Blonde Ambition : With Her Wig or Not, There's No Disguising That Monica Seles Has Gained a Reputation as the No. 1 Eccentric in the Women's Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Monica Seles arrived in Southern California late last month, she walked off the airplane in San Diego and strolled unnoticed past Raquel Giscafre, the tournament promoter who had gone to meet her.

"I thought I needed glasses," Giscafre said.

Actually, there was nothing wrong with her eyes. But there was something wrong with Seles' hair, which isn't that much longer than Sinead O'Connor's. On that trip, though, Seles' hair was very long and very blond. And it wasn't really her hair. It was a wig.

And earlier in July, Seles had to tape a commercial in Malibu, so she flew from her home in Florida to Los Angeles. On the plane, she wore another wig, this one brunet, and topped it off with a hat. Now, Seles would never make the rookie mistake of carrying her tennis rackets--"That's a giveaway."--so she was surprised when she was recognized at Los Angeles International.

"I never would believe that," she said. "Even with a hat and a wig. A lot of times, if I put on a hat and a wig, even my dad, I can walk by him. Maybe for the (U.S.) Open, I'll try something different. Maybe a little different type of haircut."

Hey, why stop there? The way things are going for Monica Seles, the 17-year-old Yugoslav-born Floridian, equal parts teen tennis superstar and Greta Garbo clone, probably few would be surprised if she showed up for a match wearing phony glasses and a rubber nose.

Ever since she pulled out of Wimbledon by sending a two-paragraph fax to the All England Club citing a "minor injury" three days before the most famous tournament in tennis was to begin, Seles has led the game on a zany, infuriating chase through the normally placid tennis countryside, for which she apologizes, sort of.

"People are never going to expect how I am going to react," Seles said. "All tennis players, we all say the same thing. So I think we should have a little more fun. This is still a game. We always forget it. This is not death and life."

No, it isn't, but it's not hard to understand why tennis is so upset with her. The ruling people in this sport become enraged over the color of shirts, so imagine how much more distressing the chance that one of its participants might actually wear hair that she (or he) did not personally grow.

In any event, it has been a busy summer for Seles, considering she hasn't played much tennis. After she created that international incident by pulling out of Wimbledon, she stirred the hearts and lens caps of paparazzi everywhere by making herself scarce, got fined more often than Rob Dibble for her nonappearances, and then started wearing more disguises than Michael Jackson at an open house.

"I have so many different personalities," Seles said. "Maybe I'm still growing up. I'm still not formed. That's what my dad says. I can be one day Madonna and be crazy. The next day, I can be so reclusive, so into myself. The third day, I can be somebody so different. I'm just really shifting every day or week or hour. It's fun like that, but it's hard to take because I can change so fast."

So, does that mean that Monica Seles is wigging out on us?

There may be clues dropped beginning Monday at Manhattan Country Club in the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, where Seles will again be ranked No. 1, as well as top-seeded and defending champion. Others in the field, such as Gabriela Sabatini, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Zina Garrison, will be on hand to try to send Seles and her wigs back to Florida.

Then again, maybe Gerry Smith, chief executive officer of the Women's Tennis Assn., has the right theory on why Seles wears wigs: "She didn't have time to do her hair?"

THE PULLOUT, THE FALLOUT

At Wimbledon, they were stunned when Seles announced her withdrawal in a terse, nonexplanatory fax message to the All England Club committee, citing a "minor injury." It was Friday and the tournament was to begin the following Monday.

What really had happened to Seles?

Fleet Street immediately dispatched its finest journalists, who scraped the mud off their shoes and launched their investigations.

Speculation was exhausting and complete, ranging from Seles' being pregnant by her hitting partner, to knee surgery, to arm surgery, to shin splints, to fear over the unrest in Yugoslavia.

Smith tried frantically to reach Seles from Wimbledon, but failed.

Why didn't Seles ever answer the phone when Smith called?

"Because I wasn't home," she said.

Seles maintains that she also didn't speak with Stephanie Tolleson, her agent at International Management Group, or Bob Kain, Tolleson's boss at IMG. She says she wasn't speaking with anybody except a group of doctors, who could never quite agree on what was wrong with her.

There was a report that she was hanging out with Donald Trump at his estate, but Seles refused to confirm that. In fact, she never acknowledged that she had ever met "the Donald." Nor would Seles reveal exactly where she spent the two weeks of Wimbledon.

