NEW YORK -- To the familiar sound of applause and the familiar sight of a standing ovation, Monica Seles, 21, strode into the twilight on the Stadium Court and accomplished a familiar feat last night.
With a comforting wad of bubble gum squirreled away in her cheek, the better to chew away her opening night jitters, Seles took just 56 minutes to dismantle 44th-ranked Ruxandra Dragomir of Romania 6-3, 6-1, in her Grand Slam return.
This was a match she'd dreamed about for months. This was the deliverance she sought from the nightmarish stabbing 28 months ago in Hamburg, Germany, where a fan of Steffi Graf sank a kitchen knife between Seles' shoulder blades in mid-match. Seles' attacker, Gunther Parche, intended to restore Graf to the No. 1 ranking by doing Seles harm, and for a while his scheme worked.
But since Seles, co-ranked No. 1 with Graf and seeded No. 2 here at the Open, commenced this summer comeback, it's been she who's done the victimizing. Nine days ago, she won her first event back on the circuit, the DuMaurier Ltd., by piling up five consecutive straight-set victories.
Last night, with a mixture of two-fisted power and finesse from the baseline, Seles kept up the exemplary work. Her first serve pierced, her ground strokes polished and pounded the lines, and her drop shots demoralized yet another overmatched opponent.
Dragomir called the re-emergence of Seles good for women's tennis but "bad for me. I don't think she has any weakness. I think she can win this Open."
Now six near-perfect matches into her comeback, Seles improved her record to 20-2 at the Open, where she captured the title in 1991 and1992, the last two years she appeared here. The owner of eight Grand Slam singles titles, Seles had reached the final of the last eight slams she'd entered, winning seven.
Yesterday, the Open got under way in typically dramatic fashion: Shuzo Matsuoka of Japan wound up screaming in agony after cramping and collapsing on the hot, hard Grandstand Court. He defaulted the match to Petr Korda.
With the exception of the 10th-seeded Wayne Ferreira, who confessed to having "no excuse" for his feeble performance in a 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 loss to 109th-ranked Jerome Golmard of Dijon, France, none of the seeded contenders were upset, and most advanced in straight sets.
Of the day session's headliners, Boris Becker, seeded fourth, flattened Alex Lopez Moron of Spain, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3, and this Slam's defending women's champion, third-seeded seeded Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a finalist at all three 1995 Grand Slams, crushed Catalina Cristea of Romania, 6-1, 6-1.
Two-time champion Stefan Edberg, a Grand Slam iron man whose streak of 50 consecutive Grand Slams is unmatched, rose above the indignity of being ranked 20th and unseeded here for the first time since 1984 and advanced, 6-0, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), against Martin Damm.
As for the 27-year-old Matsuoka, his aggressive net-crashing and incessant ball-chasing caused him to perform the athletic equivalent of burning the candle at both ends.
The 64th-ranked player was locked in a 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 5-5 struggle with the erratic Korda, a former top 10 player who has never had a respectable result at the Open, when the cramps that began in his left thigh at the start of the fourth set finally crippled him.
Matsuoka and Korda appeared destined for a fourth consecutive tiebreaker when Matsuoka, up two sets and a break, fell with a thud and a yelp to the hard court after serving the opening point of the 11th game.
That game and the match were eventually awarded to Korda after Matsuoka was defaulted for failing to get up and get on with match.
"If I bent my leg, I knew the cramp was coming, and then every time I hit the ball it came, and it was scary, but this is the U.S. Open, and I'm winning, and I have to keep going," said Matsuoka.
Due to what Korda later called a rather ruthless rule in the tennis playbook, Matsuoka initially had to be left untouched as he screamed in pain.
Since cramping is considered a loss of conditioning and not an actual injury, the player would have been instantly defaulted if a trainer, or his alarmed opponent, had touched him.
As the fans booed and Korda paced back and forth on his side of the court, Matsuoka lay immobile for two minutes.
"I knew I was not going to be able to play anymore," said Matsuoka, who was afraid his entire body would be engulfed by cramps if he tried to move.
After it became apparent that Matsuoka was not going to recover and resume play, the tournament referee, Brian Early, enacted the 60-second point, game, and match default procedure.
Then paramedics, and Korda, rushed to assist the fallen player with ice and cold towels and a belated leg massage.
"He was in tremendous pain because he had a big spasm in both legs," said Korda, whose best prior result was a second-round finish in 1990. "Rules is rules, and it's pretty sad that no one can help him."
* Steffi Graf (1), Germany, vs. Amanda Coetzer, South Africa
* Andre Agassi (1), Las Vegas, vs. Bryan Shelton, Atlanta
* Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, vs. Fernando Meligeni, Brazil
* Jim Courier (14), Miami, vs. Bernd Karbacher, Germany
* Mats Wilander, Sweden, vs. Steve Campbell, Detroit.
Full schedule, results, 8C