'SHE'S A TOUGH COOKIE' SO SAID BORIS BECKER OF FELLOW AUSTRALIAN OPEN CHAMP MONICA SELES AFTER BOTH GUTTED OUT THEIR FIRST GRAND SLAM TITLES IN YEARS

February 05, 1996

She did everything she could. Stayed in the same room, at the
same hotel. Practiced at the same time, said hello to the faces
she remembered from before. Monica Seles came to Melbourne three
weeks ago looking to reshape time and fact, hoping to erase more
than two years of doubt and fear and pain. The key was not to
think too hard. The key was to lie: Seles told herself she was
gunning for her fourth straight Australian Open title, trying to
sell herself on the notion that her most recent Grand Slam win
here, in 1993, had come only a year ago. She almost fooled
herself into believing that Gunther Parche had never happened
and that the knife had never dug into her back. Of course, it
couldn't last. Seles would walk the halls of the Flinders Park
tennis complex and see photos of that teenager holding the
championship trophy in '91, '92 or '93 and looking new and so
happy. She would feel the truth like a mean wind, and not even
winning again could change that. She is not that girl anymore.

"Even today, I almost felt like it was '93, that those years had
never happened," Seles said last Saturday evening, hours after
reclaiming her place in the sport with a 6-4, 6-1 blitz of Anke
Huber in the final. Then she shook her head. "It's never going
to be the same," she said. "That was hard, when I had to admit
that to myself. Now I think: It's '96. Where did those years go?"

Seles's opponents are asking themselves the same question. Since
Seles left the game in April 1993, after having been stabbed by
Parche during a tournament in Germany, a new generation of
talent has risen in women's tennis, secretly sure it had made
the strides needed to handle Seles upon her return. But the
likes of Huber, Chanda Rubin, Iva Majoli and Lindsay Davenport
couldn't stay with Seles in Australia. And while defending champ
Mary Pierce continued her curious fade from the top tier,
no-show No. 1 Steffi Graf mulled her tax problems, and Conchita
Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario pondered life as also-rans,
the lefthanded Seles fought through a suddenly inflamed left
shoulder, poor conditioning and a crisis of confidence to pocket
the ninth Grand Slam title of her career. As she accepted her
trophy in front of 14,879 cheering fans crowding Centre Court,
Seles thought of last year, when she had watched the final on
TV. "It's just great to be back," Seles said, her quavering
voice filling the stadium. "I still can't believe I'm here."

When Graf withdrew from the Australian Open, the idea of Seles's
marching easily toward the title took firm hold in Melbourne.
And as the men's draw, which spent last year in cozy thrall to
Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, melted down into a succession of
upsets that left Boris Becker, of all people, to complete a
remarkable renaissance with his first Grand Slam championship in
five years, the '96 Open became Seles's to claim.

But the fact is, Seles herself had no hopes of winning in
Australia in the months following her return to tennis last
August. Certainly her dramatic and draining loss to Graf in the
U.S. Open final was a perfect jump start to the second half of
her career, but then the machine seized up. Tendinitis in her
left knee and torn ankle ligaments forced Seles to withdraw from
one event after another. The lack of action, especially after
such a buildup, threw Seles for a loss. She found herself
falling into the same state of depression that had consumed her
during the winter after she was stabbed. "A lot of times, when I
would be home, keeping to myself, I'd be very down and
everything would start back again," Seles said a few days before
the final.

In early December, Seles became afflicted with recurring
dizziness that left her barely able to leave bed. No one could
tell her what was wrong. Seles consulted various doctors,
visiting the Mayo Clinic twice. Her condition was diagnosed as
meningitis, then as severe flu. Her treatment included iron
tablets and vitamin supplements.

Slowly Seles began feeling better, and by mid-December she was
hitting. During the second week of January she played an Open
tune-up in Sydney in which she came back to beat Davenport in a
three-set final. But when she came to Melbourne the next day,
"she was really miserable," says Becker, who has become one of
Seles's few close friends on the men's tour. "She had a muscle
problem in one of her legs, and she was tired. But she's a tough
cookie."

She had to be. By the time she reached the Australian Open
final, Seles's game was in woeful shape. Her ground strokes
lacked their usual force; her shots weren't scraping the lines.
Her hip ached, and she had pulled a tendon in her right ankle.
Without daily heat treatment and massage therapy, she could
barely lift her left arm above her shoulder. She huffed around
the court, out of shape. It didn't matter. Seles possesses
something more important than a gym-perfect body: She is a pure
competitor, with athletic gifts that have nothing to do with
muscle.

For example Seles held off Rubin in a superb semifinal. The
19-year-old Rubin, whose success in Melbourne will most likely
propel her into the top 10 for the first time, had it all
against Seles: A bigger game, more energy, the crowd--even a
chance to go up 5-1 in the third set. Then Seles did what Seles
does when things get tight: She began to attack. She cracked a
backhand crosscourt. She broke back twice. Then she won. "If you
don't take charge," Rubin said afterward, "she will."

The match against Huber was no different. In the first set Huber
pushed Seles four feet behind the baseline with penetrating
strokes and broke her to go up 3-2. Seles responded by refusing
to give in during the sixth game, which produced nine deuces.
Huber finally dumped a forehand into the net. It was the old
story of Seles's ferocious will--except that Seles came to
Melbourne not sure she had it anymore.

"I thought maybe I was missing that part," Seles said after the
final. "It meant a lot to know it's still there, to know that I
could pull it out."

