Saturday, February 16, 2008

End of a famous grunt


You are forgiven if you think that’s someone wanting a cup of coffee. That evening of May 1990, watching my favourite player Steffi Graf crumble against the might of an unknown and gawky pony-tailed girl who was all over the court and just wouldn’t stop shouting COFFFFAAAAAAEEEEEEEE on hitting each shot, I was heart-broken. To watch my idol loose like that, I had never expected. But one thing was clear. Determination just got itself a new meaning. For that was not any ordinary call. That was a spectacular release of energy – experts call it a grunt – that Monica Seles was accustomed to while punishing her opponents, repeatedly. That was a determination to win quite unseen in anyone else. That was professionalism that had the urge to block out everything else when on a tennis court – even an unfavourable crowd in the stands – and to turn adversity into advantage and set sights on that trophy. That was the start of an illustrious career that saw Seles win 53 single titles, including nine grand-slams and six double titles.

Monica Seles was no ordinary player. She was the first girl to introduce women’s tennis to the power game – something that the next generations of girls would build their games around. With power came precision. Balls hit by the Seles racket would always find the lines and corners. And coupled with such power that few could find a way to hit them back. Many would be left standing in the middle of the court, watching the balls zip by, helplessly. Her predecessors like Navratilova, Evert and Graf relied more on grace, but Seles was brute-force and knew how to hit the ball never to see it come back again. The Williams sisters were to only to follow years later.

Similarly, though Martina Hingis was known to be a chess player on a tennis court, it was Seles who mastered the art of using the head. On numerous occasions, her most illustrious opponent Graf would hit her now-enshrined, inside-out fraulien forehand at her with brute force, going out far wide, and Seles would simply use that power to her advantage and simply place her forehand back into Graf’s court, but at the opposite end, miles away from Graf. Lesson learnt: no matter how great your forehand is, placement is as important when Seles is on the receiving end.

Seles was on a meteoric rise in the early nineties. In 1991, she played 16 tournaments and reached the final of all of them. Of them she won 10. The next year, in 1992, she lost only five matches. During the period from January 1991 to February 1993, Seles won 22 titles and reached 33 finals out of the 34 tournaments she played in. She compiled an astounding 159-12 win-loss record (92.9% winning percentage), including a 55-1 win-loss record in Grand Slam tournaments. In the interim, she held the top ranking in women’s tennis for a total of 178 weeks – the fifth-longest No. 1 streak in women’s tennis. This streak could have gone on for many more years had it not been for her stabbing. On April 30, 1993 a crazy fan of Steffi Graf stabbed Seles during a changeover during Seles’s match at the Hamburg Open. He did this because he wanted Graf to regain the top spot. Seles was sidelined for two years during which she became a US citizen.

Two years later, in 1995, she returned back on tour, won 2 exhibition matches against Martina Navratilova, won her first professional tournament – Canadian Open, crushing Amanda Coetzer in the final and quickly made it to the final of US Open – the year’s final grand slam – only a month later. All this, without dropping a single set. In the final of ’95 US Open, she ran into an inspired Steffi Graf. She lost 6-7, 6-0, 3-6. Few months later and in January 1996, Seles captured her ninth - and what would eventually be her last - grand slam title, Australian Open.

Seles never reached her brilliance thereafter. She had two sparkling moments in her tennis career in the years that followed. The 1996 US Open where she lost the final, yet again, to Graf and 1998 French Open where she beat the then-world no.1 Martina Hingis brutally in the semi-finals but lost to Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario in the final. After a series of insignificant results and injuries that kept her sidelined for over two years, Seles finally called it a day on February 15, 2008.

This is to one of the greatest personalities the sport of tennis has ever seen. Monica Seles has been a terrific player on-court and a wonderful person off-the-court. She took competition to another level and gifted it with a sense of professionalism that would, in years to come, be a source of inspiration to all the young guns of tennis. Wish her all the best for the future!

Some outstanding Seles matches that would stand out in her career
Monica Seles vs Steffi Graf – French Open final 1992
Monica Seles vs Martina Navratilova – Wimbledon Semi-final 1992
Monica Seles vs Jennifer Capriati – U.S. Open Semi-final 1991
Monica Seles vs Martina Hingis – French Open semi-final 1998

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