Bogus Seles Sightings : Despite Rumors, Injury Keeps Her Holed Up in Colorado

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the French Open slides into its second week on a layer of red dust, the only thing hotter than the mustard they lace on the hot dogs at the concession stands is the next Monica Seles rumor.

Monica is coming to dinner here on Tuesday. Monica is not hurt badly. Monica is going to retire. Monica is in need of a psychiatrist. Monica is hurt much worse than anyone realizes. Monica is feuding with the tennis establishment. Christophe of Beverly Hills is cutting Monica's hair in her private jet on a runway in Tenerife.

For someone who isn't even playing in the French Open, the fact that Seles still can cast a shadow across the clay courts all the way from her room in Colorado where she is recovering from a stab wound indicates the surprising extent of her influence on the often somnolent sport of women's tennis.

There is still no timetable to return for Seles, who was stabbed once in the back by a fan during a match in Hamburg, Germany, April 30, her first tournament since missing 63 days because of flu.

Since the incident in Hamburg, Seles gave one news conference a few days after she arrived at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo., and hasn't been heard from since. That hasn't stopped anyone from talking about her, though.

It's gotten out of hand, said Stephanie Tolleson, Seles' agent, adding: "Everybody's making it sound like a mental case."

In fact, Seles is thinking very clearly, said Tolleson, especially about her return to tennis. But Seles cannot yet hold a racket because of the seriousness of her wound.

"She can't duplicate the motion of a swing without pain," Tolleson said. "It's a serious wound, contrary to what some people are saying."

But with Seles, conflicting reports are the norm. At the time of her injury, she was the best player and most confusing player in women's tennis. Seles' skill on the court is indisputable, with eight Grand Slam titles in the last three years. Her reputation for unpredictability was cemented when she skipped Wimbledon in 1991, dropped out of sight for nearly a month and then blamed her absence on shin splints.

At Wimbledon, the London tabloids speculated, among other things, that Seles was pregnant. Seles said nothing. However, she must have enjoyed the publicity. She posed for a picture in which she was stepping out of a limousine wearing a wig as disguise.

Later, Seles said she didn't realize her absence had caused such a disturbance.

"That Wimbledon thing hurt her a lot in every way," Tolleson said. "She was 17 years old and didn't know how to cope with it.

"She is very, very, very private. You know how little she says about anything personal. Maybe she was just trying to be dramatic, doing that Marilyn Monroe thing.

"People are a little bit suspicious because she's not like Arantxa (Sanchez Vicario) who tells you what she had for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Seles invites some degree of suspicion when she plays one-night exhibitions in Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis and then withdraws from a tournament in Barcelona the next week because of flu. Seles did just that in April in the midst of her 63-day illness.

"That put us in a little bit of an awkward situation," said Gerry Smith, executive director of the Women's Tennis Assn.

Tolleson said it was clear to her that Seles was not in shape in those matches and that the exhibitions were useful because they showed she was not ready to play a tournament.

The next tournament Seles is scheduled to play is at Stratton Mountain, Vt., beginning July 26, but there is a chance she might return instead at the Pathmark Classic, a special event in Mahwah, N.J., the week before.

In an unusual, but entirely Seles-like twist, promoter John Korff is negotiating with Seles through Phil dePicciotto of Advantage International, a rival of IMG, which represents Seles.

The year she missed Wimbledon, Seles turned up in Mahwah, providing Korff with immense publicity. If Seles plays this time, Korff is planning to land her and her opponent on the court in a hot air balloon.

Actually, there is no shortage of hot air whenever the Seles issue pops up. Much of it may be her own fault, said Pam Shriver, president of the Women's Tennis Assn. board of directors, noting that Seles is a different breed.

"To me, she's the youngest eccentric I've ever seen," Shriver said. "It's funny, though, but with all her eccentricity, I think she's very smart, very intelligent. She's no dummy.

"She could be a great asset to the sport if she sort of channeled her energies in a good way for women's tennis. I hope for that in a No. 1 player. And it hasn't happened in a while."

At the same time, Seles and the WTA are involved in a little tempest on the tennis court. The problem is over Seles' No. 1 ranking, which she probably will lose to Steffi Graf by the end of the week.

According to the Seles camp, Seles asked the WTA to make some kind of adjustment in her ranking because of her injury, but the idea was sabotaged and badly handled by the WTA.

"She never requested that her ranking be frozen," Tolleson said. "All she asked for was that fair consideration be given to her because of her predicament. It wasn't like she sprained an ankle or anything."

Smith polled top players at the Italian Open in Rome. According to Smith, it was "nearly unanimous" that no adjustment should be given to Seles' ranking during her absence.

Tolleson said Seles resented the manner in which the issue was presented and the fact that the Women's Tennis Council was not involved. There is also some feeling in the Seles-IMG camp that Smith was quick to generate publicity for himself at the expense of Seles.

Smith said he thinks the WTA acted correctly. He said the council was not involved because the WTA owns the rankings, not the council.

"I don't have any regrets," Smith said.

"We were looking to be as sympathetic to Monica as we could be," Smith said. "We wanted to provide her with a comfort zone."

In any event, Seles' ranking is going to start to drop as a result of the WTA decision. Rankings are based on an average of total points earned from playing tournaments and divided by 12, the minimum number of tournaments that are counted.

Points from tournaments Seles played last year will drop off her total and there will be no other points to replace them.

Of course, there's nothing to stop Seles from reclaiming her No. 1 ranking once she recovers.

Until then, the Seles sightings and Seles stories will continue to mount. Someone will probably start leaving tickets for her at the gate, like she was Elvis or something.

Maybe she will arrive for her next tournament suspended in the basket of a hot air balloon as it floats lazily down to the court. It will be a great publicity stunt. Then she will announce she is giving up tennis for a career in Hollywood. Why not? Everything so far may have been just for practice.

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