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Monica Seles: The Woman to Play for the Earth
In part two of our out-of-this-world series, the former world No. 1 is tasked with putting her famed mental strength to the ultimate test.
Published Jan 12, 2022
Billie Jean King said it best: "Pressure is a privilege!" In Pressure Point, players, legends and coaches take a deep dive into the polarizing topic of pressure in tennis.
This film explores that notion, and examines the various dimensions of pressure associated with the sport—from its scientific definition, to how Roger, Rafa, Novak and Serena handle pressure-packed situations.
Streaming now on TennisChannel.com (in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, UK and India)
A brief update: In the first of two matches versus space invaders seeking to capture the Earth, our home planet’s tennis proxy, Pancho Gonzales, won his match versus Zed to put the Earth ahead 1-0. Next: a women’s match.
Zed briefly huddled with Zee, giving her a few pointers about how the grass was playing. Zee had the choice of surface in the women’s match and was glad to know it was the only one her opponent had never won a major on. Zed and Zee also knew that even if Zee won and leveled things, it would all come down to a mixed doubles match versus Owen Davidson and Billie Jean King.
Earth’s representative, Monica Seles, hadn’t seen a point of Zed versus Gonzales. Instead, she’d taken a nap, then had a pre-match hit with her brother, Zoltan.
“This is going to be fun,” Seles said as she fired one groundstroke winner after another past Zoltan. An opponent who wasn’t from Earth? Why not? After all, Seles had dubbed a pet dog, “Astro,” the same name as the canine character on the 1960s cartoon set in the future, The Jetsons.
Seles’ capacity for enjoyment under pressure was largely shaped by the man who’d first taught her how to play, her father Karolj. He was a cartoonist, as well as an accomplished triple jumper. These twin skills gave Karolj a keen understanding of both biomechanics and the awareness that tennis was a game, a skill to be both mastered and enjoyed. In those early years in her hometown of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, Monica hit against a brick wall and a parking lot, Karolj stringing a makeshift net across parked cars. He also employed his artistic skills. There was “Little Mo,” a cartoon-like rabbit deployed in flipbook format that demonstrated various techniques. And since Monica’s favorite cartoon was Tom and Jerry, the tale of a cat and a mouse, Karolj drew the mouse on tennis balls, urging Monica to continually hit it. Seles also worked with Jelena Gencic, a wise local coach also renowned for greatly aiding Goran Ivanisevic and Novak Djokovic.
All of this made Seles a free-swinging a player as tennis has ever seen.
“Seles was a seminal player, a teenager who shaped and elevated the sport with her revolutionary style,” wrote Steve Flink in his book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time. “A left-hander, she produced devastatingly potent, two-handed strokes off both sides, going boldly for the lines with every invitation, taking the ball unfailingly on the rise, driving opponents into submission with her unrelenting backcourt attack.” No wonder she was such an inspiration to so many players, including Serena Williams, who cited Seles as her favorite player.
The three-out-of-set format was also in play for this match. Seles, after all, had won the WTA Finals three straight times that way (from 1990-’92), all as a teenager.
As the match got underway, Seles stood three feet inside the baseline to return Zee’s serve, blasting drives off both sides. To see this kind of firepower repeatedly explained why Martina Navratilova, the greatest net-rusher in the history of women’s tennis, said how she never felt more in danger than versus Seles.
Witness to one Seles salvo after another, Zee turned to Zed and said she felt helpless.
“She’s not even letting me play tennis,” said Zee. “And those grunts. I haven’t heard anything that loud since we played on Pluto.”
But as the match wore on, Zee nudged her way into more rallies. Just like Seles’ greatest rival, Stefanie Graf, Zee began to knife slice backhands to Seles’ forehand. These shots were so low that it was difficult for Seles to attack them with much force. Zee also tossed in the occasional moonball, a tip of the hat to how Arantxa Sanchez Vicario had beaten Seles in the 1998 Roland Garros final. And then, Zee stole a page from another Seles rival, Gabriela Sabatini, sprinting forward to the net to hit angled volleys.
All of this helped Zee take a two-sets-to-one lead. King and Davidson began warming up for the possible mixed match.
Seles was a seminal player, a teenager who shaped and elevated the sport with her revolutionary style. Steve Flink
Other players in that situation might contemplate a change in tactics. King, for example, was renowned for trotting out a full spectrum of spins, paces and alterations in her court positioning. But this wasn’t what made Seles earth’s proxy. As the man she’d worked with extensively in her teens, Nick Bollettieri, once said, “Monica would work on one thing for hours and hours, weeks and weeks. She knew exactly what she needed to do.”
In this case, that meant a bit more concentration and increased power.
Everything surfaced instantly as the fourth set began. Seles moved forward aggressively to pound Zee’s slice backhands. The moonballs were repelled by early drives. And when Zee came to net, the passing shots become both harder and, often, sharply angled.
So it was that Seles took charge of the next two sets, winning the match 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. This was the same score of her 1990 WTA Finals match versus Sabatini—the first women’s match to go five sets since 1901.
“It was an unbelievable match,” Seles said that day in New York. No doubt she felt the same way about her effort versus Zee. Given that Wimbledon was the only major Seles never won, it was particularly gratifying to have won this high-stakes match on grass.
Zed and Zee were naturally dejected. They’d come to Earth expecting to take a planet, but only left with runner-up trophies. As they gathered their bags and headed back to their spaceship, King wished them well.
“Today all four of these great competitors proved once again that pressure is a privilege,” said King. “Next time we’ll go to your planet.”