Steppin' Out

IN HER THIRD SEASON AS A PRO, 17-YEAR-OLD MONICA SELES HAS FASHIONED HERSELF INTO A CROSS BETWEEN SUZANNE LENGLEN AND MADONNA
May 26, 1991

The trouble with being the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world is this: Just when you've gotten comps for the M.C. Hammer show in Tampa, you're flown to some corporate promotion. Just when you're ready to pick up that black jacket to die for at the Armani shop in Rome, you're chauffeured to the opening of a new boutique for your own apparel line by Fila. Then, too, according to Monica Seles, there's "my tan line. It's a drag having to wear socks during matches because the tan, like, stops at the ankles. I can never get my skin, like, color-coordinated. I guess every sport has its drawbacks."

Yeah. Well, let's get one thing, like, straight about the 17-year-old Seles (whose full name should be pronounced—if you want to get it, like, right—Moan-EEK-uh SELL-us). The Virginia Slims computer rankings have once again been caught in a lie: The No. 1 player isn't really No. 1. This year both No. 2 Steffi Graf and No. 3 Gabriela Sabatini have whipped Seles's self-acknowledged "widening" caboose. Graf is 2-0 against her, while Sabatini is 1-1 but has a stronger overall record. Even the old, braying mare, Martina Navratilova, twice Seles's age and now ranked fourth, defeated her in their only meeting of 1991. And if Seles, the reigning two-hands-on-both-sides French Open champion, doesn't successfully defend her title at Roland Garros over the next fortnight in Paris, she'll likely lose even her mathematical claim to the top spot.

But if No. 1 is what Seles isn't, women's tennis should thank its lucky stars that Seles is what she is: the most personable, refreshing, stylish and glamorous young player to hit the big time since who? Suzanne Lenglen? Gussy Moran? Jennifer Capriati? Pardon me, Jennifer who? Newspaper headlines during the women's Italian Open two weeks ago summed up fairly well the different directions that Seles's and Capriati's careers have been heading, MONICA, LA BAMBINA S'‚Äö√†√∂‚àö‚Ć FATTA DONNA ("Monica, the baby has turned into a woman") cried the Corriere Delia Sera, CHE FINE HA FATTO BABY JANE? ("Whatever happened to Baby Jane?"—alias Jennifer) asked Il Tempo. Though Sabatini straight-setted both Seles and Capriati in Rome en route to winning her third tournament of the year, the two matches were very different. Capriati looked helpless in winning only two games, while Sabatini's 6-3, 6-2 victory over Seles in the rain-besieged final turned on a couple of big points. Moreover, the match was Seles's seventh final in seven tournaments in 1991—she has won three—which, goodness knows, would be a terrific achievement even if she weren't squeezing in some tennis around all those modeling sessions and hair appointments.

So what if she's now the spitting image of David Bowie? Nobody ever accused Mr. Ziggy Androgyny Stardust himself of being, uh, out. The new Seles haircut is actually a lot more practical than what she had initially considered in her search for a change—going the way of the shaved-skull pop warbler Sinèad O'Connor. No worry about tan lines there. "Somebody reminded me my head would get pretty sunburned," says Seles.

Scarcely into her third year on the tour, Seles is into her third hair length and third shade: first straight and dark brown, then frizzed and corn yellow with the roots showing, and now a golden-henna-colored short wave. That was all the better, of course, to coordinate with the Argentinian-designed, sleeveless henna culotte ensemble, accessorized by gold slippers, that she wore for a recent interview—which was in the morning. Hey, you've got to be a rooster to keep up with Seles, outfitwise. This followed by one day a fashion shoot for which Seles at one point chose electric orange tights to go with a flowing, silk shirt by Gianni Versace with huge neon facial images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe virtually leaping off the front and back. During the shoot, Seles lay down on the wet grass of the Parioli Club in Rome, her head propped on two tennis balls, and struck some fairly seductive poses. "You think we could find a Marilyn wig for me in this town?" she said.

