If a plastic-helmeted Caesar wasn't trying to press a gold coin into the palm of her hand, a Cleopatra in a beaded headdress was showering her with rose petals. That's what happens when you star in a made-for-TV event amid the high camp and fakery of Atlantic City. Yet somehow, Monica Seles's return to competitive tennis was both real and affecting. As exhibitions go, Seles's victory over Martina Navratilova was sincere. As comebacks from stabbings go, it was a blockbuster.
It had been 27 months—820 days, to be exact—since a German lathe operator, G�nther Parche, knifed Seles in the back at a tournament in Hamburg in a deranged attempt to return the No. 1 ranking to his countrywoman Steffi Graf. After two-plus years of seclusion broken only by some social doubles and a few fleeting public appearances, Seles walked rather shakily in her return to the public eye. But all the creepiness of the past and contrivances of the present disappeared the first time Seles connected squarely with the ball. "This whole thing has been, like, one big wow," Seles said after defeating Navratilova convincingly, 6-3, 6-2. The score wasn't nearly as significant as the self-assurance of Seles's performance: She was unflinching in the spotlight. "I couldn't have asked for any more from myself," Seles said.
That is saying something, because Seles was a merciless teenage No. 1 from 1991 to '93, a span during which she won seven of her eight Grand Slam titles. Now, at 21, she has matured physically. She laced returns at Navratilova's feet, tore forehands cross-court, buried backhands in the corners. She made an uncharacteristically high number of unforced errors, but that was to be expected. And her serve was rusty, as evidenced by her six double faults. But it was also bigger. "I felt like the rabbit that sets the pace and then drops out after the first mile," Navratilova said.
Granted, Navratilova is a 38-year-old retiree. However, she is still a lively opponent and an expert prognosticator. She estimated that it will take Seles exactly no time at all to reacclimate to the WTA tour. "Those passing shots were not a mirage," said Navratilova. "She is here."
One facet of Seles's game was noticeably diminished: her grunting. Otherwise she was the same player, just a little taller and heavier. With her tendency to slouch, Seles has never looked the part of a champion athlete, and despite sporting some sleek new clothes courtesy of a recent deal with Nike, she still doesn't. "I need to get stronger, and I need to run a lot," she said. Seles can certainly get back into shape by the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 28, but she'll need to be in top condition to contend during the grueling two weeks at Flushing Meadow. She will play one warmup event, in Los Angeles or Toronto.
All in all the exhibition in Atlantic City was a healing experience. Seles's main objective was to conquer the stage fright that had set in during her hiatus, and that required long hours of work with a psychologist (SI, July 17). The glaring lights of CBS cameras and the din of the casinos were unnerving but a good test.
On the afternoon before the match, Seles flew by private jet from her home in Florida. No sooner had her stretch limo glided to a stop in front of Caesars Palace than a phalanx of cameras descended on her. Seles and a ring of security guards worked their way inside the front door, where a mock Caesar and Cleopatra stood on a red carpet and offered greetings. Cleopatra reached into a basket and tossed a handful of rose petals at Seles, who winced slightly and turned her head away, uttering a small squeal. It was her only visibly uncomfortable moment.
Navratilova's arrival was less eventful. She sprinted through the hotel lobby at 11 that night after having played a match for the New Jersey Stars of the World Team Tennis league. Late for a cocktail reception, Navratilova barely noticed the Cleopatra who pursued her through the lobby and finally flung a handful of petals at the elevator door as it closed.
Seles's composure and excellent form were a source of deep satisfaction to Navratilova, who had helped shepherd her return. As president of the WTA players' association, Navratilova made it her priority to get Seles back on the court, visiting and practicing with her this spring. In Atlantic City, Navratilova played her supporting role graciously. She brought just the right amount of levity and competitive fire to the proceedings, despite playing with a slightly pulled groin muscle. But injury or no injury, Navratilova had no intention of missing the occasion she had taken such pains to help bring about. When asked if she was fit, she replied, "I'm just dandy, thank you."
The level of Seles's play also justified Navratilova's insistence that Seles receive a co-No. 1 ranking with Graf when she returns to the tour. The proposal was unanimously adopted by the players, although its finer points have been controversial. A number of Top 10 players believe that Seles's ranking should not be artificially inflated for too long. Seles will be co-No. 1 for her first six events or for 12 months, whichever comes first.