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Curtain opens to reveal a floor covered by a sheet of infernal red
clay. This is Tennis Limbo, where everyone -- agents,
administrators, players, fans -- waits for a character who may or
may not appear. People act and speak in strange ways. The sky
spits rain. On the clay a parade of rich young men and women --
Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Mary Pierce, Gabriela Sabatini, a Van
Gogh look-alike called Becker -- flail around waving tennis
rackets, then exit stage left.

Austrian he-man Thomas Muster stomps about, wild-eyed and favoring
one leg. Everyone fears him. ``You feel like a small moth against
a big elephant,'' says Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

``He might be out there trying to eat my boat and eat me as
well,'' says Michael Chang.

Muster crushes Kafelnikov like a moth. Then he eats Chang's boat.

Steffi Graf steps onto a podium on Court Central and speaks into
a microphone. She has just won her 16th Grand Slam singles
title, ending a long drought with a stirring triumph over body
and mind. She is handed a trophy. She has tears in her eyes.

The crowd waits eagerly for her first words. Graf, grasping a
microphone, apologizes because she can't speak French. She says,
haltingly in this foreign tongue, "The only thing I can say

Anticipation rises in 16,626 Gallic hearts.

"...mon chapeau est bien."

(Stage goes dark.)

Samuel Beckett would've loved this one. Could it be any more
surreal? Could it get any weirder? Graf won and said her hat was
fine. A white dove landed on the court, and Sampras lost. Michael
Stich and Stefan Edberg were pelted with tennis balls by the
crowd. More than anything, though, there were Monica Seles
sightings, Monica Seles meetings, Monica Seles memories and Monica
Seles gossip at this 1995 French Open, never mind that there was
no Monica Seles. Yes, she came to Paris for a few days, and, yes,
she tried to hide from Chris Evert before boarding the plane that
would take her there. But she never set foot on the grounds of
Stade Roland Garros, and she didn't -- though she was asked --
show up at the presentation of the women's trophy last Saturday.
Not that it mattered.

Last week's announcement that Seles, the former top player in
women's tennis, would, after a 27-month hiatus, play an exhibition
on July 29 against Martina Navratilova was enough to turn just
about anything that happened at this storied Grand Slam event into
mere background noise. For the first time since Seles was knifed
at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, in April 1993, all
indications were that she would return to the tour, and that
instantly turned the usual Slam question of who won into who
cares. All anybody wanted to know was when.

Sure, that was unfair to Graf, the newly anointed No. 1, who had
struggled mightily over the past year with back and leg injuries
and yet -- to her surprise -- disposed of a host of name players
before deposing now No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 7-5, 4-6, 6-0 in
the final. It did a giant disservice to the pugnacious Muster,
whose straight-sets win over Chang not only extended his
clay-court streak to 35 and gave him the most gratifying title of
his career but also sealed his comeback from a horrifying auto
accident in 1989, in which ligaments in his left knee were
severed. ``When I was a child I was dreaming about winning this
tournament,'' Muster said after his victory. ``When I was making
match points in unimportant matches, I had in my mind, This is
match point at Roland Garros. Today, it was a reality.''

But the mean fact is, tennis at the moment needs Seles more than
it needs Muster's admirable climb, more than it needs another Graf
resurgence. The play -- no, work -- at Roland Garros this year was
notable only for its artlessness. If the French Open is famous for
plodding pace, upsets and battered bodies, this was the ultimate.
Graf and Sanchez Vicario battled fevers throughout. The men who
didn't succumb to injury, weariness or brainlock snarled at
linesmen, at the ball, at each other, and the crowds snarled right
back at them. By the end of the first week nine of the 16 men's
seeds were gone, and by the final Sunday there were only Chang and
Muster, slugging, screeching, enduring for two hours and one
minute. It was something to see, and even better to hear. But it
wasn't anything close to glorious.

And the women? ``I cannot watch the women -- forget about it,''
says Russian veteran Andrei Chesnokov. ``I'm sorry. I like the
women, but not in tennis. For me, women's tennis doesn't exist.
For me, women's tennis is in slow motion.''

