PHILADELPHIA -- She worshiped Madonna. She hung out with Donald Trump. She stepped out of a limousine when she should have been stepping onto Centre Court, Wimbledon.
It would be easy to dismiss Monica Seles as some sort of Valley Girl from Yugoslavia, carelessly going through life with nothing more than a giggle and a charge card. But on the court, Seles is like Joe DiMaggio. Clay. Concrete. Carpet. It makes no difference. Seles is riding a streak and holding the women's tennis tour hostage to her whims and her style. Sixteen times Seles has entered a tournament, and 16 times she has grunted and blasted her way into a final.
Yesterday, she presented herself at the Philadelphia Civic Center at 1 p.m., and needed only 69 minutes to defeat Jennifer Capriati, 7-5, 6-1, to win the inaugural Virginia Slims of Philadelphia championship.
It was the ninth title of the year for Seles, solidifying her place as the world's No. 1-ranked women's player.
But this has been no easy ride to the top for Seles. Her accomplishment of winning the Australian, French and U.S. opens in a single season was overshadowed by her no-excuses ZTC
no-show at Wimbledon. Her teen-aged exuberance in embracing a pop princess and a sometime-billionaire was ridiculed by the press and the public.
Still, she wins where it matters: in the big matches on the bigger stages.
"People forget that I'm 17," Seles said. "I've been only on the tour two years. Everything in my career happened fast. I never had a chance to hit the ball out there without a chance to get to the semifinals or the finals."
So occasionally, she gets herself into trouble. Not that it's easy to be No. 1 in women's tennis. Petty jealousies develop in the locker room. It happened to Chris Evert, to Martina Navratilova, to Steffi Graf. And now, it is happening to Seles.
Navratilova ridiculed her for not wearing a bra during matches. Gigi Fernandez ripped her for being a bit haughty.
Seles admits she sometimes talks too much. Her sense of style is, well, loud. Even while saying she likes tradition, that "you shouldn't make tennis a rock star sport," she shows up for a match wearing pink paisley shirts and shorts.
Mostly, though, Seles is just a teen-ager coming to grips with an American dream of fame and fortune.
"People who were my friends, weren't my friends," she said. "You start so young, at age 14, you think they'll never like you. I'm closer to some now than I was a year and a half ago. I learned a lot about being No. 1. The pressure is definitely there. It's great. But life goes on, whether you're No. 1 or not."
Seles and Capriati have each produced under a microscope, somehow living up to the expectations of others. The last time they met was in the semifinals at the U.S. Open, and it was one of those splendid late afternoon dramas at Flushing Meadow, the players turning baseline rallies into sonic-boom demonstrations, Seles winning, and Capriati, tears smudging her eye shadow, losing.
After that match, the players headed in different directions. Seles remained on the tour, hitting Tokyo, Milan and Oakland while Capriati, still only 15, went back to high school. Capriati re-emerged as a pro this week, wearing glasses off the court and contact lenses on. The reason? She failed a driver's test. She also arrived without a coach, breaking with Tom Gullikson while waiting to hook up with Pavel Slozil, who until recently, guided Graf.
For eight games yesterday, Seles and Capriati were even. But after she pulled a muscle in her right leg, Capriati was defenseless, unable to chase down Seles' ferocious two-handed topspin shots.
"It was just a little pain," Capriati said.
Despite the pain, Capriati vowed to play in the season-ending Virginia Slims Championships that begin today in New York, and was still expected to appear against Navratilova in an exhibition at the Baltimore Arena on Nov. 26.
Seles will be in New York, too, coming full circle. Her streak of trumping opponents and reaching finals began there last year. She said she felt nostalgic before that first final, waiting in the locker room with Gabriela Sabatini before walking on to the court at Madison Square Garden. She won that match, then. She wants to win, now. In tennis, one season simply runs into the next.
"From January on, everyone has a chance to be No. 1," Seles said. "You just can't carry on. You have to beat all the players to stay there. You can never just stop."