Happy to be back at work

 

MONICA SELES, in common with millions, is about to return to work after being laid low with a virus. She is in excellent spirits, however, having journeyed to Australia, a land where she has experienced nothing but success and happiness.

The Australian Open was the setting for the last of Seles's eight Grand Slam triumphs before she was stabbed in the back in Germany in April 1993. Her Victory against Steffi Graf extended a perfect record in Melbourne to 21 matches, completing a hat-trick of Australian Open titles.

She recalled the occasion with particular pleasure, remembering it as the first time she felt comfortable being the world number one, and expressed delight and relief to be back. "I'm very excited because even about two weeks ago I wasn't sure I was going to be able to make it," said Seles, who will acclimatise for the main event, which starts next Monday, by competing in Sydney for the first time this week.

Seles's enthusiasm is matched by the Australian Open organisers, who rely heavily on her participation, having lost Graf to injury for the second consecutive year. The Wimbledon champion, who shares the number one ranking with Seles, has undergone foot surgery. Seles has had numerous health problems since their epic US Open final in September.

"I had a great US Open and I wanted to keep continuing that momentum, and it was just frustrating not to be able to finish, the year off," Seles said. The virus compounded her troubles after she sprained and tore ligaments in an ankle while trying to cope with a knee injury which has bothered her since training for her comeback last July.

"I started feeling very weak, too tired to do anything, and I had to go to hospital one time," she said. "They did blood tests and I've been on all kinds of antibiotics." Nonetheless, Seles is preparing to mop her brow, tape her ankles, wear shoes with reinforced soles to protect her knees on the hard courts, and face the challenge of playing for a solid month. "I have never done that before and I'm a little nervous about it, but I'm going to see how it works," she said.

"It will be quite a test I think, fitness-wise and mentally also. I'm nervous because I'm going from Australia, where it's summer, to Japan, where it's going to be cold and it's indoors and it's on synthetic grass. That will be a tough adjustment.

"I wanted to try it because a lot of times in the past I would play one week and then have one week off and then play one week, and it would never give me enough time to work on anything. So let's just try this and see how it goes. My dad is not in too big agreement with it, but I'll try it for one time and if it doesn't work, I'll readjust my schedule."

Keen to sharpen her match fitness, the 22-year-old Seles has two particular goals in mind: Wimbledon - "the one Grand Slam I haven't done well in" - and making her debut at the Olympics, in which she hopes to represent the United States.

Having won $7.8 million in official prize-money alone, despite being out of the game for 27 months after the stabbing, Seles can afford to adopt a Corinthian approach. In expressing opposition to the Australian Open's decision to abandon equal prize-money, except in the case of the singles champions, she said: "I hope that they'll change that, because I don't think it's fair. But I would still play tennis, even if there would be no prize-money at all."

She was asked if she took a greater interest in her financial affairs than Graf, whose father/manager Peter has spent time in prison, accused of evading tax on his daughter's earnings.

Seles explained that her finances are handled by her agents, Mark McCormack's International Management Group. "I do my expenses, band those things are my worry," she said. "But when you put your signature on tax returns, you have to know what you're signing all of us, not just an athlete. I think after 18 you have to know what's going on for later on in your life, after you stop playing tennis."

She added that she began to learn about travel arrangements from the age of nine, and there is evidence to suggest that she also kept track of her income from an early age.

Shortly after turning professional at 15 in 1989, Seles visited a tournament office and thanked the organisers. When she did not leave, she was asked if she was waiting for her father. "No," she said, "I'm waiting for my cheque."