasons I'm playing."

Can Seles make a run? Probably not. As she once said, "life isn't a storybook." Seles lacks her old quickness, not to mention that air of confidence. There are times she seems to be swimming upstream, times when she has to scrap to stay alive. She would have to win four more matches, two of them probably against the Williams sisters. It's a lot to ask.

But who knows? Seles beat Venus in the Australian this year. Maybe she could do it again. Maybe she can get a bounce or two, a call or two, a break or two. After all, if life owes anyone a moment at the end, it owes Seles.

So watch her. Pull for her. Turn her into your favorite player.

And, sometime along the way, if it so moves you, grunt.

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