Seles has colored her hair so much through the years that it was falling out in bunches. And pulling that scraggle-bush back so tightly on the tennis court was resulting in headaches. So, snip, snip. "Somebody said I should go blonder," says Seles. "You know, the Swedish goddess look. But my brother, Zoltan, did that, and now I hardly recognize him. I wanted to look more natural." Nonetheless, after Seles received her first treatment for her new henna 'do, she rushed to Bettina Pettersen, the dusky blonde who works as an events manager on the tour, and begged for Pettersen's picture so she could suggest to Seles's make-over people still another hue.

As a wannabe grown-up, Seles is mindful of her on-court behavior. Against Sabatini in Rome, a horrendous line call left her facing match point, but Seles did not so much as question the linesman's judgment. She hates "being called a kid," she says. "I mean, people still send me Barbie dolls in the mail. Jennifer's 15, and she's not even a kid anymore. Like, come on."

The older girls and boys at Nick Bollettieri's Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Seles trained from age two (only kidding, Nick; it was more like 12, right?) until 16, questioned whether she ever was much of a kid. Terry Phelps, an established player on the women's tour at the time of Seles's arrival at Bollettieri's in 1986, remembers practicing with Seles and being "annihilated, totally embarrassed by this 12-year-old." Eventually, none of the female students at the academy would practice with Seles because she wanted to pound every shot past them. And did.

"Nick ordered me to hit with Monica one day," says Jim Courier, now the ninth-ranked male player in the world. "First ball, whap!, she smacks a winner. Next, whap!, winner. I said, 'O.K., I'm impressed. You can play. Now let's practice.' Uh-uh. Whap, whap, whap! After 15 minutes I walked off. I told Nick, never again. He could get another guinea pig."

Since turning pro at 15, Seles has won 13 of the 35 tournaments she has entered. By comparison, in their first three full years as pros, Tracy Austin won 10 titles, Andrea Jaeger nine, Navratilova six, Sabatini five and Graf zero. In the Open era, Chris Evert remains the standard, with an astounding 23 tournament victories in her first three seasons.

The intriguing question remains: How did this most captivating creature—of equal parts Woody Woodpecker giggle, samurai truck-driver grunt and Coco Chanel flair—do all this in relative obscurity? The answer is Capriati. While Our Jen, then 14, was winning over fans, agents, advertisers, the press and a good part of a couple of nations in 1990, the 16-year-old Seles was busy winning matches, growing from denim to Dior, hobnobbing with Prince Albert of Monaco and John Forsythe of Dynasty, discovering Los Angeles—"My town; I was born for L.A.; I give myself three years and I'm there," she says—and becoming the youngest this and that in history. Seles is the youngest player to win the French Open (in '90) and the Australian Open ('91), the youngest player to win a million dollars, the youngest to leave Bollettieri high and dry, the youngest to show up in flimsy black lace at a Virginia Slims Championships dinner, and so forth. On March 11, when she ended Graf's record 186-week streak at the top of the rankings, Seles became the youngest No. 1 as well. She beat Austin by 26 days.

Still, there are tennis marketers who insist they would rather be hitched to the 12th-ranked Capriati, who has won but one minor tournament, the belief being that the Kewpie-faced Floridian is a "true American" and will turn out to be the better player, because Seles's head, in the words of one sportswear representative, "swells by the day." On current evidence, this notion seems preposterous. What's more, an unsuspecting world should get prepared for an onslaught of Monicana, ranging from Matrix Essentials hair-care products advertisements—word has it that Seles collected a nifty $800,000-plus for her make-over and endorsement contract—to photo layouts in Elle (in France), Arnica (in Italy) and Vogue (in the U.S.).

Tennis-wise, Seles needs to work to improve her serve and volley, but she hits the ball sooner—on the rise, in the game's parlance—and harder than most any other female can dream of doing. "It's Steffi's forehand off both sides," says Evert.

