Off court, Seles' game still strong Shots at WTA, Graf highlight her return


NEW YORK -- Monica Seles showed again yesterday that she can do something other than hit tennis balls with tremendous force and win major championships with frightening regularity.

She also comes out of seclusion like no other player in the game's history.

In a setting remarkably similar to the atmosphere that accompanied her return to the tour after missing Wimbledon two years ago, Seles became the focus of media attention during the opening day of this year's U.S. Open.

During a 45-minute news conference that drew a crowd of more than 200 reporters and more television cameras than for most heads of state, Seles kept both her emotions and opinions more in check than she did during her first interview last week with ABC's Diane Sawyer.

Seles, 19, has been out of the public eye since being stabbed during a match in Hamburg, Germany, four months ago. She has since lost her No. 1 ranking to Steffi Graf and becomes the first Open champion unable to defend his or her title since Billie Jean King sat out the 1975 tournament following knee surgery. Seles won the Open the past two years.

In what has become a cause celebre since being displaced on the computer by Graf after the 24-year-old German won the French Open in May, Seles again expressed disappointment in the fact that the Women's Tennis Association failed to freeze her No. 1 ranking until she was both physically and mentally ready to return.

There is speculation that when Seles returns, the WTA will have the two top players share equal billing when it comes to filling commitments to tournaments, but not in terms of their respective rankings.

"I just felt that if this person's goal was to stab me, he came out as the person who got what he wanted," Seles said of her attacker, Gunther Parche, a German lathe operator who later told police he wanted Graf to regain her former top ranking. "It's hard for me to say what I would like to happen, but if it suited the WTA to put me as co-No. 1 on the [commitment] list, then why would they not put me co-No. 1 on the normal [ranking] list?"

Seles also doesn't fully understand Graf's behavior. Graf came to her hospital room reportedly in tears, but Seles has not heard from her chief rival in the months she has spent rehabilitating at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo.

Graf showed compassion yesterday for Seles' personal situation, but stopped short of saying that Seles should be returned to the No. 1 spot.

While admitting that the circumstances of Seles being sidelined were tragic, Staf said after her 6-3, 6-0 victory over Robin White: "You've got to understand, all of us, we have to play all year long. I mean we all have to struggle through injuries, through our problems and through tough matches and tough tournaments.

"You know it has been a very sad incident, and it is tough for everybody, but I think it is difficult for us as the players to choose what to do. I think it is not up to us, the players, and I think the way it has been handled, I mean it's difficult to say if it is the right thing or not."

Asked how she would seed Seles in a tournament upon her return, Graf said, "I am not an official, so don't ask me. I am just a player."

Said tour veteran Andrea Leand of Baltimore: "Everyone is sympathetic with Monica's situation, everyone wants her to come back. When she comes back, we'll all take turns being her bodyguard. She knows better than to say [to Sawyer] that she'll have to qualify for tournaments, but it's totally consistent with her manipulation of the press."

Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 player who was elected vice president of the WTA Sunday night, said that "we are treating it as a special case because it is a special case, and you can't keep someone No. 1 forever. Hopefully it is only going to happen once and she will have ample time to get her ranking back if she backs it up."

The timetable on Seles' return remains uncertain. She said yesterday that she doesn't want to miss another major championship, but doesn't want to jump right back in during a Grand Slam event, which indicates that she hopes to be back sometime before next year's Australian Open in January.

At the same time, Seles said that her road back has been a long, slow and painful one. She still has numbness in three fingers on her right hand -- she is left-handed, but hits two-fisted from both sides -- and according to her agent, Bob Kain of International Management Group, Seles has suffered nerve and muscle damage in the middle of her back, where she was stabbed.

"I think the first step for me would be able to hit a ball with my full swing as I swung the racket before with absolutely no pain, and HTC if I am holding the grip for a long time, it is not going to feel any numbness in my last three fingers," said Seles, who has tried to swing only once. "After that, it is just going to be a matter of practicing and in that sense, I am going to be very much more anxious to go back and probably practice even more than I have before."

If there has been any benefit to her time away from the game, it has come in the opportunity to do things she never experienced before. Spending most of the past few months in a town known for its posh ski resorts, Seles said that she has enjoyed outside activities such as hiking and jogging in the Rockies.

"I have done a lot of things that in a sense, I never knew existed out there before," said Seles, who has been playing seriously since she was 7 and as a professional since she was 15. "I love it out there. Game-wise, I do hope that after this, I can change and be a little more open on the court and I will try a few more things."

Although she has not watched the tape of the incident, Seles has admitted to having nightmares about it. But she is confident her mental state will improve as she regains her health. If and when she returns to the tour, Seles said that she will not have flashbacks of an incident that turned her life and career upside down.

"I am going to put this behind me and hopefully grow stronger," she said. "It is a step-by-step [process]. I have good days and bad days and that is normal. But I am not going to fear for anything like that. Just go on like before."

Undoubtedly, with another out-of-seclusion news conference.

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