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The Monica mystique.

Is Sarasota's tennis superstar Monica Seles the girl next door, a Madonna-in-training or something all her own?

Except for Macaulay Culkin, who's getting something like $7 million for Home Alone II, and Shannen Doherty, whose work day consists of nuzzling TV heartthrob Luke Perry on Beverly Hills 90210, is there any young person in America who's having more fun and taking a bigger bite out of life than Sarasota's teen tennis sensation, Monica Seles?

To get an idea just how big a bite, let's open her 1991 scrapbook. Here's Monica being photographed by Vogue photographers, who spent three days in Sarasota. Here's Monica hobnobbing with Prince Albert of Monaco and with Kim Basinger's main squeeze, Alec Baldwin. Here's Monica running up an outrageous tab at Emilio Pucci's Manhattan salon. Here's Monica taking acting lessons and saying, "I was born for L.A. I give myself three years and I'm there." Oh, and here are some of those nasty stories from last summer when Monica was on the lam from Wimbledon, allegedly due to "shin splints," and the English press had such a coronary over the No. 1 seed bailing out on the world's No. 1 tournament that they started the rumor that Monica was pregnant with Donald Trump's baby -- just because she was holed up, Garbo-style, at Trump Manor in Palm Beach. And last but certainly not least, here are those get-back photos that the Seles family took of Monica emerging from a limousine in a Patty Hearst fright wig designed to fool the pursuing press hounds -- staged photos, which were leaked to the press, as if to say, "Hey, what's all the fuss? There's another Wimbledon next year." Shortly afterward, Monica signed with No Excuses jeans.

And all this at the tender age of 18! What's going on here?

Well, to begin with, Monica Seles has an irrepressible personality and, despite the Twelve Days of Silence Following Wimbledon, she has a history of being incredibly open with the press. ("She's like a breath of fresh air," says Joey Johnston of the Tampa Tribune. "She's a legitimate star, yet wonderful to be around.") Sure, her idol is Madonna and sometimes she acts like it, but at least she admits it. ("When I wake up in the morning, I'm not always sure who I'm going to be that day," says Seles of her public personae. "But I'm not going to get caught up in having the right image for anything or anybody.") And then there's that thing she does in between fashion shoots and jeans commercials: tennis, a sport where this coltish, 5'10", 130-pound cutie can crush a ball harder than perhaps anyone alive, male or female.

If that last part sounds like press agent hype, consider the following anecdote told to Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick by Jim Courier, who is currently the No. 1 male tennis player in the world and who was once a cohort of Seles' at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Bradenton.

"Nick ordered me to hit with Monica one day," said Courier. "First ball -- whap! -- she smacks a winner. Next -- whap! -- winner. I said, 'Okay, I'm impressed. You can play. Now let's practice.' Uh-uh. Whap, whap, whap! After 15 minutes I walked off. I told Nick, never again. He could get another guinea pig."

Martina Navratilova knows how Courier felt. Whapped into submission by Seles 6-1, 6-1 in the finals of the 1990 Italian Open, Navratilova told the press, "It was like being run over by a truck."

And that's the way most of Seles' opponents felt during her incredible '91 season. Check out this linescore: 16 tournaments entered, 16 finals reached; 10 championships; three Grand Slam titles in three tries; match record: 74-6; prize money: a record $2,457,758.

When Seles opened the 1992 season by winning the Australian Open -- her fifth Grand Slam victory in nine tries, better than any player in history -- her position as the No. 1 tennis player in the world was beyond question. Not just the No. 1 female tennis player, mind you, because that was already a foregone conclusion. But in terms of star power and earning potential, no less an authority than Forbes magazine says that Seles tops the tennis list, ranking above even Sweden's Stefan Edberg and Germany's Boris Becker. In addition to that $2.5 million in on-court prize money, Forbes estimates that Seles made roughly $6 million last year in appearances and endorsements for clients such as Perrier, Canon and Fila. She was the only woman in the top 15 of Forbes' top 40 highest-paid athletes, a list headed by boxers Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson and basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

So impressive was Seles in '91 that now there's even talk of her squaring off against tennis' grand old man, 39-year-old Jimmy Connors, in Battle of the Sexes III. If you can remember as far back as 1973, back to the Dark Ages of Women's Tennis, Battle of the Sexes II matched Billie Jean King, the avowed feminist and women's tennis standard-bearer, against former U.S. tennis star Bobby Riggs, an avowed chauvinist and standard-bearer for decrepit old men in need of Geritol at every changeover. BJ won the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, thereby avenging Riggs' earlier victory over Margaret Court in Sexes I. The audience for King-Riggs numbered more than 30,000 in the Houston Astrodome and some 50 million people in TV land.

