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Ten years ago, the last time she played a singles match on this court, none of it had happened: the stabbing, her father's death, her greatness slipping away. Monica Seles was in the middle of her world conquest then, about to win her second U.S. Open title, and the grandstand court at Flushing Meadow had a different feel. Champions played here all the time. But now the Open has the oversized Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the grandstand has declined into a dingy venue for third-tier showdowns. The hot celebs go someplace else to watch.
Seles doesn't belong here, but then again maybe she does. It's Thursday night in the first week of the 2002 Open, and her second-round match, against 83rd-ranked Barbara Schwartz, is a disaster. Seles lost the first set 6-1 and has just been broken to go down 4-3. The stands are half empty. Seles is teetering on the edge, and not only in this match. She will turn 29 soon, and she has been thinking retirement. She says she's taking her career "one day at a time."
This summer Seles's body broke down again. In the latest in a string of injuries she has endured since returning from a two-year layoff in 1995, she aggravated a stress fracture in her right foot. She hopes to play the WTA Championships in November, but after that, who knows? In 2003 she plans to slash her tournaments from the 17 required by the WTA tour for a computer ranking to 10 or fewer. "I don't want to play a full schedule, but it's not just want," Seles says softly. "I don't think my body can."
This is how the end begins, then: not with a loss but with a whisper. Seles's shots are still among the cleanest in the game, and her will is still formidable. She crouches, smacks her racket on the ground, cranks up her grunt and breaks Schwartz's serve. Then she beats down her opponent with a flurry of punishing ground strokes and evens the match at one set apiece. In the third set she begins to handle Schwartz, but it's nothing close to a vintage Seles performance. Her game lacks conviction, and in tennis conviction is everything. For months people have been asking her about retirement. A couple of years ago such questions made her cry. Now they just sink in.
"Once you hit 25, they ask you all the time, 'How much longer are you going to play?' " says Martina Navratilova. "Then you start wondering. It starts eating at you. You start playing a different game."
Seles isn't the only one. Pete Sampras hasn't won a tournament since Wimbledon in 2000, but after two years of changing coaches and denying the obvious, he came into this U.S. Open at peace with the fact that he doesn't have the will to dominate anymore. Because Sampras rarely showed emotion, few fans understood how big a part it played in his game. He personalized matches to the point of illness, won a match in New York in '96 despite exhaustion and vomiting, dedicated his '95 U.S. Open title to his dying coach. Now Sampras, who says he'll make no decision on retiring until the end of 2003, is gambling that he can win one last Grand Slam event without the commitment on which his career was built. "I don't have that in me anymore," he says. "That's fine. I'm much happier now than I was when I was dominating, looking over my shoulder to see who the next guy was. It's tougher to keep it going. But for a major? I've still got it."
Maybe. The 31-year-old Sampras made a scintillating run last year before losing the Open final to Lleyton Hewitt, and last week he rolled over his first two opponents before beating Greg Rusedski in five sets on Monday. But his wife, Bridgette, is expecting their first child in December, and it's an article of faith in tennis that family life will end a champion's run faster than any opponent. Even basic consideration for other people is considered a handicap in this sport. "Professional sports are like that in general," says Lindsay Davenport. "Most of the great players are a———s or bitches."
Not Sampras and Seles, who have elevated tennis with what Jim Courier calls "their pure and simple class." At the Open, however, they're constantly asked when they plan to stop. "We're the problem," says Courier, a former No. 1 player who is now a tennis TV commentator. "We, the public, are uncomfortable watching people we've seen dominate for so long suffer."
But suffering, of course, has been at the core of Seles's career. Her big-bang showdown with Jennifer Capriati at the '91 U.S. Open heralded the power era in women's tennis, but it was her run to the 1995 final—after the layoff that followed her courtside stabbing by a deranged fan of Steffi Graf in 1993—that forever won the hearts of the public. Since then fans have cheered her through the death of her father and coach, Karolj, in 1998, and through all the injuries.
Now, despite the bone-chilling mist hovering over the grandstand court, fans flood in to cheer Seles again. She has taken a 4-2 lead in the third set. Time is running out.