SHE'S NO. 1 CELEBRITY, TOO Seles makes headlines, whether it's for opening mouth or keeping it shut

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WIMBLEDON, England -- When she suddenly and mysteriously withdrew days before last year's Wimbledon was to begin, Monica Seles became the story of the tournament. Even after Steffi Graf won the ladies championship, people were left to wonder what might have happened had Seles showed up.

Except that she is here playing this year, not much has changed about Seles. She has caused more of a stir for something other than hitting a tennis ball, and her grunting has become more talked about than her ground strokes.

At 18, Seles has accomplished what she set out to do when she turned pro a little more than three years ago: become the most controversial, not to mention the best, player in the women's game. Having idolized Chris Evert growing up in Yugoslavia, and more recently Madonna, Seles is equal parts athlete and celebrity.

Going into today's Wimbledon final against defending champion Steffi Graf -- a rematch of their thrilling three-set final at the French Open in May -- Seles has dominated the coverage here about the women's side of the draw. Back page or front, fact or fiction, there is more interest in Seles than just about any player this side of John McEnroe.

"I try not to read the stories," Seles said earlier in the tournament. "Most of the players don't, either. If you would, I think I would spend a lot of time reading stories, good or bad. Really what I keep thinking is just to play great tennis. I think the No. 1 player is always going to get controversy."

More controversy erupted around Seles yesterday, when several news organizations -- the BBC as well as the raunchiest tabloids -- reported that the top-seeded women's player had received a bomb threat at the home she's staying in right off the grounds of the All England Club.

According to the reports, a letter written in German had been sent to Seles at the club. There was indication that it might have to do with Seles not having voiced any concerns over the bloody civil war in her home country.

Seles, who hasn't offered any comment on the bomb threat, left Serbia six years ago and now lives in Sarasota, Fla.

"Her stand is appalling," men's semifinalist Goran Ivanisevic, a Croatian, said about Seles earlier in the tournament. "She should speak out about the problems in her country."

Such is life for Seles, damned if she doesn't open her mouth and damned if she does. Her grunting, which has bothered opponents enough the past few matches for them to complain to the chair umpire, has overshadowed the marvelous tennis she has played in reaching her first Wimbledon final.

Penalizing her grunting might be the only way to stop Seles. She has won 41 straight matches in Grand Slam tournaments, and five straight Grand Slam events. She is looking to become the third woman to win the Grand Slam, following Graf (1988) and Margaret Court (1970).

"She is certainly the best player right now and has dominated the last year and a half," Martina Navratilova said after losing to Seles in a three-set semifinal Thursday. "But you know, it's like what Chris said to me after I had a great 1982.

"She said that one year does not a player make. She [Seles] has been up for a while now and it's just a matter of how long she can keep it up. The great players of an era are measured by two things. One is longevity and another is quality. She certainly has the quality. She might have the longevity, too."

The presence of Seles has helped create more interest in the women's game. After Evert retired, and Navratilova began showing signs of slowing down, there was a concern that the reins would be passed to Graf and Gabriela Sabatini.

Certainly their contrasting styles would be interesting, but for how long?

Though they had some exciting matches, including last year's final -- which went to 8-6 in the third set -- their rivalry seemed to pale in comparison to Evert and Navratilova, or even Navratilova and Graf.

In bounced Seles, giggling off the court and grunting on it. While Graf and Sabatini slunk away from the spotlight, Seles gravitated toward it. While Graf was cautious speaking to reporters, and Sabatini uncomfortable speaking in anything but Spanish, Seles usually said the first thing

that popped into her head. . . . in English learned from watching "The Jetsons."

"I love to talk to people, but you learn who you can trust," she said a couple of years ago. "They might take it the wrong way."

Her disappearance before Wimbledon last year became fodder for newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. There were reports of everything from shin splints to an alleged affair with Donald Trump (after she was spotted getting out of a limo in front of the millionaire's Florida estate) to one British tabloid blaring headlines that she was pregrant.

"I really personally never expected that me not playing Wimbledon would create such a controversy," she said last week. "It was the first time that in the big scale I had to read stories that were untrue. It's a lot easier to deal with when a year has gone by, and it's much easier but I don't think it's fair to do to any player. I'm just here to play."

If only it were that easy. The grunting issue has been with her from the start, along with questions about whether she is addicted to butter and has gained weight; whether she didn't send any money home to her grandmother in Yugoslavia, as one of the tabloids reported; whether she planned to dye her blond hair with the bluish-green tints it had at the French Open.

Occasionally, she will be asked about a first serve that has become more dangerous, about her pursuit of a Grand Slam, about becoming the most dominant player in women's tennis. In her defense, she has tried to play a more active role in the Women's Tennis Association than either Graf or Sabatini.

"I think she could become a great spokeswoman for the game," WTA president Pam Shriver said here yesterday. "There's a lot of positives about her. If you know tennis and watch her play, you appreciate her mental and physical abilities. If you think of all the tough matches she's had against quality players this year, the fact that she's going for a Grand Slam is very special."

But Shriver also conceded that Seles' grunting has become a concern. Shriver said she personally has received several letters here from fans wanting to know whether the WTA would take a stand. It is something, Shriver admitted, that probably should have been handled earlier.

"There's definitely a groundswell, a movement of people who believe that's enough," said Shriver. "It's a very difficult situation. Is it louder than it was two years ago? Is it louder than it was last year? Is it louder than it was at the French [where Seles beat Graf 10-8 in the third set]? But it's become a serious distraction."

Seles said after her match against Navratilova that she will try to rid herself of this annoying habit, as she did of the girlish giggles that accompanied every answer she gave a couple of years ago. For now, though, she will grunt while the competition groans.

How will she break the habit?

"Practice, somehow," she said. "I don't know, but I really want to stop it. I really don't want to be picked on for it, the grunting. I really don't think it's fair. So I think everything is stoppable, you know?"

Is she stoppable?

Graf should only hope so.

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