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Seles gives, gets warm welcome


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- It could have been a prizefight.

In one corner, the winner of 168 career singles titles and wearing the black-and-white striped shorts, Martina Navratilova. And in this corner, returning to tennis for the first time in 27 months and wearing the white tennis dress, Monica Seles.

But then Seles, the 21-year-old who had not played tennis in public since being stabbed in the back in Hamburg, Germany, April 30, 1993, walked onto the court, and just like that, everyone knew this was not going to be a fight.

It was going to be a love-fest.

She was smiling, blushing, waving to the 7,527 fans at the Atlantic City Convention Center who had paid from $25 to $125 a seat to witness this exhibition. She hugged and kissed Navratilova and gave her a high-five. She then curtsied to the crowd, put her hand over her face and giggled.

"Leading up to here, over the last week, it has been very nerve-wracking because I kind of realized I was going to go through with this whole plan," she said, after beating Navratilova, 6-3, 6-2. "And then when I made that walk from the locker room onto the court, it was just an unbelievable feeling I cannot put into words.

"I've worked very hard to get here, and my goal was to have fun and feel comfortable and I achieved it. . . . To me, it's great that since I made the decision to come back that I've been able to carry that through."

After a nervous start in which she double-faulted on her first serve, Seles carried it through beautifully.

Her two-handed backhand and her two-handed forehand were perfect. She stayed focused on the big points, converting all three of her break points. And her crosscourt passing shots left Navratilova, 38, pleading with the linesman to call them out.

Yesterday, in this made-for-TV exhibition, Seles and Navratilova stayed on serve until the eighth game of the first set, when Seles broke the "retired" singles player to go up 5-3. Seles served out the set and then immediately broke Navratilova again in the first game of the second set.

When Seles finally hit a forehand long after going up 30-0 on her own serve in Game 2, Navratilova, yelled, "What happened? You missed one."

At that point, there was little doubt that Seles had found herself on the tennis court.

"It helped me to feel really at home when I broke Martina's serve at 4-3," Seles said. "And it was a tremendous feeling to hear the fans. You know, at home when you hit a great shot you say, 'Well, that was kind of pretty good.' But no one is there to say, 'Great shot!', especially when you play with my brother or whoever. They never admit it was a great shot. So it was great to hear that from the crowd. I hit a few shots I didn't even believe myself."

Navratilova, however, had no problem believing what Seles was doing on this hard court.

"Those passing shots were not a mirage," said Navratilova. "She beat me and I ain't no slouch potato out there. I didn't exactly play badly. . . . Monica is going to be a contender wherever she plays.

"She's playing great tennis. I didn't see much difference from where she was when I played her 2 1/2 years ago to today. I mean, the second point, she hit a passing shot down the line. She had three clear winners in the very first game like she hasn't missed a beat.

"She's right there. She's always been tough, and I expect her to sail through it. I didn't see any gaps. It was like she was in a time warp or something."

All of which is not to say she was perfect. There was a bulge under her tennis dress that attested to a bit of a jelly belly, and Seles said later that her conditioning is not where it needs to be.

"I think I need to be more strong and have more muscle," she said. "But it takes hard work, and I have to commit to that and do a lot of running."

But this was not a day to dwell on negatives. This was a love-fest, all right. Behind the scenes, reporters were even heard to thank Seles for returning to the game and to compliment her on her improved volleys and wicked passing shots.

And around the court, the crowd was so warm and welcoming that Seles actually moved into the crush of people after her victory to sign autographs and talk to fans.

It was an amazing scene, given that she had stayed away from tennis for more than 2 1/2 years because she feared the large crowds of strangers from which another attack could come.

"I felt very comfortable," Seles said. "I did have some butterflies, but I think that was probably just natural nervousness. Everyone was so nice to me. They said such beautiful things to me that I felt totally at ease. . . . Playing tennis, that's what I love to do and that's what I've done literally all my life. It felt good to get out in public, to get out there and feel comfortable in the whole environment."

No, it wasn't a prizefight, but there is little doubt that with Monica Seles' return to tennis, the sport and its fans have received an important prize.

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