It used to be that Monica Seles was the most opportunistic of tennis players. On a court, she squandered nothing. At the height of her powers, Seles had the ability to squeeze through the most minute opening in a match and emerge, victorious, on the other side.
Glimpses of that former player are all that anyone's been afforded since Seles returned to the tour two years ago after being sidelined for 2 1/2 years, recuperating from a stab wound to the back. At times, portions of Seles have returned in full force. But the ferocious Seles, the nerveless and fearless Seles, is still missing.
Second-seeded at the U.S. Open, Seles was cautious and indecisive in her quarterfinal match against Irina Spirlea on Tuesday. She lost a match point, let several opportunities get away in the third set and lost. Spirlea, seeded No. 11, advanced to the semifinals by virtue of her surprise 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (10-8), 6-3 victory.
Coming a day after Pete Sampras' shocking loss, the upset of Seles--a finalist last year and a two-time U.S. Open winner--set the tournament on its heels. It was the earliest exit for Seles here since 1990.
Spirlea had not beaten Seles in four previous matches. In spite of that sobering statistic, Spirlea chose an aggressive approach, fearing a flare-up of Seles' much-respected shot-making. That spurred the Romanian to a dicey 47 unforced errors as well as a remarkable 75 winners.
"She is going to kill you if you just let her hit the ball," Spirlea said. "I think you have to mix it up and make her not hit the ball the way she likes it."
Seles has been pressed since she arrived here to compare her game to her former ability that brought her nine Grand Slam titles. She's been asked to quantify her progress. She's resisted, knowing that such comparisons are futile. Her interest lies in where she is now, not where she's been.
Seles did say that one new aspect of her game is that she thinks on the court now, she considers and weighs and pauses. Whatever spontaneity or instinct that guided Seles to the No. 1 ranking has been subsumed by caution.
"I don't think I would have started 'thinking' if somebody wouldn't have stabbed me in the back [while] sitting on the tennis court during a tennis match," she said. "I still believe I have the same mind-set as I had at that time. But once somebody does that, they take your feeling of security away. I had to deal with that. It's still an ongoing issue."
Security can come with success; neither has come easily for Seles this year. Her ambitious summer schedule has her in the seventh consecutive week of tournament play. That, combined with her father's continuing battle with stomach cancer, has left Seles with limited resources.
The match lasted 2 hours 19 minutes on warm and muggy day. The intensity was high; only seven points separated the two players.
"I felt I should have won the match," Seles said. "But I have to give her credit that she played some great tennis, mixed it up. She didn't choke when she was up. She went for all her shots at every point. She was just clearly the better player today."
One indicator of the Seles' mental slippage can be found in her dismal record in tiebreakers this year. She came into the match with a 4-7 record in the area of the game where focus and intensity are at a premium.
Seles fell behind, 1-3, in the first tiebreaker when a Spirlea drop shot caught her flat-footed. She clawed back, thanks to a series of netted ground strokes by Spirlea. On set point, a big Seles serve proved unreturnable for Spirlea and Seles took the set.
Not only were there no service breaks in the second set, there were no break points. Spirlea won a tightly contested tiebreaker.
Seles won her serve at love to open the third set and got a 40-0 lead on Spirlea's serve. In a failing that carried serious consequences, Seles was unable to convert three break points. That missed opportunity may have been all that was necessary to break her will and give heart to Spirlea.
"To lose five points at that critical stage of a match," Seles said. "It's not a good sign."
Spirlea broke in the next game and from Seles' point of view, a possible 3-0 third-set lead became a 1-2 deficit, and the match disappeared over the horizon when Spirlea broke her in the ninth game.
* VENUS AT ZENITH
A semifinalist, Williams has never before gone this far in a tournament; Andre Agassi is upended by Patrick Rafter. C8