Monica Seles returned to tennis Saturday, bringing back to the women's game her quirky glamour and the pure power of her youth.
The exhibition match against Martina Navratilova had little meaning as a competitive event, but it was important to Seles' impending return to the WTA tour. That Seles won, 6-3, 6-2, was not significant, but the first glimpse of her current form was.
Based on her performance against Navratilova, Seles is playing as well as she had been when Guenther Parche plunged a paring knife into her back during a tournament on April 30, 1993. Seles' ensuing physical and mental rehabilitation took two years three months, a period in which the sport she had so dominated failed to thrive.
Thus, Seles' return is eagerly awaited by officials and fans alike. All expect the 21-year-old to rejuvenate the game through the force of her vivacious personality and her dominating, fiercely competitive game.
But first, the hype.
The exhibition's presentation at the Atlantic City Convention Center had all the charm and sophistication of a heavyweight title fight. The arena sits on the dilapidated Boardwalk, sandwiched by numerous shops that promise "Cash For Gold," the humid air redolent with the smell of hot dogs.
Trying to rise above its age and condition, the Convention Center spiffed itself up for the event. Invoking ghosts of Miss America pageants past, the cavernous building was so draped with bunting and sponsor banners that it was nearly impossible to make out the cracks and peeling plaster.
The players were introduced in that microphone-dropping-out-of-the-ceiling manner of boxing matches. Navratilova, introduced first, jogged out to a warm reception. Seles then came blinking into the arena and sheepishly bowed and curtsied to acknowledge the crowd of 7,257.
Pleased by everything set before them, the crowd even applauded the players' warm-up.
Seles looked and behaved much as she had before she left the tour. She has grown to 5 feet 11, and admits to being about 10 pounds over her ideal weight.
Her hair has been left alone to live in its natural state--brunette with tight cascading curls. Seles' grunt emerged only during big points and sounded rather hushed, but no doubt it will be given full throat once Seles gets into a more pressing competitive situation.
The Seles giggle, refreshingly, is alive and well. Seles burbled through a post-match news conference in her former manner, ignoring conventional rules of spoken punctuation and relying instead on the carefully placed guffaw to signal a conversational pause or end of a thought.
As before, Seles' uncalculating enthusiasm makes her an engaging young woman. In the emotionally guarded world of women's tennis, Seles' spontaneity is a welcome oasis of personality.
Chair umpire Fran McDowell opened the match by announcing, "Seles to serve"--a phrase not heard for more than two years.
Seles began inauspiciously by double-faulting on the first point, but scorched three passing shots by Navratilova in the first game to announce her return to competition.
Seles' serve is vastly improved and, although she came to the net only seven times, Seles has developed a convincing volley.
"Those passing shots were not a mirage," Navratilova said. "She looks the same to me. It's like she's been in a time warp."
Navratilova came into the match hobbled by a groin injury. Mary Pierce was lined up as a stand-in should Navratilova not be able to play. She played well enough but was stymied by Seles' excellent return of serve.
Security for the match was plentiful, if discreet. Seles now has a bodyguard, and the Convention Center added 65 uniformed and plainclothes staff to monitor a generally compliant crowd. After the match, Seles even plunged into a mass of fans to sign autographs.
For all the memories of her attack, Seles appeared relaxed and even joyous.
"Today when I walked out onto the court, it was just an unbelievable feeling, I cannot put it into words," she said. "It feels good. That's what I love to do. It felt good to get out in the public and feel comfortable with the whole environment."
Seles, who will be co-ranked No. 1 with Steffi Graf when she returns to the tour, reiterated her intention to play at least one tournament before the U.S. Open at the end of next month, but said it would depend on the tendinitis in her left knee.