If the Seles-Connors match comes off, it will be sometime this spring in -- where else? -- Las Vegas. "Jimmy's interested; there have been talks," says Jimbo's mother-advisor, Gloria. Seles sounds like she's all for it, too.

"We both grunt!" says Seles. "And he's still playing at a very high level; it would be very tough."

Who is this young woman a) who wants to take on the greatest competitor the men's game has every known, b) whose millions are being used to build a lavish new home for her family at Laurel Oak Country Club, and c) whose image fluctuates in helter-skelter fashion between the excesses of Madonna and the All-American wholesomeness of Debbie Gibson?

The first time I heard Monica Seles' name was back in 1989 when I was working on a piece about that noted merchant of tennis, Nick Bollettieri, for SARASOTA magazine.

At the time, Andre Agassi was Bollettieri's main meal ticket. Pictures of them were plastered all over Nick's office: Andre and Nick strolling down Park Avenue, Andre and Nick sunning themselves in exotic locales, Andre and Nick rakin' in the dough.

"Sure, Andre's good," one of Bollettieri's instructors told me. "But wait till you see this kid Nick's brought over from Yugoslavia, Monica Seles. She's the one."

At the time, Seles and her family -- father, Karolj, an award-winning cartoonist and documentary film maker; mother Esther, a former computer programmer; and brother, Zoltan, an accomplished junior player in Europe (and now her full-time advisor) -- lived in a simple apartment near the Bollettieri complex. Very few people from the outside world were familiar with Seles' lethal groundstrokes, her incredible mental energy or her family's single-minded dedication to getting her to the top. And that's the way Bollettieri wanted it.

Seles was just 12 years old when she came to America. Back then, she spelled her first name Monika. She had long, straight brown hair and she had grown up in an ethnic Hungarian household in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. As a child, she loved to dance and tried out for all the school plays. To keep tennis fun when his daughter was young, Seles's dad would set some of her dolls around the court. She was rewarded when she knocked them over. And even then, every time she hit the ball, Seles accentuated that expenditure of energy with a squeal that could break glass.

In the early days at Bollettieri's, Seles practiced under sequestered conditions -- shortly after dawn when nobody else at the academy was awake and generally behind screened-in fences, like some prize racehorse being groomed for a match race.

As it has turned out, Seles is running that race without the man who, along with her father, trained her throughout her early teens. In the spring of 1990, Seles and her family cut the cord with Bollettieri and moved to The Meadows. There was bitterness on both sides. She charged that Bollettieri had done nothing during her practice sessions but work on his tan; Bollettieri, who has framed pictures of himself getting a tan, countered by saying that he was not only Seles' coach, but the family's landlord and sugar daddy as well -- to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars in indebtedness.

"When I first started covering Monica, the family had moved to The Meadows and she was a lot more accessible to the press," says Mic Huber of the Sarasota Herald -- Tribune. "She used to answer the door herself, and I'd see her running around the subdivision practicing for her driver's test in a red BMW. And she'd always return my phone calls. The day it was announced that she was No. 1 in the world for the first time I went over to her house, but her brother said she was sleeping. I told him I needed to talk to her, went home and when I walked in my phone was ringing. It was Monica."

Joey Johnston of the Tampa Tribune is so taken with Seles that he admits to doing something journalists don't normally do -- shouldn't do, in fact, in keeping with the codes of impartiality: He bought her a present.

"I gave her an Easter bunny; I think she said it was the 151st in her collection," says Johnston. "It was the first and last time I'll ever buy an athlete a present, but she had treated the press so nice during a tournament in Tampa that I just wanted to say thank you."

Seles' stuffed animal collection is a reminder that she and most of her compatriots on the women's tour are still awfully young women. And whom amongst us isn't a bundle of contradictions at that age? It's just that Monica Seles is a bigger bundle than most. When she was 10 years old, she used to steal into her mother's lingerie drawer and put on every black lacy thing she could find. When she was caught in the act of trying to be a grownup too soon, her mother would plead, "MOAN-ika, MOAN-ika...please...wait until you are at least 17."