Spiritually, she is tennis's premier fighter since, well, Evert herself. At 5'10" (at least) and 120 pounds, Seles remains slight and vulnerable to ankle sprains and other injuries, but she has vowed to get as strong as her top rivals with some serious weight training. Still, following a 6-1, 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Seles at the Italian Open last year, Navratilova said, "It was like being run over by a truck."

Seles may be Eastern Euoropean-born (Novi Sad, Yugoslavia), but she is as Main Street as Madonna, whom (as if you couldn't guess) Seles idolizes for all the proper reasons—the Material Girl's power, invention and singularity, not to mention all those bustiers. "Forget whether she's talented or not," says Seles. "Madonna has total control over her life, and not many women have that."

The traveling Seles family—her father, Karolj, a former cartoonist and documentary filmmaker; her mother, Esther, a former computer programmer; Zoltan, 25; and the bitingly mean Yorkshire terrier, Astro—possesses a hard-headed reluctance to close deals. But why would anyone risk signing with one of tennis's panting pack of agentry jackals if she didn't have to? Astonishingly, Monica and her management company, IMG, work together without a contract.

Moreover, while Monica was guilty early on of the occasional ill-timed star turn—her debut entrance onto Court Central at the 1989 French Open featured her flipping roses to the crowd and presenting some to her opponent, Zina Garrison, who was not only unamused but beaten badly—her ascendancy has been distinguished by total professionalism on and off the court. "Dealing with the pressure of being Number One, taking an active role in the WTA, spending time with sponsors, giving back to tennis, Seles is exactly what we've been missing on the tour since Chris and Martina cut back their participation," says Garrison, victim turned supporter. (Garrison exacted revenge at Wimbledon last year, upsetting the third-seeded Seles in the quarterfinals in the tournament's most riveting match.)

"Monica's the first one of the new breed to show the responsibility to the game a top player should have," says Evert, who doesn't compare Seles with any of the great players of the past but to Kristien Kemmer, a journeywoman of elegant looks and sass who took Evert under her wing in the early 1970s and introduced her to backless dresses and purple eye shadow—in other words, to style. "Kris was always a trend setter, and Monica's like that," says Evert. "She has such self-assurance and poise for someone her age, and it's no fake creation. That's genuinely her."

"Our entertainer," says Pam Shriver of the new kid at the top of the block. "Monica has such a feel for the crowd and the moment. She's not only outgoing, she's approachable; she shows herself to everybody. And she handled moving from four to three to two to one just right. She was always sensitive to Steffi as she took over the rankings."

Likewise, when Seles lost back-to-back rain-interrupted finals to Graf and Sabatini in Hamburg and Rome earlier this month, she mentioned very little about the conditions. It wasn't until almost three hours after losing in Rome—after beseeching the crowd to stay for the doubles final, after enduring the trophy presentation, after meeting the press, after winning the doubles crown with Capriati—that Seles finally let out her emotions. On the sidewalk outside the locker room, in view of hundreds of fans watching from a terrace above, she began to cry. "Get inside. Hurry, inside," said Capriati's father, Stefano, who was standing nearby. Seles stayed.

Brave? Contrived? A sense of p.r.? Of theater? Who cares? "Monica was almost publicity hungry last year," says Petersen. "She's only now understanding the ramifications of stardom, of being so accessible and trying to please everybody. She's so concerned that she always say and do the right thing. Whether that's an act or the way she was brought up, what does it matter? It's so much better than what we've had."

Exhausted from a heavy exhibition schedule, Seles pulled out of a WTA event in Australia last winter. "We weren't thrilled," says Ana Leaird, the WTA's public relations director. "But otherwise she's bent over backwards for the tour."

