Seles continues to play the star at Open Gigi Fernandez falls easily in women's quarterfinals


NEW YORK -- Seventeen years old, and Monica Seles shills for No Excuses Jeans, idolizes Madonna and goes AWOL at Wimbledon. She is a tennis champion and a millionaire, she is a kid who signs autographs for middle-age ladies and a woman who does deals with corporations.

Seles is this year's designated curiosity item at the U.S. Open. Her hair is tinted orange and cut short. She laughs like Woody Woodpecker. Her tennis career is only a screen test. She wants to be a movie star by 25.

On the court, she is Chris Evert with muscle, all angles and precision. Off the court, she is a Seventeen magazine cover come to life.

She even has an entourage that includes her parents, her brother who wears gold earrings and rainbow-colored shirts, a billionaire tennis groupie-coach who is heir to the Annenberg fortune and a dog named Astro.

Yesterday, she routed Gigi Fernandez in the quarterfinals, 6-1, 6-2. The match was one of these one-sided spectacles the women have been tossing up for days now on the Louis Armstrong Stadium court: Favorite drills tentative challenger.

But Seles apparently isn't bothered by this easy walk into the semifinals. She is trying to regain the balance in her game, an overpowering baseline style that brought her titles at the Australian and French opens and made her the No. 1 player.

If it was fame she craved, though, she found it by skipping Wimbledon and hiding out with an injury, later diagnosed as shin splints. An all-points bulletin went out in the search for Seles, who was in Palm Beach, Fla., hanging around with her good friend, Donald Trump.

"People really didn't know what I was going through," she said. "It was terrible. It was really hard."

The disappearing act produced a torrent of press -- good and bad. Was she pregnant? Was she burned out? Was she a spoiled brat? The English tabloids were in a feeding frenzy.

"Monica took it well," said her brother and manager, Zoltan Seles. "It was good for her to go through something like this. If she could handle this, she could handle anything. She is being herself. Last year, she was more into herself, more quiet. She does things she likes. She is more of a woman now."

Seles said she is adjusting well to the pressures of being among the top-ranked women's players. She was No. 1 for five months and now is ranked second behind Steffi Graf.

"You want to win each match; that is the satisfaction you get when you hold the trophy," she said. "You know that you have done it, that all the practice that you have done at home, it all paid off."

Although she is of the women's tour, she also remains apart from her peers. After losing in 53 minutes, Fernandez walked into the interview room and picked apart Seles' body and personality.

"She just doesn't look like what you think a tennis player should be built like," Fernandez said.

"I don't think she is very popular in the locker room, but she never was," Fernandez added. "This is not a popularity contest."

Seles said friendships are difficult to sustain on a competitive tour. She said she remembers breaking in as a 14-year-old and being shunned by older, ranked players. She had to prove herself to others then. Now, she expects other, younger players to display their abilities before receiving her attention.

"I would say, out of the top 16 players, I am good friends with 15," she said. "I have two or three of them I might say 'Hi' to, but I am not going to ask them 'How was your week?' I am not going to talk to the lower-ranked players."

She spends her time with her family. She also has developed a friendship with Jim Levee, the billionaire who bestows money, jewelry and cars to his favorite players.

"I always wanted to be a professional athlete, and I always wanted to have a daughter," said Levee, 52. "The women's tour for me is perfect. The girls aren't your daughters. But they telephone you, they send you Christmas cards. My accountant knows and Uncle Sam knows how much I've given out over the years. But I've paid my $600,000 lifetime exemption in gifts."

Levee said he has given Seles neither money nor gifts, simply his friendship.

"Monica is 17 going on 45," he said. "She once said to me, 'Jim, I like you because you don't talk to me like I'm a kid.' And I said, 'I like you because you don't talk to me like a kid. Monica is interested in everything -- politics, art, fashion, current events. She is not your basic, one-focus type of person."

Monica's World extends beyond the lines. She is 17 and a curiosity, 17 and a champion.

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