If a plastic-helmeted Caesar wasn't trying to press a gold coin
into the palm of her hand, a Cleopatra in a beaded headdress was
showering her with rose petals. That's what happens when you
star in a made-for-TV event amid the high camp and fakery of
Atlantic City. Yet somehow, Monica Seles's return to competitive
tennis was both real and affecting. As exhibitions go, Seles's
victory over Martina Navratilova was sincere. As comebacks from
stabbings go, it was a blockbuster.
It had been 27 months--820 days, to be exact--since a German lathe
operator, Gunther Parche, knifed Seles in the back at a
tournament in Hamburg in a deranged attempt to return the No. 1
ranking to his countrywoman Steffi Graf. After two-plus years of
seclusion broken only by some social doubles and a few fleeting
public appearances, Seles walked rather shakily in her return to
the public eye. But all the creepiness of the past and
contrivances of the present disappeared the first time Seles
connected squarely with the ball. "This whole thing has been,
like, one big wow," Seles said after defeating Navratilova
convincingly, 6-3, 6-2. The score wasn't nearly as significant
as the self-assurance of Seles's performance: She was
unflinching in the spotlight. "I couldn't have asked for any
more from myself," Seles said.
That is saying something, because Seles was a merciless teenage
No. 1 from 1991 to '93, a span during which she won seven of her
eight Grand Slam titles. Now, at 21, she has matured physically.
She laced returns at Navratilova's feet, tore forehands
crosscourt, buried backhands in the corners. She made an
uncharacteristically high number of unforced errors, but that
was to be expected. And her serve was rusty, as evidenced by her
six double faults. But it was also bigger. "I felt like the
rabbit that sets the pace and then drops out after the first
mile," Navratilova said.
Granted, Navratilova is a 38-year-old retiree. However, she is
still a lively opponent and an expert prognosticator. She
estimated that it will take Seles exactly no time at all to
reacclimate to the WTA tour. "Those passing shots were not a
mirage," said Navratilova. "She is here."
One facet of Seles's game was noticeably diminished: her
grunting. Otherwise she was the same player, just a little
taller and heavier. With her tendency to slouch, Seles has never
looked the part of a champion athlete, and despite sporting some
sleek new clothes courtesy of a recent deal with Nike, she still
doesn't. "I need to get stronger, and I need to run a lot," she
said. Seles can certainly get back into shape by the U.S. Open,
which begins Aug. 28, but she'll need to be in top condition to
contend during the grueling two weeks at Flushing Meadow. She
will play one warmup event, in Los Angeles or Toronto.
All in all the exhibition in Atlantic City was a healing
experience. Seles's main objective was to conquer the stage
fright that had set in during her hiatus, and that required long
hours of work with a psychologist (SI, July 17). The glaring
lights of CBS cameras and the din of the casinos were unnerving
but a good test.
On the afternoon before the match, Seles flew by private jet
from her home in Florida. No sooner had her stretch limo glided
to a stop in front of Caesars Palace than a phalanx of cameras
descended on her. Seles and a ring of security guards worked
their way inside the front door, where a mock Caesar and
Cleopatra stood on a red carpet and offered greetings. Cleopatra
reached into a basket and tossed a handful of rose petals at
Seles, who winced slightly and turned her head away, uttering a
small squeal. It was her only visibly uncomfortable moment.
Navratilova's arrival was less eventful. She sprinted through
the hotel lobby at 11 that night after having played a match for
the New Jersey Stars of the World TeamTennis league. Late for a
cocktail reception, Navratilova barely noticed the Cleopatra who
pursued her through the lobby and finally flung a handful of
petals at the elevator door as it closed.
Seles's composure and excellent form were a source of deep
satisfaction to Navratilova, who had helped shepherd her return.
As president of the WTA players' association, Navratilova made
it her priority to get Seles back on the court, visiting and
practicing with her this spring. In Atlantic City, Navratilova
played her supporting role graciously. She brought just the
right amount of levity and competitive fire to the proceedings,
despite playing with a slightly pulled groin muscle. But injury
or no injury, Navratilova had no intention of missing the
occasion she had taken such pains to help bring about. When
asked if she was fit, she replied, "I'm just dandy, thank you."
The level of Seles's play also justified Navratilova's
insistence that Seles receive a co-No. 1 ranking with Graf when
she returns to the tour. The proposal was unanimously adopted by
the players, although its finer points have been controversial.
A number of Top 10 players believe that Seles's ranking should
not be artificially inflated for too long. Seles will be co-No.
1 for her first six events or for 12 months, whichever comes
Although the players have said repeatedly that they welcome
Seles's return, there will be some awkward moments. When asked
if she had heard from many of her peers, Seles stammered. The
answer was no. "I got two nice letters from Helena Sukova," she
said. But the notoriously elusive Seles also admitted that it
might have been difficult for some missives to find her. Faxes,
she said, "go through 10 people before they reach me."
Seles and Navratilova went through at least that many people as
they strolled onto the court, walking on a red carpet lined by
two dozen plastic-helmeted centurions. They chatted animatedly,
and the applause steadily mounted. "Basically, we talked about
how nervous we were," Navratilova said. Seles maintained a
frozen smile as the crowd noise reached a climax. Suddenly she
put her hands to her face, embarrassed. Then she collected
herself and curtsied four times, once to each grandstand. She
and Navratilova high-fived. It was not a mirage. Seles is here.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [Monica Seles]