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When she was eight, Monica Seles of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, visited Monte Carlo with her family. She put a coin in a slot machine, pulled the lever and shut her eyes. Three lemons. Coins rained upon her. Unlike the lever-happy men and women all around her, though, she didn't feed the machine her windfall. She pocketed it.
Curious restraint for a child. But not for Monica, who has resisted numerous temptations since then—not from the slots but from her success at tennis, which seems to be beckoning her down the road to early stardom. Now 14, the 5'5", 100-pound Monica, who's known for her gauche on-court grunting and her mean two-fisted ground strokes, played her first two pro tournaments in March. Alhough she is still an amateur, she turned heads at both.
At the Virginia Slims tournament, in Boca Raton, Fla., Monica beat 35th-ranked Helen Kelesi, 7-6, 6-3, while Steffi Graf and Chris Evert looked on. Then Monica took on Evert, who is 19 years her senior. Monica lost 6-2, 6-1, but Evert conceded the score could easily have been a lot closer. A week later, at the Lipton championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., Monica defeated 140th-ranked Louise Field 6-0, 6-3. In her next match she held three set points against Gabriela Sabatini before succumbing 7-6, 6-3.
True, Monica suffered losses in both events, but what seductive losses they were—like coins from the slots, crying out, "Play harder. Gamble more." However, she refuses to give in to temptation. She says she won't turn professional until she finishes high school, and she won't have played another tournament until the U.S. Open this month. In the meantime she is practicing her serve and volley so they'll be as strong as her ground strokes. "Many people want to be the youngest to do this, the youngest to do that," she says. "I don't want to set records. You can hurt yourself. I just want to be good when I'm 19."
For all her humble talk, Monica is already a lot more than good. Since 1982, when she picked up her first tennis racket, put on a headband and tried to imitate Bjorn Borg, Monica has never lost to anyone her age or younger. At nine, just a year after she started playing, she competed in the Yugoslav 12-and-under girls championships. "She didn't know the rules," says Zoltan, 23, her older brother, co-coach and a former Yugoslav 18-and-under champion. "She was playing the points and not counting. She was always asking me whether she was winning or losing." Monica was winning. She pocketed her victory and returned home to hit more balls against the wall.
Monica reemerged at age 10 in 1984, winning the 12-and-under European championships, in Paris. In 1985 she was named Sportswoman of the Year in Yugoslavia, the first person under the age of 18 ever to be so honored. That same year, as she was winning the Orange Bowl 12-and-under crown in Miami, she was spotted by Nick Bollettieri, coach to such promising players as Andre Agassi.
"I saw this little pip-squeak, no bigger than a tennis racket," says Bollettieri, "and she was beating the heck out of everyone." Well, that sealed it. Nothing would do but for Monica to enroll at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on scholarship.
In 1986, Monica moved from Novi Sad to Bradenton, accompanied by Zoltan, who was fresh out of the army. Homesick and missing yogurt, ?evap?i ?i (a dish made of ground lamb and beef) and snow, the two awaited their parents' arrival. Monica and Zoltan lived at the academy.
Six months later their mother, Ester, took a two-year leave from her job as a computer programmer, and their father, Karolj, once a triple jump champ in Yugoslavia, put down his work as a cartoonist and documentary filmmaker. They closed their three houses—two in Novi Sad and a vacation home in the country—and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Bradenton without knowing a syllable of English. Of life in Florida, where tiny lizards slither underfoot, rich children play tennis all day and summer never leaves. Karolj, whose English is coming along, says, "I am on the moon."
But the strange surroundings haven't deterred the Seleses from their mission to make Monica into a great player. "Rarely have I seen a family so focused." says Ted Meekma, executive director of Bollettieri's academy. "They are very dedicated, very ritualistic in the way they train, and very patient."