The Point? Have Fun : No. 3 in the World at 16, Seles Avoids Pressure of Success

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"AAAAAHHHHH-

REEEEEEEEEEE"

Ladies and gentlemen, the preceding message was brought to you by Monica Seles, a 16-year-old two-fisted Yugoslav import who lives in Florida, wants to move to L.A., won the biggest tournament of her life in France and makes a sound while hitting a tennis ball that's strictly out of this world. Orbit, Monica.

If you think she made a big noise when she won the French Open, becoming the youngest player ever to win a Grand Slam, you can't imagine the commotion she caused two weeks later at Wimbledon. After all, there on the hallowed grass courts at the temple of tennis, nothing loud is allowed, except possibly for televi sion commentator Bud Collins' pants.

The problem is that Seles is unable to keep quiet as she knocks some supercharged, two-fisted backhand into the far corner of the court. She grunts.

It's not some soft, demure squeak, either. Seles grunts! The sound she makes is really loud. The closest thing to it may be a locomotive throwing on the brakes.

Things got so bad at Wimbledon that one London newspaper ran a sound check. The tabloid Sun said it recorded Seles' grunts on a so-called "gruntometer," then reported its findings under a headline referring to Seles as "Moan-ica."

"At a range of 15-feet, the machine recorded her service at 71 decibels--about the same as heavy road traffic.

"GRUMPH! She drops to a more ladylike 54 decibels, like a loud TV set, as she settles into easy rally.

"GRAAGH! She roars back at 82 decibels to deliver a powerful double-backhand."

According to the Sun, the grunt that registered highest was somewhere between a pneumatic drill and a diesel locomotive.

Come to think of it, that's pretty close to how she plays on the court.

Already, Seles has given new meaning to the term soundly beaten. From the last week of March until the first week of July, she won every match she played. She won six consecutive tournaments, among them the French Open, where on the slow red clay of Roland Garros Stadium, she defeated top-ranked Steffi Graf for the second time in three weeks.

Before she was upset by Zina Garrison in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Seles had won 39 consecutive matches, moved into a No. 3 ranking and earned a lot of praise from her peers and other notables.

Ion Tiriac, who manages Boris Becker, said: "She is Jimmy Connors transformed to the female game. She has power and determination and that is very unusual. She would crawl over broken glass to win a tournament."

Said Martina Navratilova: "I don't know what the limit is for her. Considering how hard she hits it, it's amazing. I'm amazed."

Not quite as amazed is Graf, possibly because she has felt the heat from Seles' shots all too often this year. Graf is circumspect in her assessment of Seles, already deigned the most likely to take away Graf's No. 1 ranking. As far as Graf is concerned, she has heard the enemy, and it is blonde.

"There are always new girls who come up and play very good tennis," Graf said. "Monica is a very, very talented player and she hits the ball very hard."

Both Graf and Navratilova say they don't hear Seles' grunts because their concentration level is so high, but they may be in the minority. In fact, International Management Group, which represents Seles, is trying to get her to tone down, fearing a backlash that could affect endorsement opportunities.

Seles says she actually is trying to reduce her grunts a few decibels, but she doesn't know why everybody is making such a racket about the whole thing. In fact, she is sort of amused.

"Some people think what I'm saying is Henri --they always ask me about it," Seles said.

Who asks?

"Everybody," she said.

"I think actually a lot of people tell me it's fun because in tennis (the) two opponents (are) so quiet, there's not much excitement in the game," Seles said. "(In) a lot of matches, both players look at the ground. . . . I think grunting is going to be bigger and bigger in tennis. . . . (Players should) just have fun more out on the court. (Tennis) shouldn't be that much business as it is now."

So far, it has been a pretty rewarding business for Seles. She begins this week's $350,000 Virginia Slims of Los Angeles already having won $1 million in prize money and $1 million more for endorsing clothes and tennis rackets.

The young woman whose first tennis court was a parking lot in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, when, as a 6-year-old, she tied a string to the bumpers of two cars and used it as a net, now could tie a string to the bumper of the car she is close to buying--a Lamborghini.

"Everything has happened so quickly," Seles said. "A year ago, I was (ranked) at No. 88, so in one year to come down to No. 3 . . . I mean, I wouldn't ever have believed it. So it was a little bit hard to accept it, but what I try to do is just go out each time and play my best, like I did last year, to have no pressure on myself. The worst thing that can happen is to lose. And, I mean, that's not the end of the world, is it?"

When she was 6, Monica Seles retired from tennis. She wanted to play with her dolls instead.

