Seles is back in the limelight

THE TIMING may have been just a little off but there seems little doubt that Thomas Muster did Monica Seles a favour this week…

THE TIMING may have been just a little off but there seems little doubt that Thomas Muster did Monica Seles a favour this week when, at the Halle Open in Germany, he wandered off court after being beaten by Brett Steven and announced that he would not be travelling to Wimbledon for next week's championships.

The 28 year old, disliked for his repeated outbursts against American players and looked down upon by rivals for having won only one Grand Slam title on the way to the top of the rankings, injured himself although his withdrawal had been widely expected after Wimbledon organisers made the world number two only the seventh seed.

Long before the draw was made Muster, who has competed at Wimbledon four times without winning a match and also withdrew at short notice last year, had been grabbing the headlines.

Seles - who like the Austrian has never managed to produce her best at the All England club - had, meanwhile, quietly struggled to regain the momentum she initially enjoyed when she returned to the game last year.

In common with Muster, Seles has had her difficulties with the media over the past few years and while she will doubtless be thrust into the limelight next week when she starts her first Wimbledon for four years the 22 year old second seed will be relieved that despite injury problems she has managed to maintain a fairly low profile in the build up to London.

The depth of mistrust which Seles feels for the media is exposed in her biography published last week in which she describes (with the aid of ghost writer Nancy Ann Richardson) the added misery they heaped on her in the wake of her being attacked by a dedicated but, alas, deranged Steffi Graf fan, Gunther Parche, back in April 1993.

In the wake of the attack the then world number one was clearly offended by the decision of tournament organisers at the Citizen Cup in Hamburg to carry on with the event despite the terrible assault on her although it was the eager intrusions on her recovery by the press that came to upset the Yugoslavian born star even more.

Of course asking her at her first press conference to display the stab wound for the cameras was more than a little insensitive but there were clear signs before 1993 that she was having difficulties handling the media. In her period away from the game she did herself no favours by repeatedly granting interviews in which she appeared to mislead journalists about her intentions.

During Wimbledon in 1992, her last appearance there, the British media certainly gave her a tough time about her habit of grunting during play. In the book, she quotes Nick Pitt's article in the Sunday Times about her - "a figure scuttling along the baseline like a crab, a face screwed up like a rodent's a racquet wielded like a hag with a frying pan each blow ... punctuated by an exclamation from the torture chamber" - as typical, which, in fairness, it is not far off.

What deafly bothered Seles more than the newspapers' attitude to her, though, was the capital made out of the controversy by players during the tournament with Nathalie Tauziat complaining several times about the noise she made through their quarter final match and Martina Navratilova reportedly comparing her grunting to that of a pig being cut open in a butcher's shop to an umpire when they met a round later.

This, in turn, is an issue that appears to touch on what really upset Seles through her entire period away from the game. Like Muster she feels her contribution to the sport and her achievements have been belittled by her fellow players while the attitude of Graf has, she feels, been especially hurtful.

Early in the book she describes how the German paid her an emotional visit in the hospital and, after the pair cried together while talking over what had happened, Graf went away and agreed to resume playing in the tournament and reneged on her commitment to keep in touch with the injured star.

Worse was to quickly follow as all of the main players, with the admirable exception of Gabriela Sabatini, supported a move to deprive her of any special ranking protection while she was out of the game which, in turn, was to contribute to sponsor's reluctance to support her during her absence.

More than two years later when she finally entered into negotiations with the Women's Tennis Association regarding her return many players resisted a proposal, initially put forward by Navratilova (who by this time had retired and was therefore not affected by it) that she be installed as the joint number one. Eventually, under pressure from tournament organisers and fearful of the impact on other prominent players of having her compete on wild cards or worse still, as a qualifier, the WTA imposed their decision on the rankings.

SELES marked her return to competition by winning the Canadian Open meant as preparation for the US Open last August. She performed very credibly at the event beating Anke Huber, Jana Novotna and Conchita Martinez on the way to the final.

But here, once again, she was offended by Graf who ran to her family rather than the net and her opponent after a three set game and subsequently remarked that the victory was the greatest of her life - a comment Seles understandably described as "incomprehensible".

Her actual return ended a long period during which there were a number of reports that she was about to rejoin the circuit at particular events followed by reports that she had pulled out for some, generally unexplained, reason at short notice.

She complains more than once about the treatment that she received at the time, and with some good reason, but given that she was interviewed at length for the Independent on Sunday at the end of 1993 when she said that: "I know it will be tough to start again in a Grand Slam but ... I really think I am strong enough," referring to a possible return at the Australian Open in the January after the attack she is not entirely blameless in the matter.

In fact, it was to bed a further 20 months before she played publicly again and, if her book is to be believed, the sight of a tennis racquet at the end of 1993 tended to activate the sort of eating disorder more commonly associated with America's police force than its tennis stars.

In the circumstances, of course, it is hardly surprising that Monica Seles is a little disturbed about events, and her book is more than a little self serving in its account of them. What is far more surprising is that she is back with the tour at all.

Hers is a world of terrible pressure, not least from overly ambitious parents, in which the likes of Andrea Jaeger quickly rose to prominence then disappeared without a trace (during her best spell in the game friends recall her drawing caricatures of her father in a Nazi uniform sitting on a toilet), while there have been other cases of players driving themselves to illness (in at least one case death) and/or sometimes developing drug habits of one type or another. And none of them were stabbed by a lunatic while taking a break between games.

Ultimately Seles may not make the sort of impact on Wimbledon this year that might be hoped for. Over the last few months she has been plagued by a succession of minor injuries which contributed to a disappointing quarter final exit at the French Open against Novotna.

Overall, however, she has already done enough to be remembered as a great champion having completed her comeback by winning an emotional fourth victory at the Australian Open in January while, at just 22, she seems capable of growing stronger over the forthcoming seasons and confirming her position as one of the greatest players of all time.

Muster, meanwhile, may not be so fortunate. His record last season was remarkable. The 12 titles he won was the best performance on the tour since John McEnroe picked up 13 in 1984 while his 86 wins over the year was last bettered by Ivan Lendl in 1982. He won his first indoor event and, a couple of weeks ago, greatly improved on his previously dismal performances on grass. For a short while earlier this year he even rose to the number one spot in the world and he reacted angrily when the likes of Sampras questioned whether he had earned the honour.

Now, after criticising the top American players for the way they treated the European events, he has given his rivals something to snigger about. Apparently in a huff about being seeded five places below his current world ranking he has limped away from Wimbledon offering the lamest of excuses. As Monica, or Nancy, would say "it's time to move on Thomas, time to move on."

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times