Seles wins title, not fans Navratilova falls in Open final, 7-6, 6-1


NEW YORK -- She held the sterling-silver winner's trophy above her head, and the crowd applauded politely. She thanked Donald Trump (remember him?), and the boos poured down from the Louis Armstrong Stadium stands. She walked off the court, and there was silence.

Monica Seles now may rule women's tennis, but she is not yet a popular champion.

Seles is a 17-year-old who follows the path charted by Donna Rice and Marla Maples (remember them?) and promotes No Excuses jeans. She wears fright wigs for a lark. She receives advice and support from Trump. She turns a tennis court into a barnyard by grunting on every two-fisted, side-winding bash from the baseline.

Yesterday, she defeated Martina Navratilova, 7-6 (7-1), 6-1, to win her first U.S. Open title and her third Grand Slam championship of the year. But it was not the major titles or the No. 1 ranking that made Seles a notorious tennis pop star in 1991 -- it was the tournament she missed.

Had Seles played and won Wimbledon, she might have taken the Grand Slam. Instead, on the eve of the sport's pre-eminent event, she mysteriously withdrew with an injury, later diagnosed as shin splints. Where's Monica? It was an international obsession.

"It's always going to be hard to live with," Seles said. "I'll always wonder what would have happened if I had played Wimbledon. It's always going to be there, a little emptiness. You can't go back."

But what a wondrous and strange year it has been. Seles beating all comers at the Australian and French opens. Seles playing to the paparazzi and the gossip columnists after the Wimbledon disappearance. And Seles at Flushing Meadow, outlasting Jennifer Capriati in the semifinals -- teeny-bopper division -- and beating up on Navratilova in the final.

"Being No. 1 happened to me so soon and so fast," Seles said.

Maybe too fast. In tennis, sometimes, image is everything. The crowd roared for Navratilova, a familiar face playing in her eighth final, aiming for her fifth title and reminding all afterward that she was "damn proud to be an American." The cheers were muted for Seles, a Yugoslav of Hungarian descent who speaks three languages and has mastered the fine art of American capitalism.

"She hasn't done very much to endear herself to the public," Navratilova said. "Her main concern is to be the best player that she can be and to be No. 1, and to win as much as possible and cash in on it while she can."

On the court, Seles is this intimidating player, all noise and power, unloading shots from the baseline that twist and terrify. It took her 12 games against Navratilova to get that one-dimensional, sonic-boom game in gear. Then, she ran the table, giving Navratilova one point in the tie-breaker and 10 more in the second set. Seles hit so many passing shots that Navratilova was brought down to her surgically repaired knees.

"It was the closest to the lines she ever hit to me," said Navratilova, who left her game behind Friday, beating Steffi Graf three marvelous sets. Winning back-to-back matches against Graf and Seles was too much to expect from Navratilova, 34, the oldest women's finalist in the open professional era.

"It just doesn't make any sense," she said. "You play five matches in 12 days, and then you play the two most important matches back to back."

But Seles was ready. She brought along a new jeans outfit for her post-match news conference. She wore two gold earrings that were the size of Christmas tree ornaments.

"It's over, and it feels great," she said. "It is a big relief off my shoulders. I won another Grand Slam that I never won before. That is just great to know that my game came together. I didn't really think I would be here. I am just really happy, probably the happiest whenever I won a Grand Slam."

But Seles said winning the Open was only a start. She is planning on taking more trophies, avoiding burnout and extending her career beyond her teens.

"I always say that tennis is a part of your life," she said. "It's definitely a bigger part than anybody else's. I think you should live a normal life. You should be a 17-year-old. You should do whatever you like to do. I don't want tennis to take over my life. I don't want to have No. 1, and have this enormous pressure. Nothing should be greater than to be healthy and to be normal."

As she finished her interview, Seles lifted the trophy and someone shouted out, "Is it heavy?"

Seles smiled and said: "No, the heaviest one up until now is the French. The Australian, I don't remember. I think for me the biggest tournament now will be Wimbledon. That is the only one missing from my collection."

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