Monica Seles is already on court when the woman takes a seat in the second row and sets the dead man in her lap. The ball hops with a pock! off the racket of Seles, who is warming up loose and easy, no grunts. It's a cool, clear Wednesday night in Carlsbad, Calif. The people with permatans and cell phones are still ambling in, filling the air with chatter. The woman is Catherine Trachtenberg. She turns to a stranger and asks for a knife; when none is forthcoming, she begins poking her fingers at the small clear plastic bag. The stranger makes a crack and instantly feels stupid: This is my brother, Trachtenberg says, and these are his ashes. Finally she tugs the bag open, leans over and shakes out some of the contents under her chair, frosting the grass below with a fine gray powder. "Monica was his favorite player," Trachtenberg says.
Ever since her astonishing run to the French Open final in June, just three weeks after the death from stomach cancer of her father and coach, Karolj, Monica has found herself engulfed by a tide of public affection that's touching and extreme. Every week brings more mail from people telling how they, too, have lost a parent, a sister, a child. No one is shy. Every trip to the store brings a story about how much someone admires her.
Other players root for her to win. "Some guy took away part of her career, and her dad was taken from her. Anybody can relate to that," says Lindsay Davenport, ranked second in the world.
"Monica, we love you!" a man shouts during tonight's first set, but the support Seles is receiving goes beyond love or pity. It's as if by enduring five years of bizarre, sad, unjust and very public setbacks, the 24-year-old Seles has become one of the few millionaire athletes with whom even the cynical can identify. Who could call her just another spoiled tennis brat? She has won nine Grand Slam singles titles, but no one has proved more vulnerable—to a madman's knife in 1993, to clouds of depression, to life's brutal hits. For anyone who has experienced grief or loss, for anyone over 20, that is, the sight of Seles in this summer of mourning, walking between points with downcast expression, hitting with fury, sets off emotional depth charges. She knows what we know.
Consider her previous 24 hours. On the day before the match in Carlsbad, Seles had lunch and hit with Shelby Anderson, an 11-year-old girl stricken with Lyme disease. The meeting had been arranged by The Starlight Children's Foundation, which allows seriously ill kids to submit three wishes. Seles was at the top of Shelby's list, and not because of her talent. "One reason Shelby picked her is that Monica has suffered and come back," said Shelby's mother, Juanita. "That's why. She's suffered so much."
Later that evening Seles was reading magazines in a Barnes & Noble when a woman approached to say her mother had recently died of breast cancer. "We both started crying," Seles says. "Our parents meant so much to us, and we both had such fresh memories and we hugged, and it was, like, Oh, god! I left thinking, I don't even know this person. But we shared something that's so deep, things I sometimes couldn't talk to my mom about."
Though Seles has every reason to be paranoid, few public figures are as approachable. She has never mastered the celebrity's thousand-yard stare; she engages whoever stops her, grins, thanks the person, asks questions. Despite a death threat made during the 1996 Australian Open, despite her stabbing by a deranged Steffi Graf fan in '93—and the resulting two years of private turmoil and high security—Seles refuses to live in a velvet prison. Some of her closest friendships began as random meetings in restaurants or clubs. She travels coach as often as first class, and last year her mother, Esther, was horrified to learn that, upon arriving in Paris, Monica had accepted a ride from someone she had met on the plane.
Such openness has its price. Throughout Karolj's illness, doctors at the hospital kept asking to have their picture taken with Monica. Last year, when she returned to her hotel room during the Madrid Open, Seles opened the door to find a stranger waiting inside with arms full of tennis paraphernalia. She drew the man out of the room, signed everything he had for her and bolted down the hall. "At least if something happened, someone would hear me," she says.
But tonight at the Toshiba Tennis Classic, the intense devotion that only Seles seems to inspire has reached a surreal pinnacle. After Seles takes the first-set tiebreaker from Sandrine Testud with a screeching backhand winner, Trachtenberg, a nurse who has driven two hours from Los Angeles, screams "Mon-I-CA!" so that everyone in the place can hear. Every once in a while she lifts the half-empty bag to her lips and kisses it. Her brother John Alexander was in a wheelchair, paralyzed as the result of a motorcycle accident, she explains, and he died of a heart attack in January at age 43. He met Seles once, in the early 1990s at a tournament in Manhattan Beach, and something about her touched him. "Monica didn't care that he couldn't walk," Trachtenberg says. "She treated him like a normal person."
Seles falls behind 1-5 in the second set. Trachtenberg goes silent. Then, as the match turns and Seles battles to go ahead 6-5, Trachtenberg revives and shouts to her, "Monica, Mon-I-CA! Jonathan's here." Seles sets to serve match point, and Trachtenberg murmurs into the bag, "Please, please."