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Seles already a champ with winning ways

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -Monica Seles, once stabbed in the back, looked ahead Monday at Wimbledon with a cautious smile.

"My life was such a clean slate until '93," said Seles, a Yugoslav-born left-hander and dominator of women's tennis until an afternoon in Germany when she was knifed by a crazed Steffi Graf fan.

"Since then, everything has been in stages," Seles said. "I had to recover physically. I was doing pretty well, but then, after maybe six months of euphoria, my father ... "

He got cancer and died.

Seles is a sweet, solid person. I hope you will accept that assessment from a somewhat suspicious old sports writer who has known all kinds from every sport. Monica is a keeper.

Now a U.S. citizen living in Sarasota, she is well worth our cheers, straining still to regain top-shelf status in tennis. But chances are, the old grunter from Novi Sad will never again come truly close to being the pre-knifing Monica of the early '90s.

That had become The Seles Era, when she was outsmacking everybody, including seven-time Wimbledon champ Graf. During a remarkable three-year run, Monica won three French Opens, three Australian Opens and two U.S. Opens.

Everything but Wimbledon.

Here, on British grass, Graf was always clearly better. Monica's best was making the 1992 final, where she got crushed 6-2, 6-1 by Steffi. Seven years after the ghastly stabbing incident, Graf has retired, now working Wimbledon as Andre Agassi's girlfriend, while stork-legged Seles keeps scratching for excellence on a playing surface that has never been her friend.

Monica put a 6-3, 6-4 bruise on Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario on Monday. Advancing to the quarterfinals, where the challenge will be 6 feet 21/2, 175 pounds, have a firm defender's grip on the Wimbledon trophy and go by the name Lindsay Davenport.

"Lindsay's serves are a huge advantage," said Seles, who was seeded sixth. "She keeps improving the depth of ground strokes. Lindsay moves better side to side than front to back, so I've got to try to take some advantage there. It's no secret that Lindsay and Martina Hingis have elevated themselves above the best of us."

Is that a concession?

"Oh, no," Monica said. "I'm just being factual. If I didn't think Lindsay was beatable, I wouldn't bother showing up for the next round." Are there still legitimate Seles fantasies of winning Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam to elude this woman who walks with a strange, lumbering lope not unlike the scurry of Edith Bunker? "I really hope so," she said.

Davenport and Seles have played seven times. Not unexpectedly, the rivalry was ruled at first by Monica, but lately by Lindsay. Seles won the first two, Davenport the last five, including 6-4, 6-4 in March at Scottsdale, Ariz. "I've got to cope better with Lindsay's serve," Seles said, "or the chances of an upset here at Wimbledon really go down."

When Seles takes breaks from the global tennis tour, you can often see her at Bucs or Lightning games. "I loved competition, especially when I get to know some of the players," she said. "I'm getting into baseball now. But no, I've not yet gotten to a game of the Devil Rays back home in Florida."

This is a woman of depth.

"I like to assess my entire life with the feeling that I've been really lucky, even with the unfortunate things that have happened," Seles said. "In my hometown back in Yugoslavia, there were just four tennis courts. Little kids weren't allowed. I learned to hit a ball on a parking lot, knocking it against a wall."

After the stabbing, Seles missed more than two years of competitive tennis. Remarkably, upon her Grand Slam return at the 1995 U.S. Open, Monica reached the final before losing to Graf. A year later, the two played again for the trophy at Flushing Meadow, with a similar result. Seles climbed to the French Open final in 1998 and bowed to Sanchez-Vicario.

No close falls since.

Wimbledon is the missing link on Monica's diamond tennis bracelet. Like Ivan Lendl, she is haunted by inability to succeed on grass. "All I can do is keep fighting," said Seles, 26. "People ask me if I will retire, like Steffi, but it's not something that's at all in my mind.

"I love playing the game . Competing with all my heart. Doing the best I can, whatever that is. I don't know how long I'll keep it up. I do hope I'm healthy enough as an old lady to still be playing tennis, long after people quit watching me."

You gotta love her.

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