Harsh, indeed, but the officials at the French Tennis Federation
(FTF) seemed to agree; accurately anticipating small crowds, the
FTF scheduled every women's quarterfinal match away from the
marquee stadium. The French officials know: Though Sanchez Vicario
and Graf have traded the No. 1 spot six times this year, neither
is being pushed to brilliance but rather is treading water. The
depth of the women's game? Graf wasn't in match shape, hates clay
and wasn't even sure, two weeks before the French Open, that she
would enter the tournament. Yet she lost just one game to the
fading Sabatini in the quarterfinals, erased any pretensions No. 4
Conchita Martinez might have of equality in the semifinal, then
stomped Sanchez Vicario in their final set. ``I didn't expect to
be in the finals or win it,'' Graf said. ``I haven't played.''

That she worked her way back speaks eloquently of Graf's drive.
Last fall a bone spur in her lower back was so debilitating that
Graf wasn't sure she would ever play top-level tennis again. On
the podium last Saturday she wept and smiled in a way few have
ever seen, celebrating one of the most emotional Slams of her

``It's been difficult the last few months,'' Graf said after
improving her 1995 match record to 25-0. ``This is extremely

Yet Graf can't work alone. With Seles out, Jennifer Capriati in
self-imposed exile and youngsters Martina Hingis and Venus
Williams still emerging, women's tennis now slogs through an era
defined by the act of an unemployed German lathe operator. Seles
won seven of the last eight Grand Slam events she played, and Graf
knows that winning without Seles doesn't mean as much. She and the
tour both need Seles back.

``I love challenge,'' Graf says. ``The most fun you get is when
you have tough matches and you're pushed to your limits. She was
one of the players who did that to me. So . . . I've missed her.''

It's more than that for Graf. After Gunter Parche stabbed Seles,
he said he did it because he wanted Graf to be No. 1, and with
that he also made a victim out of the object of his twisted
devotion. Graf enjoyed this French Open more than any Grand Slam
in recent memory in part because she has felt the burden of
Seles's exile. It has been more than two years, and Graf has never
put the attack behind her.

``I don't think any human can do that who has any heart,'' she
says. ``All these was really hard for me
because I didn't know what was happening. I got questions
constantly, and I felt...he said he was my fan, so it's
impossible not to feel guilty. If something like that happens,
you cannot put it behind you.''

But she's trying. Led by Navratilova, the president of the
players' association, the Women's Tennis Association has been
working to soften its hard-line refusal to freeze Seles's No. 1
ranking after the stabbing. One plan for easing Seles's return has
her coming back and sharing the No. 3 spot, but Graf, for one,
insists Seles's request for a co-No. 1 ranking be granted. ``When
she left, she was Number 1, and it's going to be hard enough for
her to come back anyway,'' Graf says. ``We should do anything
possible for her.''

Graf's attitude is only the most public expression of a
developing rapprochement between the Seles camp and the tennis
establishment. Navratilova, who has made it her personal mission
to bring Seles back into the fold, has spoken with her numerous
times, and the two hit at in Sarasota, where Seles lives, when
Navratilova was in Florida for Federation Cup play in April. Now
Seles has scheduled the exhibition, calling it ``a first step
forward for me.'' She flew to Paris for three days of meetings
about her ranking with WTA officials and, before departing from
Miami, blanched when she saw Evert heading for the same gate as
she at the airport.

``I did a double take,'' says Evert, now a broadcaster for NBC.
``She was with an IMG agent, and as soon as they saw me, the agent
covered her up. I went up and said, `Monica, I can't pretend I
don't see you. I just want to say hi.' '' Seles went to the back
of the plane and tried to stay out of sight. As they were picking
up their baggage, Evert said to her, ``I hope to see you back

Muster, like Seles, knows what it's like to try to come back. In
1989 Muster, then 21 and a Top 10 clay-court wizard, was poised
for the breakout of his career. But on the April night that he
propelled himself into the final of the Lipton Championships with
a five-set win over Yannick Noah, Muster found his career decked
by a drunk driver. As Muster was unloading gear from the trunk of
a car, the driver slammed into its front end; the bumper severed
both the medial collateral and the anterior cruciate ligament in
Muster's left knee. It wasn't clear if he would ever walk easily
-- much less play -- again.

