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Seles’ Path to No. 1 Runs Through Navratilova : Tennis: Graf’s top ranking is in jeopardy in Palm Springs tournament.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time there was a new No. 1 player in women’s tennis was 3 1/2 years ago when Steffi Graf replaced Martina Navratilova.

By Sunday, Monica Seles could become the new No. 1 by winning the Virginia Slims of Palm Springs, but guess who she has to beat?

If you said Navratilova, you know your corporate takeovers pretty well.

There could be a change at the top if Seles’ new career as corporate raider is successful, but there is one player who isn’t all that happy about her possible repeat role in the matter.

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“I don’t want to get involved in discussing what will happen only if she beats me,” Navratilova said. “It doesn’t interest me.”

The $350,000 event begins today at Bono’s Racket Club, where $70,000 goes to the winner. If it is Seles, it could be worth a lot more.

Only 17 and ranked No. 2, Seles has won two of the past four Grand Slam events and is only nine-tenths of a point behind Graf in the rankings, an average based on the number of tournaments played.

A victory this week coupled with bonus points for defeating third-ranked Navratilova would push Seles over the top and into the No. 1 position. Even if Navratilova does not reach the final and Seles wins, Seles still could be No. 1, depending on whom she beats and how many bonus points she receives from those victories.

“If I win this week, I deserve to be No. 1,” Seles said. “If I do, it would be great. I never really think that much about No. 1, but no one lets me forget it. Everybody keeps reminding me.

“I just never thought No. 1 was possible at my age,” she said. “The pressure . . . I’m sure some players will play better because they’re playing me and some will probably be scared.”

The only way Seles could face Navratilova is in Sunday’s final because they are the top two seeded players and in the opposite halves of the draw. If nothing else, Seles has momentum on her side. She has won her past three meetings with Navratilova, all in 1990 and all in finals: the Italian Open, the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles and the Virginia Slims of California.

Both Seles and Navratilova are coming off injuries. Seles strained her left rotator cuff four weeks ago in a tournament in Tokyo.

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Navratilova had arthroscopic surgery on both knees in November but won the last tournament she played, the Virginia Slims of Chicago, her only title since she won a record ninth Wimbledon last July.

Seles and Navratilova begin playing toward a possible showdown after first-round byes. Seles’ first match will be against either Monica Javer or former USC All-American Caroline Kuhlman. Navratilova will play either Tami Whitlinger or Amanda Coetzer.

So far, the pressure hasn’t wilted Seles, who nevertheless lacks the meaningful match experience of the 34-year-old Navratilova.

“It should be exciting, I’m looking forward to playing,” Seles said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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Tennis Notes

Top first-round matches today include 10th-seeded Rosalyn Fairbank-Nideffer of San Diego against Nathalie Herreman, No. 9 Anke Huber against Rene Simpson and Stephanie Rehe of Oceanside against Jo Durie. Huber, 16, of Karlsdorf, Germany, has been billed as “the next Steffi Graf.”


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