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Struggles Continue for Seles

Tennis: Her career, personal life are sliding downhill, and blowing a third-round match at Wimbledon doesn't help.

July 01, 1997|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WIMBLEDON, England — Monica Seles' sad trek through a sport she used to happily dominate took another wrenching turn Monday when she lost in the third round on a cold, sunless day.

Sandrine Testud of France defeated second-seeded Seles, 0-6, 6-4, 8-6, thwarting Seles' attempt to win the one Grand Slam tournament title she has not claimed.

With only seven of the 16 seeded women remaining, top-seeded Martina Hingis appears to have little between her and the title. Mary Joe Fernandez is the only American left, making this the first Wimbledon since 1936 in which so few American woman have advanced to the fourth round.

Seles, once the standard bearer for American women, has recently suffered through injuries, setbacks and indifferent results. Taking the long view, this season hardly mars Seles' career. She has a 333-46 match record. But tennis operates in the now, and Seles has not won a tournament in a year. Should she go this entire season without winning one, it would be her first without a title.

It's uncertain whether Seles is merely slumping, fading or even if defining what's happening with her game is her greatest concern.

The illness of her father--and coach--Karolj Seles, has hit her hard. He is home in Florida, battling a recurrence of stomach cancer.

Some see Seles' situation as similar to that of Pete Sampras, whose coach and best friend, Tim Gullikson, died of brain cancer in May, 1996. In handling that loss, Sampras lost his way in tennis for a time. Understandably, Seles' attention is not fully on her career.

Karolj Seles has always been easy to spot in the players' box during his daughter's matches--he was the one always smiling. He made tennis fun for his daughter. And he and Esther Seles are among the few tennis parents who applaud the winning shot of an opponent.

To be at Wimbledon without him has been a strain on Seles. She has tried to make do with thrice-daily phone calls. And the counseling has been two-way.

For Seles and a few other players, Wimbledon is more than the most important tennis tournament in the world. It is two weeks' worth of microscopic attention to what she wears, how she appears and what she says.

This is the tournament where, in 1992, a "grunt-o-meter" measured the volume of Seles' grunts as she hit the ball. It is where, in her absence in 1991, it was speculated that she was pregnant. She was dubbed, "WimbleMum."

This time around, Seles has been besieged again. The tabloid newspapers have hectored her about her weight.

She has been called fat outright in news conferences. At other times code words are used, such as "fitness." Headlines have referred to Seles' "weighty" problems, and stories have been written saying that she has taken refuge in food in order to deal with her father's illness.

Photographers have been particularly attentive when Seles serves. Every day after she has played the papers run photos of Seles' exposed midriff during service. She took to wearing a towel around her waist during changeovers to obscure the view.

Seles, 23, admits to not being at her ideal weight, but has been hurt and puzzled by the obsession with her appearance, correctly noting that seldom are the male players analyzed for weight gain, the clothes they wear and whether or not they are attractive.

"To me, it's hurtful when they ask me [those] questions and put words in my mouth that I haven't said," Seles said in an unusually hushed news conference. "My dad taught me to take all that in good spirits. He said, 'They do that to everybody. Sometimes it's your turn.' I felt a few times that it was not fair, the articles I read a couple of days ago, but I know it comes with the territory. For some reason they pick on me more than others."

Seles' struggle on the court Monday, after an impressive start, was typical of her play this season. She was tentative and immobile, and once Testud steadied her own game, she waited for Seles to disintegrate.

Seles had begun so well, winning the first set at love and running seven consecutive games. Testud, ranked No. 23, was opportunistic in winning the second set but, again, Seles would have been expected to respond.

She did, briefly. She held a 5-2 lead in the third set and was serving for the match at 5-3 but was broken after an overrule changed a 15-15 score to 0-30. Seles became unsettled.

"It didn't come at a great time," she said of the overrule. "But I shouldn't have let it bother me that much, to have carried it that long with me. I was mumbling to myself a little bit in that game and the next game too."

Testud broke to go up 5-4 and held to make it 5-5. Seles held her next service game, then held a match point but missed a backhand passing shot, losing that opportunity.

Testud broke again to go up, 7-6, and on her own serve fired two aces, the second on match point.

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