"I decided that's it, I don't want to do this," Seles said. "Then I restarted when I was 7 1/2. My brother, Zoltan, won a tennis tournament and he got his big trophy, so people were coming into the house and everybody would look at this big trophy he won. It was like really getting to me. So I said, 'Well, I'm gonna try to play tennis again.' Second, afterwards, I started loving it. Then I did better and better and I loved it more and more."

The daughter of Karolj Seles, a cartoonist, young Monica showed her tennis prowess at an early age. Karolj wanted to make practice fun for her, so he drew the faces of cartoon characters Tom and Jerry on the tennis balls, a lesson which Monica said she will never forget: "First I hit Tom and then I hit Jerry."

To reward good shots, Karolj placed small stuffed animals on the practice court and Monica kept the ones she hit. It was Karolj Seles who threw out the textbook and encouraged his daughter to hit her ground strokes two-handed from either side. Although this style is not the most traditional teaching method in the manual, it has left Seles with only one apparent shortcoming in her game.

"The weakness she does have is her volley," Navratilova said. "Really, she doesn't want to be at the net at all. She runs away from there. But it doesn't seem to matter much. She plays an aggressive game of tennis without coming to the net--even more so than Steffi because she blasts it from both sides. If she can't get around you, she'll go right through you."

In 1983, when she was 9, Seles was Yugoslav national champ in the 12-and-under age group. She didn't even know how to keep score, but that was part of Karolj Seles' plan. "When she was a tiny girl, she used to ask me during a match, 'Daddy, what's the score?' and I told her to hush and play and that she would see at the end," the elder Seles said.

That same year, Seles visited America for the first time and went to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. She had won consecutive European age-group championships and been named Yugoslav sportswoman of the year in 1985. By then, Karolj Seles knew his daughter might not realize her full potential if she remained in Novi Sad and continued at the small club with only four tennis courts.

Eventually, Monica and the entire Seles clan--father Karolj, mother Esther, brother Zoltan, dog Astro--moved from Novi Sad to an apartment not far from the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Bollettieri, who produced such male stars as Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, served as Seles' titular coach until last March when she bolted the camp

Karolj and Monica claimed that Bollettieri was never really Monica's coach, that Karolj was. After Courier left Bollettieri in the spring, the coach was left with only one superstar, Agassi, still affiliated with his camp.

Bollettieri has talked about suing the Seleses to recoup what he says is owed him, $200,000. Adding to the controversy is the fact that both Bollettieri and Seles are represented by IMG, which also owns the Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

According to Monica, the Bollettieri episode is a misunderstanding and it was merely time for her to move on.

"Well, you know, Nick can say this and we can say that, but that won't do anybody any good," she said. "We were good for him and he was good for us. Mainly, my dad was coaching me all the time (at Bollettieri's), so for me, it's not a big move. And I feel most comfortable with my dad."

Opponents started feeling uncomfortable with Seles in April, 1989, at the Virginia Slims of Houston when she beat Chris Evert in the final.

Said Seles: "I was coming out of nowhere."

Then, in only her third professional tournament, she pushed Graf to three sets before losing in the semifinals of the French Open. Seles was 15.

Now grown to 5 feet 9 1/2 inches--doctors predict she will be 6-feet--and standing in size 10 tennis shoes, Seles is playing with the big girls. But it took a little getting used to. The experience was probably the biggest adjustment she had to make.

Seles remembers her professional debut at the 1989 Virginia Slims of Florida in Boca Raton and feeling vaguely unsettled playing Evert for the first time.

"Looking at her on the other side of the net was so difficult because I only watch her on television and, wow, she is really a real person, she talks and everything," Seles said. "For a young player, it's difficult. You watch Martina, you see her play, you think she's not a real person, but she is a real person. Probably, if I do better and better, win a couple of Wimbledons and everything, people will think the same way of me. Hopefully."

Meanwhile, Seles plots the rest of her tennis life and beyond. When she and Zoltan visited here for the first time recently, they asked the same two questions:

"Is the weather always like this?"

"Where's Malibu?"

They announced that they were shopping for a new base of operations, possibly a touring pro situation, and Los Angeles is right at the top of their list. In another year and a half of correspondence courses, Monica will be out of high school and said she feels as if she would have the freedom to be anything she wants, possibly she would have her own television talk show.

"It would be something like Arsenio Hall," said Seles, who grinned and said: "Here's Johnny!"

Yes, there is room for everybody, just not on the freeways. But Seles is probably right about the freedom thing. Why, a person truly can be just about anything he or she wants to here, even loud.

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