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Steppin' Out
Curry Kirkpatrick
May 27, 1991
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May 27, 1991

Steppin' Out


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The trouble with being the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world is this: Just when you've gotten comps for the M.C. Hammer show in Tampa, you're flown to some corporate promotion. Just when you're ready to pick up that black jacket to die for at the Armani shop in Rome, you're chauffeured to the opening of a new boutique for your own apparel line by Fila. Then, too, according to Monica Seles, there's "my tan line. It's a drag having to wear socks during matches because the tan, like, stops at the ankles. I can never get my skin, like, color-coordinated. I guess every sport has its drawbacks."

Yeah. Well, let's get one thing, like, straight about the 17-year-old Seles (whose full name should be pronounced—if you want to get it, like, right—Moan-EEK-uh SELL-us). The Virginia Slims computer rankings have once again been caught in a lie: The No. 1 player isn't really No. 1. This year both No. 2 Steffi Graf and No. 3 Gabriela Sabatini have whipped Seles's self-acknowledged "widening" caboose. Graf is 2-0 against her, while Sabatini is 1-1 but has a stronger overall record. Even the old, braying mare, Martina Navratilova, twice Seles's age and now ranked fourth, defeated her in their only meeting of 1991. And if Seles, the reigning two-hands-on-both-sides French Open champion, doesn't successfully defend her title at Roland Garros over the next fortnight in Paris, she'll likely lose even her mathematical claim to the top spot.

But if No. 1 is what Seles isn't, women's tennis should thank its lucky stars that Seles is what she is: the most personable, refreshing, stylish and glamorous young player to hit the big time since who? Suzanne Lenglen? Gussy Moran? Jennifer Capriati? Pardon me, Jennifer who? Newspaper headlines during the women's Italian Open two weeks ago summed up fairly well the different directions that Seles's and Capriati's careers have been heading, MONICA, LA BAMBINA S'È FATTA DONNA ("Monica, the baby has turned into a woman") cried the Corriere Delia Sera, CHE FINE HA FATTO BABY JANE? ("Whatever happened to Baby Jane?"—alias Jennifer) asked Il Tempo. Though Sabatini straight-setted both Seles and Capriati in Rome en route to winning her third tournament of the year, the two matches were very different. Capriati looked helpless in winning only two games, while Sabatini's 6-3, 6-2 victory over Seles in the rain-besieged final turned on a couple of big points. Moreover, the match was Seles's seventh final in seven tournaments in 1991—she has won three—which, goodness knows, would be a terrific achievement even if she weren't squeezing in some tennis around all those modeling sessions and hair appointments.

So what if she's now the spitting image of David Bowie? Nobody ever accused Mr. Ziggy Androgyny Stardust himself of being, uh, out. The new Seles haircut is actually a lot more practical than what she had initially considered in her search for a change—going the way of the shaved-skull pop warbler Sinéad O'Connor. No worry about tan lines there. "Somebody reminded me my head would get pretty sunburned," says Seles.

Scarcely into her third year on the tour, Seles is into her third hair length and third shade: first straight and dark brown, then frizzed and corn yellow with the roots showing, and now a golden-henna-colored short wave. That was all the better, of course, to coordinate with the Argentinian-designed, sleeveless henna culotte ensemble, accessorized by gold slippers, that she wore for a recent interview—which was in the morning. Hey, you've got to be a rooster to keep up with Seles, outfitwise. This followed by one day a fashion shoot for which Seles at one point chose electric orange tights to go with a flowing, silk shirt by Gianni Versace with huge neon facial images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe virtually leaping off the front and back. During the shoot, Seles lay down on the wet grass of the Parioli Club in Rome, her head propped on two tennis balls, and struck some fairly seductive poses. "You think we could find a Marilyn wig for me in this town?" she said.

Seles has colored her hair so much through the years that it was falling out in bunches. And pulling that scraggle-bush back so tightly on the tennis court was resulting in headaches. So, snip, snip. "Somebody said I should go blonder," says Seles. "You know, the Swedish goddess look. But my brother, Zoltan, did that, and now I hardly recognize him. I wanted to look more natural." Nonetheless, after Seles received her first treatment for her new henna 'do, she rushed to Bettina Pettersen, the dusky blonde who works as an events manager on the tour, and begged for Pettersen's picture so she could suggest to Seles's make-over people still another hue.

As a wannabe grown-up, Seles is mindful of her on-court behavior. Against Sabatini in Rome, a horrendous line call left her facing match point, but Seles did not so much as question the linesman's judgment. She hates "being called a kid," she says. "I mean, people still send me Barbie dolls in the mail. Jennifer's 15, and she's not even a kid anymore. Like, come on."

The older girls and boys at Nick Bollettieri's Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Seles trained from age two (only kidding, Nick; it was more like 12, right?) until 16, questioned whether she ever was much of a kid. Terry Phelps, an established player on the women's tour at the time of Seles's arrival at Bollettieri's in 1986, remembers practicing with Seles and being "annihilated, totally embarrassed by this 12-year-old." Eventually, none of the female students at the academy would practice with Seles because she wanted to pound every shot past them. And did.

"Nick ordered me to hit with Monica one day," says Jim Courier, now the ninth-ranked male player in the world. "First ball, whap!, she smacks a winner. Next, whap!, winner. I said, 'O.K., I'm impressed. You can play. Now let's practice.' Uh-uh. Whap, whap, whap! After 15 minutes I walked off. I told Nick, never again. He could get another guinea pig."

Since turning pro at 15, Seles has won 13 of the 35 tournaments she has entered. By comparison, in their first three full years as pros, Tracy Austin won 10 titles, Andrea Jaeger nine, Navratilova six, Sabatini five and Graf zero. In the Open era, Chris Evert remains the standard, with an astounding 23 tournament victories in her first three seasons.

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