But Muster attacked rehabilitation with the same ferocity that
marks his tennis. Quickly he and his manager-coach, Ronald
Leitgeb, designed a chair that enabled Muster to sit on court and
bat balls while still in a cast. And that changed everything.
``The most remarkable day I ever had with Thomas was the day I
first brought him this chair, when I put him in it on the court,
and he could hit the balls,'' Leitgeb says. ``Two weeks before,
when he came out of the hospital, he'd said, `Ah, I'm not going to
run again in my life. I've had enough of physical and athletic
training. That's it.' He had such sad eyes. But then he was
hitting in that chair, and I could see the fire in his eyes. From
that moment I believed he was going to do it.''

Less than six months later Muster was back on the circuit; by May
1990, he had returned to the Top 10; from there he crafted a
reputation as a bit of a bully and the last man anyone wanted to
face in a big match. He still can't bend his left leg completely,
yet Muster has risen to a career-high No. 3 ranking solely
through his dominance on clay. Of his 29 tournament wins, 28 have
come on that surface. His fitness and heart go unquestioned.

On Saturday night, before the final, Muster told Leitgeb he would
not lose to Chang. And indeed, after falling behind 1-4, 0-40 in
the first set, he held off four break points and blitzed the
usually unflappable Chang with an array of sharp forehands,
constant pressure -- and inexhaustible energy. It has been the
hallmark of his 35-match winning streak that nothing has disturbed
his concentration. Not the prospect of winning his first Slam. Not
even Boris Becker's veiled accusations last month, after Muster
came back from two sets down to win the Monte Carlo final, that
Muster's vitality was drug-enhanced. ``He did not apologize for
that,'' Muster says. ``But I didn't win for Boris Becker. I won
for myself.''

Muster has no thought of being a star or a role model; at one
point during Sunday's final he rudely mocked Chang as Chang
questioned a call. Muster is 27, ``this young-old man,'' as the
old Romanian tennis warrior, Ion Tiriac, calls him, and not
likable, and he doesn't even bother to care.

``I'm not worried,'' Muster says. ``I'm not afraid of things.
That's why I'm saying nothing is going to change my life too much
-- winning or losing. It's just tennis.''

But the fact is, when Muster watched Chang's backhand go wide for
the final point Sunday, his eyes grew round as quarters, and he
dropped his racket into the clay that has served him so well. He
then fell to his back, staining his shirt with the red grit. He
quickly shook hands with Chang and jogged to the stands. Then, as
the crowd gasped and clapped, Muster pulled himself up and over
the rail. He grabbed Leitgeb in a silent hug.

``We talk so much just by looking at each other,'' Leitgeb says.
``We don't need words.''

It was, in the end, a surreal fortnight's most impossible moment,
a lesson for any victim of a senseless act of violence. Graf
knows, Muster knows, and all that's left is for Seles to know.
When you least expect it, the game takes you back, and suddenly
you're shouting or crying or saying the silliest things, your
heart beating faster beneath the Parisian sky.

COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN Man of Clay Thomas Muster of Austria never backed down at the French Open until he had beaten Michael Chang of the U.S. in the men's final (page 44). [Thomas Muster lying on the tennis court with his hands covering his face - T of C]

COLOR PHOTO:DAVID WALBERGGraf's triumph over back pain still could not quell talk of Seles's return to the court. [Steffi Graf]

COLOR PHOTO:RUSS ADAMS Having fought back from a serious knee injury, Muster knocked his foes in the French off their feet. [Thomas Muster]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS:NORBERT SCHMIDT Among the big names who made a small impression in Paris were (clockwise from right) Agassi, Becker and Pierce. [Andre Agassi; Boris Becker]

COLOR PHOTO:RUSS ADAMS[see caption above--Mary Pierce]

COLOR PHOTO:DAVID WALBERG After the former French Open champ took a 4-1 first-set lead, it was slam-bang-thank-you-Chang. [Michael Chang]