Seles has shocked tennis veterans by showing up at places virtually unknown to players of her stature, like an Australian tennis federation-sponsored luncheon at the Aussie Open in Melbourne and the WTA Academy, a school for the young players. The WTA requires all players under 18 to spend one day at its academy listening to various instructions concerning rules, media relations, health care, contracts and the like. Of course, none of the marquee players show up. Leaird says that when she saw Seles arrive for the session in Boca Raton with 75 nobodies, "I thought she was there to speak, not to be a student. Monica actually wrote down notes, asked questions, then took our quiz. I was stunned. She also signs herself up for practice courts at tournaments-most of the Top 10 send their coach or parents. She remembers to thank the tournament directors and the locker-room attendants. I know she also arranges the plane reservations for the whole Seles family. Once Monica actually asked how much tax was being taken out of her winner's check. She's so aware. Most of our girls get on airplanes having forgotten to even pick up their checks."

Last summer the tennis world sat up and took notice of Seles's commitment to her sport when, on the day before Wimbledon, she showed up at a memorial service in London for the beloved couturier and tennis historian Ted Tinling. Aside from Evert, who delivered one of the eulogies, and Shriver, Seles was the only one of the leading women players to attend. "Ted was a great and wonderful man," says Seles, who remembers the first time she saw him—at the Orange Bowl junior tournament in 1986—and the last time. "Ted sat watching my match with [Linda] Harvey-Wild at Lipton last year," she says. "Then he went into the hospital. At the end, I felt like I knew him all my life."

Tinling, a 6'4" shaved-head, near-octogenarian Englishman, had waited more than half his life for a player who approximated the substance and the style of Lenglen, the grande dame of the game and his childhood friend. Two years ago in Paris, Tinling espied young Seles, positively radiant in a frilly polka-dot number ruffled from here to the Eiffel Tower, and he immediately knew his long wait was over. "Monica is the one," he said at high tea one day to nobody in particular. "Thank God Almighty, glamour has finally returned to the game."

During their reigns, Evert and Navratilova surely could not be denied their vastly disparate attractions. But of the current crop of most visible players, Capriati's personality is still forming, Graf seems to have regressed into a cold sternness, and with the dark-eyed, beauteous Sabatini, the question is still asked: Is anybody actually home?

Seles, meanwhile, is out there taking a monstrous, public bite out of life. She's what's happening; she's now. Weaned on the works of Billie Jean King—she quotes often from We Have Come A Long Way, King's history of women's tennis—the new queen of the top has made a point of learning ancient tennis lore. All the while, her inspiration has been Lenglen, "a rock star long before there was rock," says Seles. "There was such anticipation before her matches. Everybody wondered about Suzanne, what she would wear, what she would look like. I would love to be like that. Everything is too simple in tennis now. Wouldn't it be neat to be a mystery woman and bring high fashion back to the sport? To be like Suzanne, like Madonna—out there but untouchable? Like, unreachable!"

Seles seems to know exactly where she is going. She has already given herself only eight more years on the tennis tour. "At 25, I'll be in Hollywood trying to be an actress," she says. Of course, she's already an actress. What she means is that she'll be trying to be a movie star. Go ahead and laugh. But remember another enigmatic European jockster who attempted such a career jump? His name was Schwarzenegger.

But the Terminator never had to fight the good fight against that evil threat to hip-and-thigh tone—butter. Seles loves the stuff. Can't live with it, can't live without it. There she goes again, slathering heaping mounds of butter across her steak, her French fries, her pizza. "Ugh. Gross, totally grody, I know," she says. "But I can't help it. I must be addicted to butter. I just can't eat any food without it. I know it all goes right to fat down there, too [she points below her waist]. I know I've got to switch my diet habits. But I'm waiting until after Wimbledon. If I quit cold on butter now, I'm afraid it would be too much of a shock to my system."

Simplicity, as Seles constantly reminds people, is the bane of her existence. Not only has she taken women's tennis to another level with her ability to take every ball on the rise and fire cannon bursts from both wings with remarkable accuracy, but she also has done it all wrong, the hard way, swinging that unorthodox, two-fisted southpaw forehand with the right hand on top. "It's the way I first picked up the racket, so I stayed with it," she says.

