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Paris Is Seles' Getaway Trip

French Open: Father's passing is difficult on former champion, who nevertheless wins opening match.

May 27, 1998|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — In the end, it was far easier for Monica Seles to step on a tennis court at a Grand Slam tournament thousands of miles from home, less than two weeks after the death of her beloved father and coach, Karolj.

The alternative was too painful.

At home, memories hit Seles every time she turned a corner, having spent most of the last 15 months there at the side of her father in his long, painful fight against stomach cancer.

So Seles spoke to her mother, Esther, and other confidantes, deciding to revisit the scene of her first Grand Slam triumph, defeating Annabel Ellwood of Australia, 6-0, 6-2, on Tuesday at the French Open.

This is where Seles in 1990 became the youngest winner at Roland Garros, a sweet 16-year-old who finished almost every sentence with an infectious giggle.

This is also where Karolj Seles--the cartoonist who used Tom and Jerry characters to introduce his daughter to tennis--used to watch Monica, applauding her penetrating ground strokes. More notably, he often clapped when Seles' opponent hit an appealing shot.

As much as Karolj taught Monica on the court, he raised his daughter to keep a positive frame of mind. Now, more than ever, Seles tapped into those resources, and she responded with a resolute performance in her first-round match, beating Ellwood in 51 minutes.

The other matches involving the top-seeded women went according to form, with the exception of unseeded Patty Schnyder of Switzerland defeating No. 5 Amanda Coetzer of South Africa, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6.

But Seles, seeded sixth, was the focal point of the proceedings Tuesday. Even she wasn't quite certain how she would react.

"I was unsure whether I would be ready emotionally and probably tennis-wise," Seles said. "It was just too tough for me to stay at home. It's so much better for me to be here.

"It's really tough. Sooner or later I'm going to have to get over that hurdle. Right now, I don't want to deal with it. It's been a tough 15 months for my family, mostly for my father.

"This is what I want to do. My dad would love me to play. This is what I want to do for the next part of my life."

Seles, 24, was composed on the court and in the interview room afterward. She spoke about her doubts and fears and struggles, including when she was stabbed in 1993 and what followed.

"There are so many things that most of you don't know about what I have to go through, but that's OK," she said. "My dad's health was totally different. It made me realize what life is, and being with Dad the last few days I look at things a lot differently.

"I just sometimes wish these things didn't happen right now. I wish my dad could have seen the end of my career and a lot of other things."

The only visibly difficult moment for Seles was when she spoke about what her father endured. He underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy. Speaking about him, Seles trailed off, hesitated and waited for the next question.

Other players were surprised Seles appeared in Paris.

"I was like, 'What? That's unbelievable,' " Lindsay Davenport said. "I wrote to her a few times. When I talked to her, she said she really wanted to get out of Sarasota, [Fla.,] and come here.

"You know, she played unbelievable today. It's great for her to get here, move on, get away from everything."

Davenport was at the German Open when she learned of Karolj's death.

"When I found out in Berlin, I was OK," Davenport said. "Then 10 minutes later, I just started crying. I was talking to my coach, it was like, 'Nice five years of her life.' She got stabbed, the worse thing that could possibly happen. She loses her dad.

"Yet she's the only person I know that could handle it the way she has, even become a better person for it."

Seles is one of the few who could step on the court with minimal preparation and not embarrass herself. After playing the Italian Open, she hadn't practiced because of her father's declining health. After arriving here Saturday, Seles practiced twice.

"I've never been around anybody as strong, emotionally and mentally strong," said Gavin Hopper, who became her coach at the start of the clay-court season. "With nine Grand Slams, she could have patted herself on the back and said that's a good career."

Hopper's strength is fitness, and he has Seles on a long-term program, expecting to see tangible results by the 1999 Australian Open. He had watched tapes of Seles' French Open victories, along with Karolj Seles, and said she will have to be better now, if she has a chance to win here.

"From afar, before she called me, I believe she was the best hitter in the game," he said. "I still believe it. Venus [Williams] might be a better athlete, and [Martina] Hingis feels the ball on the racket, and takes it on the rise. But if Monica made the decision, the commitment . . . I think she can do it [be No. 1 again]."

Said Davenport: "She is just an unbelievable tennis player. As she plays more and more without the distractions, I think she's going to get to where she's winning Grand Slams, whether it's eight months or however long it is. She's just so naturally good."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Today's Featured Matches

WOMEN

* Venus Williams (8) vs. Ai Sugiyama, Japan.

* Martina Hingis (1) vs. Meike Babel, Germany

* Jana Novotna, Czech Republic (3) vs. Emilie Loit, France

****

MEN

* Marcelo Rios, Chile (3) vs. Emilio Alvarez, Spain

* Pete Sampras (1) vs. Ramon Delgado, Paraguay

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