"I may want to go there on my vacation and then everybody would know," she said.

In any event, the WTA fined Seles $6,000 for ditching Wimbledon, a penalty she has appealed. She had also been fined $6,000 for pulling out of an event in January in Sydney, Australia, without using her one permitted medical excuse.

But Seles says she finds it hard to fathom all the commotion caused by her not showing up at Wimbledon.

"I really never thought that my pulling out of Wimbledon would cause such a stir," she said. "It's so hard for people to understand. First of all, the hardest thing was for me to say I wasn't going to play Wimbledon because of an injury. Secondly, I was getting a lot of different medical opinions . . . very confusing.

"Then the pain was there and I didn't know how to deal with it, so I just really said, 'I need to take time away from everything. I need to go alone and just think this over. When I'm ready, I will make my statement further.' I hoped people could wait."

But the people could not wait, especially the media people and the tennis people, who suggested that the No. 1-ranked player in the world ought to be a bit more forthright in such a matter.

Pam Shriver, vice president of the WTA, said Seles could have defused the issue immediately.

"She should have had a telephone press conference and answered questions about her condition and not sent out some simple 'slight accident' thing, which could mean anything-- anything, " Shriver said.

Seles, though, said she deserved the benefit of the doubt.

"I mean, I'm not the person who's going to come out and say crazy things," she said. "I couldn't do a press conference saying, 'I'm not playing Wimbledon this year.' I would be crying all over the place. It was enough pressure on me to make the decision."

Last week at the Mazda Classic at La Costa, Seles acknowledged that she had a hard time walking past the grass courts because they reminded her of how sad she had felt about missing Wimbledon and she feared she might burst into tears.

She had canceled the deal on the house she leased for Wimbledon 10 days before the tournament, as the tabloids reported, not because she had planned her withdrawal, but because the house was right behind Gate No. 9 at Wimbledon.

"I thought, 'How am I ever going to get into the house?' "

She never had to try. Instead, she embarked on an in-the-house, out-of-the-house pattern that left even some of those closest to her in confusion.

"Well, let's just say it's been pretty interesting," Tolleson said.

THE PHOTO

While Seles supposedly knew nothing of all the media interest in her, she posed for a staged photo in Palm Beach, Fla., wearing a brunet wig as she stepped out of a white limousine. Also in the photo were her brother, Zoltan, whose hair is bleached blond, and her father, Karolj, who wears a wig down to his shoulders. Zoltan and Karolj appear to be motioning the be-wigged Monica out of the limo.

Shriver was blunt in assessing the picture.

"Monica looks ridiculous, but the father made Monica look quite the normal thing," Shriver said. "I look at him now and I have a tough time keeping a straight face. He's very nice, I like the whole family, but this photo--I have no clue.

"This whole thing is one of the most bizarre instances (in tennis), if you ask me. I mean, I've been through Renee Richards. But I guess it's fun. I mean, we've had a couple of years of Steffi Graf and let's face it, it hasn't been all that exciting, you know, except when Peter (Graf) hauls off and whacks somebody over the head."

The Seles family photo was taken by Brian Smith of the Miami Herald for Sygma, a New York-based photo agency, which contacted Zoltan and paid the family an undisclosed fee for the right to photograph Monica. The photo, which appeared in People magazine and Sports Illustrated in the United States, was also sold and widely used in England and France, said Smith, who divided the proceeds with Sygma.

"Zoltan said the reason they were willing to be photographed was they were afraid to be photographed in public by paparazzi and they wanted to show she was OK, that she had no serious injury," Smith said. "They also felt the need for privacy."

So why would someone who wanted privacy pose for a picture that would appear in publications worldwide?

"That's the $64,000 question, I guess," Smith said.

And what's the answer, Monica?

"People understand I can't live in (a) room the whole time," she said. "So I was going to go out in different wigs. So I went out with that (one). People always think it was a 'made' shot. But it wasn't. We tried to have fun because people were following us. So we have a funny picture."

A "made" shot that wasn't? Contradictions in consecutive sentences happen sometimes in Seles interviews, but she apparently feels strongly about what she says, the main message of which seems to be: Girls just want to have fun.

