In a gesture of pre-World Cup hospitality, the French handed their Open over to the Spanish. As a way of showing respect for women of a certain age, they carded each of tennis's teen queens at the door, reserving spots in the final at Roland Garros for a couple of dowagers, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Monica Seles. But le plus beau geste of all was provided by Sánchez Vicario, who after her 7-6, 0-6, 6-2 victory turned to her opponent on the podium and said, "I'm so sorry I beat you."
So was everyone else. On May 14, just 11 days before the French Open began, Seles's cartoonist father, Karolj, died after a five-year fight with stomach cancer. Back in prewar Yugoslavia, Karolj had jury-rigged a net in a parking lot, drawn portraits of Tom and Jerry on a couple of tennis balls and beguiled his daughter into giving chase. With his guidance, Monica won eight Grand Slam titles and held the No. 1 ranking almost continuously from March 1991 until April '93, when a deranged Steffi Graf fan plunged a knife into Monica's back during a changeover in Hamburg, forever turning the phrase "unemployed German lathe operator" into one of those Headline News save-and-pastes, like "Libyan strongman" or "war-torn Chechnya."
Karolj would comfort Monica when she awoke at night screaming during the 27 months off the WTA Tour that followed. After extensive therapy for both mind and body, Monica made a promising comeback, only to be sidetracked again, first by injuries and then by Karolj's illness. This year she took off the first 10 weeks of the tour, including the Australian Open, so she could be with him, and a month ago she hurried back from the Italian Open to join her mother, Esther, and brother, Zoltan, at the family's home in Sarasota, Fla., for the final days of Karolj's life.
"There will be other French Opens," her coach, Gavin Hopper, told her. Yet Seles decided that the prospect of staying in Sarasota—staying among the artifacts of her father's life and the friends making condolence calls—would be more difficult man playing. Arriving in Paris on May 23, only two days before the tournament began, she took up the challenge of shearing away the future and the past, of paring time down to the moment at hand. If she were to worry about life without Karolj, or about the impudent teenage talent that has been shaking up the tour, or about shots two or three ahead of the ball now on her racket, she might be overwhelmed; if she were to dwell on the mistrust that followed that episode in Hamburg five years ago, or her father's final days of suffering, or the fact that she had won only nine singles titles since being stabbed, things wouldn't be much easier.
In Hopper, a fitness-first Aussie she hooked up with in late March, Seles had the perfect coach for her state of mind. "I stress working in the here and now," he says. "On focusing on the ball you're going to hit, how you're going to hit it and the intensity you're going to hit it with, right here, right now."
In Paris, Seles had no more ambivalence about the right here, the right now. At home with Karolj in his final months, she had felt the pull of the tour; on the tour she had wished she were home with him. "In a weird way, I have peace of mind," she said last week. "In Rome I felt like I played well, but my mind wasn't really on the court. After deciding I'd play here, I felt really content with my decision. And the last years I've never really been content with any decision."
She strung a necklace through her father's wedding ring and wore it with dark-colored tennis outfits, but there would be no maudlin dedication of this event that she had won three times. "My dad just really wanted me to do what I wanted to do," she said. "Whenever I stepped on the court, it was for me."
Indeed, there was no noise more joyful than Seles's familiar high-pitched grunts during her matches and giggles after them. And this French Open reverberated with many other sounds: from the wails of Anna Kournikova in the gloaming of her round-of-16 elimination, when the chair umpire refused her request that the match with Jana Novotna be suspended on account of darkness ("The first time a guy has ever said no to her," huffed one witness); to the rattle of Venus Williams's beads, audible as she rushed the net after one of her 120-mph serves (faster than any unleashed in Paris by Andre Agassi, Jim Courier or Marcelo Rios); to the gasp of the crowd when Venus's younger sister, Serena, peeled off her warmup jacket to reveal her rippling deltoids; to the haughty protestations of Martina Hingis, who dismissed the idea that she was party to any rivalry because "if you look at the rankings, I'm, like, almost 3,000 points up."
Before, after, even during their matches these teenage arrivistes engaged in all kinds of woofing and adolescent gamesmanship, taking advantage of any allowable bathroom break, opportunity for a dress change or excuse to appeal to the umpire to descend from the chair to hunt down some mark in the clay and overrule a line call. The French Open: Not just tennis, it's archaeology!
Seles, 24, couldn't be bothered with such trivia. "I just don't have the strength and intensity anymore," she had said in Paris a year ago, after losing in a semifinal to Hingis. This time in the semis she had both, beating Hingis, the 17-year-old world No. 1, for the first time in six tries, 6-3, 6-2, by playing what the loser would call tennis at a different level.