CARLSBAD — The best sound in tennis is the grunt, the "unh-EEE," that rises from the tip of Monica Seles' toes and exits at the top of her follow-through. It is the grunt that drove Jennifer Capriati crazy Friday. It is the grunt that gets louder as Seles plays better. Which makes it the sweetest sound on the WTA Tour.
This week during the Acura Classic at La Costa, the grunt was alive and well.
It was stifled a little Sunday in the final. Venus Williams, the world's best player no matter the rankings (which will rate her fourth today), beat Seles, 6-2, 6-3. The score makes it seem like a routine victory, but Seles hung in many games, making Williams play many points in the 1-hour 8-minute match.
And losing to Williams is no disgrace. On grass and on hard courts, nobody beats Williams anymore. Not when it matters. Still, Seles had a week in which she beat the top-ranked player (Martina Hingis) in the semifinals and the No. 2-ranked player (Capriati) in the quarterfinals. At the beginning of this season, even money had it that Seles would be retired by now.
"Yeah, and last year no one would have given a dollar for [Capriati's] chances either," Seles said, "and she won the Australian and the French. So I wasn't surprised what was being said about me either."
It is impossible not to root for Seles. Her story has been as tragic as it has been triumphant. She won eight Grand Slam titles from mid-1990 to early 1993.
What followed was awful. First came an on-court stabbing, followed by more than a two-year hiatus from the circuit, not to return until August 1995. Then quickly came her most despairing time, when she cared for her father, Karolj, until he died of cancer in May 1998.
Now we see a 27-year-old woman with sad eyes and a strong commitment to playing a game she loves more than anything.
On the court Sunday at La Costa were two women--one who almost certainly would have created the most dominant record in the history of the game had not a disturbed German fan sneaked onto a court and put a knife blade in Seles' back, and one who almost certainly can create the most dominant record in history if she wants to.
Seles looks at Williams and sees a 21-year-old champion with the game's most complete set of skills.
"Venus has the best serve, and the height and the best movement," Seles said. "To have those three things, Venus is very blessed. And she works very hard. There are so many great players, but I think Venus has the chance maybe to be the greatest ever."
When Seles said this, her voice fell to nearly a whisper. Even now, eight years after it happened, Seles can't totally be rid of her bitterness about the stabbing and what happened after.
The man who attacked her did it so that his favorite player, Steffi Graf, would be No. 1 again. And that's what happened.
Seles was physically and emotionally injured and the women's tour was left for Graf to dominate. Before the attack, Seles had won seven of the previous eight Grand Slam tournaments she had entered. With her creative power, with the weird angles Seles concocted with her two-handed forehand and backhand, with her killer competitiveness, Seles might have won the next seven Slams she played.
"I know that," Seles said. "I think I would have had a pretty big record and sometimes that bothers me."
Seles' record, though, should not be discounted. And her desire to be playing still, an elder stateswoman who remembers hitting with Venus and her sister Serena 10 years ago in Manhattan Beach, should be considered as much a triumph as any of the nine Grand Slam titles she has won.
Never in all the bad years did Seles lose her love of tennis. It is the part of Karolj that Seles keeps alive in her heart.
"My father was so good to me because he only wanted me to do the things I loved," Seles said. "That's the most important thing my father taught me--that I should always do what I love."
The big question with Williams is the depth of her love of tennis. Williams has taken time off to attend fashion school. She speaks often of wanting to move on to another career by the time she is in her mid-20s. Being the best tennis player ever might not interest Williams. If it does, she has the chance. If Williams has the same love of tennis as Seles, then Williams can create the kind of history Seles didn't have the chance for.
Since the stabbing, Seles has won only one Grand Slam tournament--the 1996 Australian Open. She was in the finals of the 1995 and 1996 U.S. Opens and the 1998 French Open.
Seles arrived here leaner, lighter, faster and noisier than at any time in the last four years. This Seles can turn on the ball again, blasting away from the baseline. This Seles hits the ball as hard as any of the youngsters.
This Seles with the grunt can challenge Capriati, Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin. Whether they can challenge Venus Williams is the unanswered question.
And most of all this Seles can teach all of them about handling hardship with grace, about appreciating the talent each has been given, about accepting the unfair parts of life and moving forward. Having this knowledge is worth more than any tennis title.
Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com