Seles eats and writes with both her left and right hands. She juggles with some proficiency. She loves to dress up in veils. ("I know it's morbid and sick," she says with a laugh. "That's a big problem with me.") And in hats. A particular favorite is a black and red brimless number topped with a clock, which she first saw on a woman at Ascot in England. "The clock doesn't tell time, but it's great fun," she says.

As much as Seles adores Madonna, she balked when a European magazine wanted to run some photographs of her playfully vamping in outfits created by Madonna's pet designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier. "Too naughty," says Seles.

Her favorite athletes are Katarina Witt and Mike Tyson. Her favorite music is rap. She loves to watch Grace Kelly in The Country Girl and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Go figure. Seles hates the norm so much, even her dog's name bores her. "I've met at least four other Astros in the last year," she says. Seles swears that her next canine will have a properly esoteric moniker.

Seles is her father's daughter through and through. She has Karolj's blue-green eyes, his crooked nose and, most of all, his creativity and joyous, cork-popping personality. Many people on the tour remember Karolj feeling no pain at the Slims Championships dinner in New York last November, dancing onto the stage and "gatoring" by himself.

Karolj's cartoons and films have won several international awards. While standing on a gravel path in Rome last week, he discussed a cartoon he drew in 1980, recreating it with his toe by outlining the five Olympic rings and then turning them into the barrels of a tank, signifying the U.S.S.R.'s occupation of Afghanistan. "Russia like, no. This one get trouble, me," he said with a laugh in his peculiar dialect that NBC's Bud Collins calls "Karoljspeak."

In describing his contribution to his daughter's development as a player, Karolj has compared himself with Michelangelo. No shrinking violet, Papa Seles either, huh? "He [Michelangelo] didn't just carve a nice figure in stone," Karolj says. "He brought out the spirit of the figure."

Karolj's ego and his desire to coach Monica by himself supposedly forced her departure from the Bollettieri Academy last spring, causing bitterness on both sides, especially when Monica suggested that Bollettieri had done nothing during her practice sessions except work on his spectacular tan. True to her desire to maintain "control of her life," Monica insists that the decision to leave Bollettieri was hers alone and that his sole contribution was to "help me with things off the court." Frankly, her position seems unfeeling in light of the fact that Bollettieri provided tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of dollars worth of room and board and other essentials for the Seles family after they arrived from Yugoslavia.

"I am still hurt and bewildered," Bollettieri said recently in Monte Carlo, interrupting his ritualistic sunbath. "It has been very hard to see through all this."

The Seles situation, not the sunspots.

"I know what happened and so does he," says Monica of Bollettieri. "I don't want enemies, but after a while people can stare right through an image. Whoever spent money on me got paid back. It was all business. The Bollettieri Academy got plenty of attention from me being there. If Nick was good for me, I was good for him, too."

Not a soul on earth disputes that Seles is not only good for women's tennis but an absolute revelation as well. She is so far out there, she may already be, like, unreachable. Who could possibly imagine that the skinny little polka-dotted glamour puss of two springs ago would turn into Little Miss Tough-It at 17?

Probably only one man. Somewhere Tinling is rooting for Seles to keep giving 'em hell as well as glamour, and he's laughing all the way to high tea.

ILLUSTRATION PHOTOTHEO WESTENBERGER PHOTODAVID WALBERGFacing the (whap!) powerful Seles can (whap!) be an alarming (whap!) experience. PHOTOGAMMA LIAISONIn 1981, Monica was already being created by her Michelangelo. PHOTODAN SMITH/ALLSPORTSeles wasn't camera-shy in '90, when she became youngest French Open champ ever... PHOTOCARYN LEVY...and, as she showed by posing in a sexy dress at a tournament in March, she still isn't. PHOTOCARYN LEVYKarolj (left) and Zoltan provide Monica with support wherever the tour takes her.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)