In a gesture of pre-World Cup hospitality, the French handed
their Open over to the Spanish. As a way of showing respect for
women of a certain age, they carded each of tennis's teen queens
at the door, reserving spots in the final at Roland Garros for a
couple of dowagers, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Monica Seles.
But le plus beau geste of all was provided by Sanchez Vicario,
who after her 7-6, 0-6, 6-2 victory turned to her opponent on
the podium and said, "I'm so sorry I beat you."
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
So was everyone else. On May 14, just 11 days before the French
Open began, Seles's cartoonist father, Karolj, died after a
five-year fight with stomach cancer. Back in prewar Yugoslavia,
Karolj had jury-rigged a net in a parking lot, drawn portraits
of Tom and Jerry on a couple of tennis balls and beguiled his
daughter into giving chase. With his guidance, Monica won eight
Grand Slam titles and held the No. 1 ranking almost continuously
from March 1991 until April '93, when a deranged Steffi Graf fan
plunged a knife into Monica's back during a changeover in
Hamburg, forever turning the phrase "unemployed German lathe
operator" into one of those Headline News save-and-pastes, like
"Libyan strongman" or "war-torn Chechnya."
Karolj would comfort Monica when she awoke at night screaming
during the 27 months off the WTA Tour that followed. After
extensive therapy for both mind and body, Monica made a
promising comeback, only to be sidetracked again, first by
injuries and then by Karolj's illness. This year she took off
the first 10 weeks of the tour, including the Australian Open,
so she could be with him, and a month ago she hurried back from
the Italian Open to join her mother, Esther, and brother,
Zoltan, at the family's home in Sarasota, Fla., for the final
days of Karolj's life.
"There will be other French Opens," her coach, Gavin Hopper,
told her. Yet Seles decided that the prospect of staying in
Sarasota--staying among the artifacts of her father's life and
the friends making condolence calls--would be more difficult
than playing. Arriving in Paris on May 23, only two days before
the tournament began, she took up the challenge of shearing away
the future and the past, of paring time down to the moment at
hand. If she were to worry about life without Karolj, or about
the impudent teenage talent that has been shaking up the tour,
or about shots two or three ahead of the ball now on her racket,
she might be overwhelmed; if she were to dwell on the mistrust
that followed that episode in Hamburg five years ago, or her
father's final days of suffering, or the fact that she had won
only nine singles titles since being stabbed, things wouldn't be
In Hopper, a fitness-first Aussie she hooked up with in late
March, Seles had the perfect coach for her state of mind. "I
stress working in the here and now," he says. "On focusing on
the ball you're going to hit, how you're going to hit it and the
intensity you're going to hit it with, right here, right now."
In Paris, Seles had no more ambivalence about the right here,
the right now. At home with Karolj in his final months, she had
felt the pull of the tour; on the tour she had wished she were
home with him. "In a weird way, I have peace of mind," she said
last week. "In Rome I felt like I played well, but my mind
wasn't really on the court. After deciding I'd play here, I felt
really content with my decision. And the last years I've never
really been content with any decision."
She strung a necklace through her father's wedding ring and wore
it with dark-colored tennis outfits, but there would be no
maudlin dedication of this event that she had won three times.
"My dad just really wanted me to do what I wanted to do," she
said. "Whenever I stepped on the court, it was for me."
Indeed, there was no noise more joyful than Seles's familiar
high-pitched grunts during her matches and giggles after them.
And this French Open reverberated with many other sounds: from
the wails of Anna Kournikova in the gloaming of her round-of-16
elimination, when the chair umpire refused her request that the
match with Jana Novotna be suspended on account of darkness
("The first time a guy has ever said no to her," huffed one
witness); to the rattle of Venus Williams's beads, audible as
she rushed the net after one of her 120-mph serves (faster than
any unleashed in Paris by Andre Agassi, Jim Courier or Marcelo
Rios); to the gasp of the crowd when Venus's younger sister,
Serena, peeled off her warmup jacket to reveal her rippling
deltoids; to the haughty protestations of Martina Hingis, who
dismissed the idea that she was party to any rivalry because "if
you look at the rankings, I'm, like, almost 3,000 points up."
Before, after, even during their matches these teenage
arrivistes engaged in all kinds of woofing and adolescent
gamesmanship, taking advantage of any allowable bathroom break,
opportunity for a dress change or excuse to appeal to the umpire
to descend from the chair to hunt down some mark in the clay and
overrule a line call. The French Open: Not just tennis, it's
Seles, 24, couldn't be bothered with such trivia. "I just don't
have the strength and intensity anymore," she had said in Paris
a year ago, after losing in a semifinal to Hingis. This time in
the semis she had both, beating Hingis, the 17-year-old world
No. 1, for the first time in six tries, 6-3, 6-2, by playing
what the loser would call tennis at a different level.
