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She did everything she could. Stayed in the same room, at the same hotel. Practiced at the same time, said hello to the faces she remembered from before. Monica Seles came to Melbourne three weeks ago looking to reshape time and fact, hoping to erase more than two years of doubt and fear and pain. The key was not to think too hard. The key was to lie: Seles told herself she was gunning for her fourth straight Australian Open title, trying to sell herself on the notion that her most recent Grand Slam win here, in 1993, had come only a year ago. She almost fooled herself into believing that Günther Parche had never happened and that the knife had never dug into her back. Of course, it couldn't last. Seles would walk the halls of the Flinders Park tennis complex and see photos of that teenager holding the championship trophy in '91, '92 or '93 and looking new and so happy. She would feel the truth like a mean wind, and not even winning again could change that. She is not that girl anymore.
"Even today, I almost felt like it was '93, that those years had never happened," Seles said last Saturday evening, hours after reclaiming her place in the sport with a 6-4, 6-1 blitz of Anke Huber in the final. Then she shook her head. "It's never going to be the same." she said. "That was hard, when I had to admit that to myself. Now I think: It's '96. Where did those years go?"
Seles's opponents are asking themselves the same question. Since Seles left the game in April 1993, after having been stabbed by Parche during a tournament in Germany, a new generation of talent has risen in women's tennis, secretly sure it had made the strides needed to handle Seles upon her return. But the likes of Huber, Chanda Rubin, Iva Majoli and Lindsay Davenport couldn't stay with Seles in Australia. And while defending champ Mary Pierce continued her curious fade from the top tier, no-show No. 1 Steffi Graf mulled her tax problems, and Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario pondered life as also-rans, the left-handed Seles fought through a suddenly inflamed left shoulder, poor conditioning and a crisis of confidence to pocket the ninth Grand Slam title of her career. As she accepted her trophy in front of 14,879 cheering fans crowding Centre Court, Seles thought of last year, when she had watched the final on TV ''It's just great to be back," Seles said, her quavering voice filling the stadium. "I still can't believe I'm here."
When Graf withdrew from the Australian Open, the idea of Seles's marching easily toward the title took firm hold in Melbourne. And as the men's draw, which spent last year in cozy thrall to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, melted down into a succession of upsets that left Boris Becker, of all people, to complete a remarkable renaissance with his first Grand Slam championship in five years, the '96 Open became Seles's to claim.
But the fact is, Seles herself had no hopes of winning in Australia in the months following her return to tennis last August. Certainly her dramatic and draining loss to Graf in the U.S. Open final was a perfect jump start to the second half of her career, but then the machine seized up. Tendinitis in her left knee and torn ankle ligaments forced Seles to withdraw from one event after another. The lack of action, especially after such a buildup, threw Seles for a loss. She found herself falling into the same state of depression that had consumed her during the winter after she was stabbed. "A lot of times, when I would be home, keeping to myself, I'd be very down and everything would start back again," Seles said a few days before the final.
In early December, Seles became afflicted with recurring dizziness that left her barely able to leave bed. No one could tell her what was wrong. Seles consulted various doctors, visiting the Mayo Clinic twice. Her condition was diagnosed as meningitis, then as severe flu. Her treatment included iron tablets and vitamin supplements.
Slowly Seles began feeling better, and by mid-December she was hitting. During the second week of January she played an Open tune-up in Sydney in which she came back to beat Davenport in a three-set final. But when she came to Melbourne the next day, "she was really miserable," says Becker, who has become one of Seles's few close friends on the men's tour. "She had a muscle problem in one of her legs, and she was tired. But she's a tough cookie."
She had to be. By the time she reached the Australian Open final, Seles's game was in woeful shape. Her ground strokes lacked their usual force; her shots weren't scraping the lines. Her hip ached, and she had pulled a tendon in her right ankle. Without daily heat treatment and massage therapy, she could barely lift her left arm above her shoulder. She huffed around the court, out of shape. It didn't matter. Seles possesses something more important than a gym-perfect body: She is a pure competitor, with athletic gifts that have nothing to do with muscle.
For example Seles held off Rubin in a superb semifinal. The 19-year-old Rubin, whose success in Melbourne will most likely propel her into the top 10 for the first time, had it all against Seles: A bigger game, more energy, the crowd—even a chance to go up 5-1 in the third set. Then Seles did what Seles does when things get tight: She began to attack. She cracked a backhand crosscourt. She broke back twice. Then she won. "If you don't take charge," Rubin said afterward, "she will."
The match against Huber was no different. In the first set Huber pushed Seles four feet behind the baseline with penetrating strokes and broke her to go up 3-2. Seles responded by refusing to give in during the sixth game, which produced nine deuces. Huber finally dumped a forehand into the net. It was the old story of Seles's ferocious will—except that Seles came to Melbourne not sure she had it anymore.