Material girl Seles shops for title, some respect Headliner wants notice for game, too

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- Before the grunts, ground strokes and shopping sprees turned her into the most notorious material woman of tennis, before she ditched Wimbledon for a vacation at Donald Trump's estate in Florida, before she dyed her hair several shades of blond, brunette and black, Monica Seles was just a kid growing up in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia.

She coveted the Chris Evert-autographed racket her parents brought her from a trip to the West. She tacked a poster of Martina Navratilova to her bedroom wall.


She played tennis in the summer and basketball in the winter, and even thought about becoming a gymnast but was afraid of performing flips.

And Seles ice skated.


Picture this: a 5-year-old wearing tiny dresses and tiny skates, performing figure-eights on ice.

"I actually wanted to be an ice skater," she said. "It has something I like. It's a sport, but it still has a very feminine side to it with the dresses and everything. I loved it. But you know, with the conditions, ice skating was even harder than tennis."

In the end, tennis became her game. And now, at the age of 18, one year into her reign as the No. 1 player in the world, Seles is carrying women's tennis at the U.S. Open.

They'll hold the semifinals today at the National Tennis Center. But it's really nothing more than a star turn for Seles, the defending champion.

Seles plays No. 7 Mary Joe Fernandez and No. 5 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario plays No. 9 Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere. The winners return to the stadium court for tomorrow's final.

But if you listen to Steffi Graf, you start wondering whether Seles should just fax in her scores.

"Oh, Monica will win," Graf said. "For sure."

That has been the way of women's tennis for the past two years, as Seles has collected six Grand Slam singles titles.


Oh, and she has won a lot of money, too. Try $5.7 million and counting. Throw in endorsements for everything from rackets to jeans, and you have a $10 million teen-ager.

But the one thing Seles has not yet achieved is respect. She is still an object of derision on the tour. Why, even Andre Agassi took a swipe at her, ending a long discussion about the pluses and minuses of being No. 1 by saying, "You listen to what Monica says -- not that I really listen to her."

Last year, there was the bra controversy -- she went without. And the Wimbledon controversy -- she bolted the tournament amid rumors she was pregnant, or suffering from an injury more serious than shin splints. And this year, the grunt controversy.

Now, covered up -- and muffled -- Seles continues to win and collect six-figure paychecks. But she has gone without a title for nearly six weeks, losing in three straight finals, including being upset at Wimbledon by Graf.

And everywhere she goes, people want to talk about the grunt -- the two-syllable wail that echoes through stadiums, distracts opponents, and drives television producers wild.

"At one point two years ago, everyone was writing, 'Oh, Monica is giggling,' " she said. "Now, they are writing, 'Monica is grunting.' This year, it went out of anybody's imagination. Nobody ever wrote about my game. The grunting is not the most important issue out there. I know whether I grunt or not, that will not help me win or lose a game. That is why I made a promise to myself -- to not grunt."


A virus, sore throat and laryngitis have silenced Seles the past few days. But she practiced the last two days and is now nearly at the top of her game -- and voice.

In five matches, Seles has yet to lose a set. Fact is, her longest appearance on the court lasted 61 minutes. She is simply overwhelming the competition, bashing her foes from the baseline with a high-speed power game.

Fernandez is 1-12 lifetime against Seles, but gave her a match-point scare at the 1991 Australian Open. Today, Fernandez is looking for a Grand Slam breakthrough with a victory. But for Seles, the stakes may be just as great. She is seeking another chance at another Grand Slam title. But even more important, she is looking for a little respect.

"People always forget how young I am," Seles said. "So much has been written about me. I think it is enough with the rumors. I want people to focus on my game, on my tennis."