Seles returns, ready to rule the game she saves


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- The scorecard from Monica Seles' ZTC return to tennis yesterday against Martina Navratilova:

Ground strokes: All the way back. Merciless. As if she hadn't missed a day, much less 27 months. "I couldn't believe some of those shots I hit," said Seles after her 6-3, 6-2 win.

Serve: First serve is harder than before. "It always helps to grow an inch and fill out like she has," Navratilova said.

Fitness: Needs work. She has a bit of a spare tire around the midsection. Things could've gotten ugly if there had been a third set. "I'm not where I need to be," Seles said.

Summary: She isn't going to save women's tennis. She's going to obliterate women's tennis.

OK, yesterday's match was just a cheesy exhibition against a 38-year-old retiree with a sore groin -- a poor test of Seles' Grand Slam readiness, and no test of her famous mental toughness, which, Seles has said, is the quality she is most uncertain about as she returns from the nightmare of being stabbed on a court in Germany.

Still, it was clear yesterday that she'll require only some minor tuning to make her way back to the top of the women's game.

Who is going to beat her once she shakes the rustiness of a long layoff? Steffi Graf is breaking down physically, worn out mentally and, at 26, past the peak of her glorious career. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is willing and dogged, but lacks the shot variety. Lindsay Davenport has the firepower, but can't move. Jana Novotna isn't mentally tough enough.

Who is going to beat Seles? Gabriela Sabatini? Please. What Seles' meteoric ground strokes will do to the fifth-ranked women's player in the world (and her 40 mph second serve) won't be suitable viewing for children.

No, with the way Seles was hammering her ground strokes yesterday ("No different from 2 1/2 years ago, within an inch of the lines," Navratilova said), there is no one besides Graf who can push her consistently. And Seles was pounding Graf before the stabbing.

Actually, Seles was pounding everyone before the stabbing, winning seven of the last eight Grand Slam tournaments she played. It made her somewhat less than popular with fans. She was just too good.

She won't have any problems with popularity anymore; the stabbing, combined with the German legal system's stunning exoneration of the nut who stabbed her, has turned her into the most sympathetic figure in sports, a living martyr.

The keepers of women's tennis have seized on that to proclaim her return as a turning point for a sport that currently has no sponsor and has struggled to sustain interest in recent years.

In truth, her return probably will show just how weak the game has gotten and underscore the crying need for another young player to come along and challenge Seles. Graf's challenge won't last too much longer.

In other words, only now will Jennifer Capriati's sad decline become relevant to her sport.

As things stand now, the biggest challenge Seles faces is herself, specifically her mental toughness. It was the stuff of legend before the stabbing, but the incident and its aftermath shook her to her bones, sending her into a deep depression.

Her mental capacity on the court actually isn't that important in the big picture; what's important is to see her laughing and happy in public again, as she was yesterday when she all but dived into the crowd after the match to sign autographs.

"I had a very hard time for a long time," she said. "But I feel fine now."

The guess here is that will translate into the same, old Seles on the court. A relentless front-runner. Brutally tough on big points.

"I expect her to sail through that," Navratilova said. "She has always been mentally tough."

Said Seles: "Today I played well on the big points. That's the one thing you can't tell about as you lay off longer. How that will come back. We'll see."

We have already seen her physical game. Navratilova said yesterday that she knew as early as three months ago that Seles was ready to come back at a high level.

"We hit together in Florida back in May," Navratilova said. "Played points, didn't keep score. She was running me around pretty good then."

Navratilova also worked with Seles on her volley, the one component of Seles' game that was weak before the stabbing. Seles came to net more often yesterday and volleyed consistently for winners. Her once and future opponents weren't thrilled to see that, no doubt -- yet another aspect to Seles' game. Not that her opponents are thrilled to see her anyway. She never was popular in the locker room. Not a single player called to wish her good luck before yesterday's match, she said.

Pretty soon she shouldn't expect such niceties, of course; she's going to be clobbering people just like in the old days, and no one is going to feel sorry for her. It might take her time to make it all the way back, maybe even into next year. But she'll get there. And she'll dominate again. And people will appreciate her greatness this time. And that's the only appropriate ending to her terrible, terrible tale.

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