NEW YORK — The glittering stage above the mosh pit at the MTV Video Awards is a strange place to find a female U.S. Open tennis champion — especially the night before a big match. But there was Monica Seles at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, live, in front of millions of viewers, giggling and reading off the cue cards. Seles, in her clipped English, announced the contenders for some award, “Hootie and the Blowfish” and “Michael and Janet Jackson” and then she came to a video with a rather strange name.
” ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ ” she read, and she half- giggled and moved on.
Had she given it some thought, she might not have laughed. “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” was the sentence a stranger mumbled before attacking CBS’ Dan Rather on a New York City street in 1986. He left Rather battered and bleeding — for no apparent reason. Seles, stabbed by a stranger herself more than two years ago, didn’t make the connection. It was just as well.
Don’t think. That’s her best advice. Don’t think. It sounds like an odd technique for a sport such as tennis, which demands so much focus on where the ball is going. And yet, it is Seles’ mantra, her Popeye spinach. Don’t think. If she doesn’t think, she just reacts — and her reactions are still the finest in women’s tennis, strong, fast, aggressive, overwhelming.
If she doesn’t think.
If she does think, she sees shadows. She sees ghosts. She sees things coming that haven’t come yet, the way she projects a ball coming off a server’s racket. Like the time an anxious fan began to climb a fence to get her autograph. Seles ran and hid until the police arrived. Or the time she finally forced herself to watch a video of the day she was attacked by that pathetic loner named Gunther Parche, and suddenly, when she saw his knife, the room was spinning and she couldn’t breathe. She ran into the bathroom and began to heave.
Don’t think. So she doesn’t. She laughs, she paints her fingernails — and she wins. Who knows? She may never lose again.
‘The thing that happened’
What Seles has done these past two weeks is a remarkable story, even without a finish, which will come today in the U.S. Open final against Steffi Graf. If Seles wins, it will be her first Grand Slam title since the 1993 stabbing — or as Monica calls it “the thing that happened.”
Had she merely come back and played well, it would have been big. But to come back and not lose a set in two straight tournaments — to clobber players such as Gabriela Sabatini, Jana Novotna and Friday’s semifinal victim, Conchita Martinez — well, that is nothing short of superhuman. It is every bit as awesome as Michael Jordan soaring to the top the NBA mountain again, maybe more so.
“I’m not the only person in tennis who could do this,” Seles said of her comeback this week. “I’m sure Agassi or Sampras could do the same.”
She paused. “Of course, I hope they won’t have to . . .”
For much of the time that Seles was gone, there were rumors that she wasn’t quite right. Some people said she was waiting on an insurance policy, she’d lost her nerve, she was overweight.
How delightful, then, to see Seles back, not as some quivering, shivering neurotic — although in New York, that’s considered normal — but rather as a bouncy, flighty, somewhat flaky 21-year-old.
In other words, her old self.
Don’t think. The Madonna phase
Remember that Seles was always a bit kooky. She was the best in the world before her 18th birthday, and that can do strange things to your equilibrium. She went through a Madonna phase, where she tried dressing like the pop star, and her press conferences were always a stenographer’s nightmare, she talked like a two-headed Valley Girl from Dubrovnik.
She has returned a bit taller, a bit stronger, a good deal wiser — and still goofy, laughing like a hyena. Maybe she laughs to ward off the fears. Or maybe that comes out in her wicked two-handed shots, which she wallops as if chopping down a tree. Friday, she ran Martinez like a duck in a penny arcade. It was no contest. This, less than 24 hours after from Seles’ MTV appearance, in a week when she also went to Broadway, Barneys and the Giants-Cowboys Monday night game.
Can someone simply slide back into life after such a traumatic exit?
“I have a different outlook,” she admits. “I’m trying to balance my life now. Work hard at tennis, work hard at having a life.”
It will be fascinating to watch the final this afternoon — maybe the best women’s showdown in the history of this tournament — as Seles’ arch rival, Graf, tries to hold her throne against the returning queen. Graf, a wonderful champion — 38-1 this year — has been trying not to think lately as well. Her father is in jail in Germany for tax evasion, her back is bad, her foot is sore. “With all that has happened to me,” Graf says, “I never expected to be in the final.”
They were the best in the world two years ago, before the knife, and they are still the best today — but they are not the same. In 1993, the winner might have been the one with the better head game. Today, the winner will be the one whose mind is most empty. Seles and Graf were asked about their showdown on Friday. Both deflected the question. Don’t think. Just hit.
Wow. Is this a final, or what?