At her postmatch press conference, Seles giggled over the win
and spoke of her plans: the French Open again, the Olympics,
perhaps a Wimbledon title at last. Someone asked about playing
in Germany, and she grew angry and said it would be very hard to
feel safe there. Someone asked again about Germany, and Seles
said she didn't want to think about it and she stopped talking.
She began to cry. She pulled her hat down over her eyes. One
photographer's flash fired, and then they were all popping
before her eyes like small bombs. "Don't take pictures of this,"
Seles said softly.

Instead of racing out of the room, Seles tried to push through.
She wiped her eyes and asked for another question, an effort she
would not have been capable of six months ago. It was progress,
however small. Finally Seles mumbled, "There's no point in
continuing this," and hurried out. She sat down in a chair in
the locker room and cried.

"What she's achieving right now is one of the amazing comebacks
of all time," said Becker after he capped five years of angst
and work with an impressive 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 win over Michael
Chang in the men's final on Sunday. Becker knows what Seles is
fighting. Last September, after the U.S. Open, Becker and Seles
ended up talking for hours in a New York restaurant, sharing
views on stalkers and the media and out-of-control fans. "In
tennis, I believe we're a big family," Becker says. The idea of
family resonates strongly with Becker. It's one reason he so
enjoyed having the millionaire Seles, who's now 22, babysit for
his two-year-old son, Noah, during this Open. "We're all in the
same boat," Becker says. "We're all going through the same
problems sooner or later."

Becker has had his share of disappointments. Having a family, he
is sure, is the main reason he stood on Centre Court on Sunday,
holding his sixth Grand Slam trophy, a champion again after five
years. "That has allowed me to continue," Becker says.
Otherwise, he added, "I would not be playing anymore. Tennis is
important, but after you've been so good for so long, there's
got to be something else. Your feelings you don't find on a
tennis court."

For the longest time Becker found everything he dreamed of on
the court, winning Wimbledon three times in the 1980s, becoming
No. 1 when he won his last Grand Slam event, in Australia in
'91. He had no idea that having everything would destroy his
desire. By the end of '93 he was out of the top 10. "I just
didn't have the fire anymore," he says.

Earlier in 1993, Becker had met his future wife, Barbara Feltus.
"She said, 'Please do it one more time for me because I have
never seen you as a Grand Slam winner,'" Becker says. "I told
her: I'm trying my heart out, but it's not that easy." After
they married later that year and had Noah in January 1994, he
heard experts writing him off not only because he was past
tennis's mythical burnout age of 25 but also because he was
married and had a child.

"I find it quite ridiculous," Becker says. "An athlete is also a
human being, and there comes a time in your life when you're
ready for marriage and ready for fatherhood, and for a majority
of cases, it only gives you more drive, more energy."

Just as important, Becker realized that even more drive wouldn't
make up for a one-dimensional serve-and-volley attack. He needed
better ground strokes, a more strategic approach to match play
and improved conditioning. At the end of 1993 he enlisted coach
and tennis academy king Nick Bollettieri, the one-man promotion
machine who--depending on whom you talk to--is either miracle
worker or con man. In Melbourne, Bollettieri criticized one
pupil, Pierce, for her attitude and weight, and their
relationship dissolved. He pumped up 19-year-old Mark
Philippoussis to the point where the Aussie fireballer produced
the highest level of tennis of the fortnight, blitzing Sampras
in straight sets in the third round. Becker split with
Bollettieri last summer, but only to work with Bollettieri
disciple Mike DePalmer. "Nick gets all the credit," Becker said.
"Everything went better each year. And at that academy, I found
DePalmer."

Becker never thought this tournament would mark his return to
the top. He has had a woeful record at the Australian since he
last won it, losing in the first round twice and skipping it in
1994. Sampras and Agassi rolled into Melbourne after a year as
the No. 1 and 1A, respectively, of tennis, and Becker harbored
no dream that their dominance would crumble now. It took Chang,
another one-time phenom who has succeeded in pumping up his
game, to see what was coming. Before the tournament was two days
old, Chang, 23, announced coyly, "My game is continuing to
improve, and I think that Pete and Andre have kind of reached
the peak of their tennis careers."

Meanwhile, the No. 5 Chang creeps ever closer, with appearances
in two Grand Slam finals in the last six months. He had a nearly
flawless performance in Melbourne, steaming into the semifinal
with Agassi without dropping a set. When Agassi stirred the pot
by chiding Chang for not having played Davis Cup last year,
Chang hammered him in three straight. Agassi had plenty of
excuses: the wind, his weariness, his long layoff this fall due
to a pulled chest muscle. "I don't know anybody who comes right
back," said Agassi's coach Brad Gilbert. "Unless you're Monica
Seles."

The locker room door swings open, and here comes Seles, walking
slowly down the gray hallway, surrounded by her friends, her
mother, her handlers. Her father, Karolj, hugs her, and she
begins to smile. She starts to make her way out of the stadium,
sees tournament director Paul McNamee and his wife, Lesley, and
their baby, Rowan, and stops to talk. Soon Seles is swinging
Rowan in her arms, laughing and spinning around in a tight
circle. One second the baby gurgles happily, the next he begins
to squall. Seles spins around again.

"You're happy one second, the next thing you're crying," she
says in a singsong to the baby. He stares, he squirms. He
doesn't understand a word she has said.

COLOR PHOTO: RON ANGLE[Monica Seles] COLOR PHOTO: RON ANGLEBecker credited his marriage, fatherhood and Bollettieri for a sharper focus and stronger game. [Boris Becker] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID GRAY/REUTERS For Seles, grief over her '93 stabbing is never far from the surface. [Monica Seles holding her hands over her face]
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