In the final Seles won more games than Sanchez Vicario. More
points, too. Alas, winning the popular vote doesn't count, for
tennis matches are decided by the electoral college--although
the heavens seemed to interject their commentary on the result
when, minutes after the end of the match, rain began to fall.
To be fair, Sanchez Vicario, 26 and the victor at Roland Garros
in 1989 and '94, has scaled obstacles of her own. For two years
she had looked in vain for her form, struggling with the first
serious physical ills of her career, among them wrist and thigh
injuries suffered after winning the first tournament of this
season, in Sydney. The attention that has turned the teens' way
"can help me," said Sanchez Vicario, whom trophy presenter Ilie
Nastase called Vieja (Old Lady) during the awards ceremony. "You
don't have any pressure, you know. You can sneak around." Losing
the second set of the final at love, constantly being pressed
against the baseline by Seles's flat, angled ground strokes, she
kept points in play with sliced retrievals, humpbacked saves and
other conjurings, forcing Seles to rip many more responses than
she would have liked and ultimately tuckering her out.
Sanchez Vicario is from Barcelona, which deserves credit for the
ascent of the Spanish men. Too many computer points and too much
prize money were going elsewhere as a result of Spain's emphasis
on clay court play, so in recent years the country's tennis
federation established a hard-court training center in the
Catalonian capital and installed a nationwide feeder system to
identify and develop promising prospects. The French Open
champion of 1993 and '94, Sergi Bruguera, might be dismissed as
"a Spanish clay courter," but neither Carlos Moya nor Alex
Corretja, whom Moya beat 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 in a final on Sunday that
had all the tension of a practice session back in Barcelona, can
be so easily clay-pigeonholed. Moya reached the '97 Australian
Open final and beat four of the Top 5 either indoors or on hard
courts last year; Corretja nearly beat world No. 1 Pete Sampras
in the quarterfinals of the '96 U.S. Open and reached the semis
in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March.
For all their newfound versatility, Spanish men haven't
forgotten how to win on clay: Of the 19 Spaniards who qualified
for the draw in Paris, six made the round of 16 and three
reached the semis. "I'm surprised that we're not four in the
semifinals," said Corretja, referring to Alberto Berasategui,
who got knocked out in the fourth round. Semifinalist Felix
Mantilla says he dyed his hair blond on a dare from Argentina's
Luis Lobo, but he could hardly be blamed if he took the bottle
simply to distinguish himself from his many dark-haired
compatriots. So thoroughly were Spanish men dominating every
category at the French that a 20-year-old righthander from
Barcelona, Julian Alonso, has become Hingis's steady. (Alonso is
1-10 since the two started seeing each other in March,
encouraging speculation that "Julian Alonso" is Spanish for
There's an old-school gentility and camaraderie among the
Spanish men. After Corretja, Mantilla and Moya had qualified for
the semis, a paparazzo caught them at a cafe on the
Champs-Elysees, sharing the same dish of ice cream, and each of
the countrymen freely swaps tips with any of the others who's
about to play a non-Spaniard. "We didn't need the umpire or the
linesmen today," Corretja said after the final. "Every time we
were giving the call to each other. I just trust him. I never
check the mark, and neither does he."
In her own earthy charitability, Seles too is something of a
throwback. During her quarterfinal loss to Hingis, Venus left to
change her skirt as Hingis was preparing to serve for the match.
"I was dirty," she sniffed later. "I can't appear that way."
Compare and contrast: In beating Novotna in the quarterfinals,
Seles got sullied while lunging for a ball. She took a moment to
towel off her shirt, her hands and her racket handle and turned
to resume her position on court. "Derriere!" cried a helpful
voice in the stands. Seles smiled and then dusted off her
hindquarters. There'd be no rushing off to wardrobe by this
woman, who knows calamities much worse than a soiled skirt.
Compare and contrast again: Four times in her match with
Williams, Hingis appealed a line call, and three times she got
her way. But when Hingis and Seles hooked up a round later and
the chair ump stood ready to make a critical reversal to her
benefit, Seles conceded the point. "It's better to be honest and
move on," she said later. She wasn't going to risk the snare of
a guilty conscience when she had finally found the security of
the here and now.
Early in the tournament, as her courtesy car turned into the
grounds of Roland Garros, Seles saw Arantxa's mother, Marisa,
through the window. She was cradling Roland, the Yorkshire
terrier that Arantxa had acquired nine years ago after winning
the French for the first time. (Garros, her other pooch, is too
big to travel, so he stays home.) Seles asked the driver to
stop, rolled down her window and got in some quality
chitchatting with Marisa and petting with Roland. The scene
illustrated how at odds Seles's instincts are with the
imprisonment that has been an abiding part of her life.
With Seles savoring each stroke of her racket as she hadn't
since she herself was an on-the-make teenager, that chapter
ended in Paris with a kind of serenity. Consider the evidence:
When her effort fell just short of a Grand Slam title, she
didn't seem nearly as disappointed as everyone else.
the right now.