It's easy to forget these polished players are still wavering between girlhood and maturity. Example A: Having been No. 1 for more than two months, Seles cried on the shoulder of Florida's other teen tennis sensation, Jennifer Capriati, after losing the '91 Italian Open final to Gabriela Sabatini. The victory gave Sabatini a chance to wrest the No. 1 ranking away from Seles, provided she could make it to the finals of a tournament in Berlin. But on the night before the crucial match -- which also happened to be Sabatini's 21st birthday -- she danced the night away and lost the next day to No. 22-ranked Anke Huber.

It has been pointed out that Seles' rapid rise to the top -- she was ranked No. 88 in 1988 -- was partially obscured by her fellow Florida teen sensation, Capriati, who was winning hearts all over the world while Seles was winning matches.

So who would the press rather cover -- Capriati or Seles? Compared to Capriati, Monica is more outgoing, has more to say and "will talk about anything," says Johnston. "She's the fastest talker I've ever heard. She never uses a period and the official stenographer at the U.S. Open had a separate machine just for her."

Before Wimbledon, most writers and members of the tennis world seemed to have nothing but admiration for Seles. "Monica's the first one of the new breed to show the responsibility to the game that a top player should have," Chris Evert had said. "Her ascendancy has been distinguished by total professionalism on and off the court," wrote SI's Kirkpatrick.

But after her strange pullout and subsequent disappearance, many seemed to feel almost betrayed and rushed to denounce her.

Mic Huber doesn't think that's fair; he says he blames Seles' family for the Wimbledon snub. "Her family doesn't think in conventional ways," says Huber. "They either gave her real bad advice -- or they're absolute geniuses, because they got her more publicity than any tennis player in history."

That's putting it mildly. When Seles appeared at an exhibition in Mahwah, N.J., 27 days after withdrawing from Wimbledon, more than 200 members of the press showed up. What they found out was that Seles wasn't pregnant, but she also didn't seem that contrite about leaving the All England Club in the lurch. At one point during the press conference, Seles held up a T-shirt with the words Rome, Paris, Wimbledon and Mahwah on it; Wimbledon was crossed out with tape.

SI's Sally Jenkins called it "the silliest performance of the year by a major athlete." But, to be fair, Seles has, on other occasions, been extremely apologetic about Wimbledon.

"I never planned it to happen like that, I swear," she has said. "That was a tough time. I was hurt and some people were telling me to get injections and some were saying you've got to play because it's Wimbledon. It was just too much for me."

The question of who Seles really is -- Madonna or Debbie Gibson? -- really misses the point. In a culture that idolizes media "personalities," Monica Seles seems to be gamely managing to be something else -- a person.

Consider two pre-Wimbledon incidents. The first took place in Boca Raton, Fla., where the Women's Tennis Association was holding a workshop for players under 18. Technically, every WTA player is supposed to attend at least one day of these how-to-survive-on-the-tour lectures, but none of the marquee players show up. But on this day, Seles did -- along with 75 nobodies. "I thought she was there to speak, not be a student," recalls WTA publicist Ana Leaird. But Seles was there to do just that. She scribbled in her notebook, asked questions and then took the WTA quiz. "I was stunned," says Leaird, who notes that Seles is so down-to-earth she also makes her family's airplane reservations herself.

Incident No. 2 was related to Joey Johnston by the late tennis historian and longtime friend of the game, Ted Tinling. It happened at the 1988 Virginia Slims of New Orleans.

"It was election time," says Johnston, "and the Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle vice-presidential debate was on TV in the players' lounge. Of course, none of the players was paying any attention to it; they were giggling and acting like typical teen-agers -- except for Monica, whose eyes were glued to the TV. When someone asked her if she were really interested in politics, Monica replied, 'Oh, yes, I wouldn't miss this for the world.'"

Marty Rauch Jr., Monica's Sarasota-based agent, says he knows exactly who Monica Seles is. "Monica is just a delightful person," he says, and he goes on to tell this story.

"She was practicing at The Meadows one day around Christmas," says Rauch, "and a man came up and asked her if she'd mind signing a tennis ball. He was very sheepish about asking, but he told Monica that he wanted to put the ball in his son's Christmas stocking. Monica smiled, then signed the racquet she was using and gave it to the man. That's the kind of person she is."

Kent Hannon is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated and a special contributor to Sports Illustrated For Kids. He lives in Athens, Ga.
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Title Annotation:Monica Seles, Sarasota's tennis superstar
Author:Hannon, Kent
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:May 1, 1992
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