"I think people forget that I'm still so young, that I'm not going to be able to handle things exactly as people expect me to," she said. "I need my time off. I don't want to finish my career at age 17.

"I can't do everything. I got to take my time off, I got to live a normal life because I don't want to get crazy at an early age and it's hard. People sometimes talk about you. I just always try to do the best I can. I really want to have my time. Tennis is a big part of my life, but I don't want it to be my whole life."

MAHWAH AND THE WIGS

Nine days after Wimbledon had ended, Seles conducted a news conference in Mahwah, N.J., where she was about to play a special event, an unsanctioned tournament for which she would receive a reported $300,000. She said she was perplexed that she had caused such a disturbance by her unexplained absence, but that she was not sure what her injury was and didn't feel like talking about it until she was sure.

Now, she was sure. It was shin splints, Seles said.

In front of 200 reporters, dozens of photographers, 16 microphones and one barking dog--Seles' pet Astro--she told everybody why she had gone AWOL.

John Korff, the promoter of the tennis event, said Zoltan Seles couldn't believe the media interest in his sister.

"He said, 'My God, all these people are coming,' and I said, 'Yeah, Zoltan, where have you been, under a rock or something?' " Korff said. "They didn't understand the magnitude of the media situation, but, hey, the WTA is always on her case for something. Just remember this, if she weren't the No. 1 player in the world, she would be a junior in high school."

Shriver, voicing an opinion common among Seles' peers, had a difficult time accepting the scheduling scenario.

"I can understand her wanting to play matches where it doesn't count, but if she can play in Mahwah nine days after Wimbledon finished, then golly-day, when you've got two legs up on the Grand Slam, you've got to give it a try unless you're really, really injured," Shriver said. "Obviously, she wasn't crippled. I've never had two legs up on the Slam, but I would need to have a broken leg not to play, so I don't understand that."

Seles lost the Mahwah exhibition final to Jennifer Capriati, then skipped the Federation Cup in Nottingham, England, the next week and found herself in another controversy. She took a couple of verbal shots from Steffi Graf and Capriati, who played in England. Although Seles forgave Capriati, whom she said was misquoted, she said Graf ought to have kept her critical opinions to herself.

"When you're No. 1, people try to shoot you down, that's part of it," Seles said.

Next, the WTA fined Seles $20,000 for playing in the special event scheduled for the same general period as a sanctioned tournament in the area. There is no appeal from that fine, said Smith, who met with Zoltan and Monica in Florida the week before the tournament at La Costa.

"We covered a lot of issues and I think they've learned a lot from this experience," Smith said. "I fully expect when the No. 1 seed withdraws from Wimbledon, it's headlines. But on the other hand, the story took on a life of its own."

Meanwhile, Seles had begun taking on hair that was not her own. Shriver said that when she appeared in the U.S. Open final at age 16, it was probably a lot different from Seles' experience.

"I went back to school the next day, everybody recognized me and I didn't wear a wig," Shriver said.

"It looks to me like Monica is living a little fantasy here. What the heck, she seems to be enjoying herself. As long as she's having a good time. It's so different from my little upper-middle-class conservative upbringing--wearing wigs. I can't relate too much, but I'm somewhat envious of her ability to carry it off. I think it's very funny."

Traveling incognito is not all, though, that Seles hopes to carry off. She intends to run for the presidency of the WTA as soon as she is old enough--you must be 18.

"I have a lot of great ideas," she said.

Said Shriver: "She's bright enough and we're not talking rocket scientist-type job here."

Then Seles may buy a place in Los Angeles and start seeking movie roles. But that's later. Until then, she will do tennis her way, wigs or no wigs.

"If I make up my mind, it's totally my decision and I'm very hard to change, I don't really ask anybody their opinion," Seles said. "People try to put me as a 30-year-old and I'm not. When I get to 30, I'll be 30, but let me have my time. I don't want tennis to make me say when I'm 30, 'Why didn't I do that? Why didn't I have this great life when I was 17?'

"I really want to be myself. I don't want anybody to create an image for me or make me act or be anything. If people like me, that's great. I want to enjoy every day I'm here because I'm getting older and I realize that now."

But about those movie interests. Could Seles be a success as an actress, too?

She smiled and said she has already played the title part in one role.

Really? What was it?

Seles laughed. "Desperately seeking Monica?"

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