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Over the Top
S.L. Price
April 07, 1997
Martina Hingis blew through the Upton and became, at 16, the youngest women's No. 1 ever
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April 07, 1997

Over The Top

Martina Hingis blew through the Upton and became, at 16, the youngest women's No. 1 ever

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But on Saturday. I Hingis happened upon a different Seles: a player with ragged concentration and a game in disrepair. Seles, 23, is far more thoughtful than she was six years ago. She seldom giggles. Partly this is because she spent the last four months away from tennis, recovering from a muscle tear in her left shoulder and from a broken right ring finger, the latter courtesy of a practice serve by Hingis before an exhibition in Geneva on Dec. 2, Seles's birthday. "Great birthday present I got," Seles says about the injury, and, yes, she sounds resigned to her bad luck. Who can blame her? Shortly thereafter, her Yorkshire terrier, Astro, died. And in February, Seles received news from Germany that her final appeal of the suspended sentence given to G�nther Parche, the man who stabbed her at a tournament in Hamburg in 1993, had been denied, and he will remain free.

Seles decided to spend New Year's Eve with friends in the Caribbean—a way to start fresh. As she puts it, "I was thinking, O.K., 1997, new year. Better things." Just after midnight, she called her mother and father at their home in Sarasota, I la. No one answered. She called her brother, Zoltan, and wished him a happy New Year. "] don't know if I should tell you this," Zoltan said. Their father, Karolj, who had twice battled cancer, in his stomach and prostate, had collapsed at home and was in the hospital. Cancer again. "Now it's back in his stomach," Monica says. "And it's metastasized."

Karolj was Monica's coach, but unlike many tennis fathers, he never pushed his daughter further than she wanted to be pushed. He backed away from reflected glory. After her stabbing, he kept urging Monica to enjoy tennis as a game, nothing more. The Lipton, her first full tournament since her career-worst loss—6-2, 6-0 to Hingis in Oakland in November—was also the first tournament she'd ever played without her dad in attendance. Monica decided to play a full schedule this year because she senses that Karolj's spirits lift when she and he talk tennis. "The hardest thing is not being there with him," she says. "Because of the time: Who knows how much time he has? I'm not going to see him much this year, and that's something I'm struggling with. I'm not a baby anymore. I've got to realize that I've got to take care of my dad. I've got to be there for him. Anytime you see your parent suffer, and it drags on and on, it's hard. It makes you think about your own death."

Seles has a hitting partner, but she runs her practices now. At the hotel in Key Biscayne, at the stadium before matches—in fact, everywhere during the Lipton—she felt lonely. Even as he endures chemotherapy at home, Karolj faxes Monica advice. When he was in the hospital in January, he wrote her thick sheaves of instructions on how to handle her career one, five, 10 years from now. During the Lipton she called home twice daily, before and after each match, but the new tone of the conversations took some adjusting to. In the past. Karolj had always spoken to Monica about the parts of her game that weren't working, the things she could improve on. "Now," Monica said, "he just says, 'Be happy.' "

On Saturday in the stadium. Seles wasn't. Yes, she had had moments at Key Biscayne when her game seemed to take shape, but they occurred against opponents such as Barbara Paulus and Asa Carlsson. Twice Seles was pressed to three sets in matches that once would have been automatic wins. "I can't have the focus I had four or five years ago," she said. Against Hingis, she had none. Her first serve was gone, her ground strokes mere ghosts of what they once were. The match took 44 minutes. Hingis played superbly, nailing an astonishing 74% of her first serves. She broke Seles six times and made only eight unforced errors.

"She just seems to be having a great time," Seles said. "She told me this is the best time of her life."

Afterward Hingis spoke about her tennis and about being No. 1, but soon that grew old, and she spoke of teenagers' subjects: Her mother ("She only wants the best for me"). Dating ("Traveling so much, it's hard to find somebody at the tournament; you would have to go every week with someone else"). Being underage ("I still can't drive the car; I still can't go out"). Money—she has made more than $1 million on the court already this year ("Wow, the money is rolling, rolling"). Then her eyes danced, and she laughed, and everyone laughed with her. Everything was perfect.

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