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0-0, She’s Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether it was a humiliating one-sided loss or a daunting defeat in a three-set marathon, Monica Seles used to have a simple solution for her problems.

Practice, practice, practice.

Surely, she could blast her way out of trouble on the practice court. It usually worked.

But after the worst defeat of her career--a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Martina Hingis in the semifinals at a March tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla.--Seles did a un-Seles thing. She virtually put her racket away, although rest is a relative term with Seles. (She still hit twice in one week, practically a vacation for her.)

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She chafed at the notion of retirement that circulated in the hours after the defeat to Hingis.

“It was a very tough,” said Seles, 26. “I think all the questions were: ‘Are you retiring?’ Obviously it was a difficult time.

“I talked to a few other players. Two players came to me after the match and said it’s happened to them. That’s always the whole question with Arantxa.”

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain, supposedly well past her prime at the time, beat Seles in Paris two years ago for her third French Open title.

The so-called off week that Seles spent in Miami was special for her. She was a bridesmaid in the wedding of her agent, Tony Godsick, and Mary Joe Fernandez. Fernandez, once ranked as high as No. 4, is also a good friend of Seles.

“That was a surprising week because I’ve never been part of a wedding,” Seles said. “It was great to see her. We have played each other so many times. We’ve had a similar upbringing. Similar pressures.

“It was a fairy tale. I was the first one to walk down the aisle. I never did it before.”

Seles giggled.

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“It was one of those days beyond, beyond, top five for me,” she said. “Maybe it was good to rest. Mentally it was just great. I was so excited.”

The brief break appears to have rejuvenated Seles. She won her next tournament at Amelia Island, Fla., reached the semifinals at Hilton Head, S.C., and took the title at the Italian Open in Rome.

With her 7-5, 6-3 fourth-round victory against Amelie Mauresmo at the French Open on Sunday, Seles is 17-1 since her loss to Hingis. Mary Pierce of France is the only player to defeat Seles since then, and the third-seeded Seles will have the opportunity to reverse the result today in the quarterfinals.

The upper part of the draw seems to be the most difficult. Top-seeded Hingis, a two-time finalist, will face unseeded Chanda Rubin. Seles and the sixth-seeded Pierce have yet to lose a set.

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In her first three matches, Seles lost only eight games. Emmanuelle Gagliardi of Switzerland barely avoided a shutout, losing, 6-0, 6-1, in the second round. For her, playing Seles is far more difficult than Hingis.

“I don’t like Seles’ game as much as Martina’s,” Gagliardi said. “Because she doesn’t give me as much time to react. Martina, on the other hand, is quite different. She takes the time off. That means, in one case, one opponent pushes you and the other one is pulling you. It’s a bit different.”

Seles has tinkered with her serve all year, working with Bobby Banck, who once coached Fernandez. She appears to have lost weight and survived a tough test against Mauresmo and the pro-French crowd.

Seles, for once in Paris, was not the crowd favorite. The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Seles two years ago, when she lost in the final. Even Sanchez-Vicario apologized for winning the tournament, which was shortly after Seles’ beloved father and coach, Karolj, died of cancer.

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Her struggles--losing her father and her emotional scars after the 1993 stabbing by a German spectator--put wins and losses and harsh crowd reaction into perspective long ago. She missed several months because of a stress fracture in her foot, including the Australian Open.

“For me, there was nothing to get through,” Seles said of this year’s travails. “I knew I had to take care of my foot. It’s fine now. I have no problems now.”

She is aware that a 6-0, 6-0 loss could occur again.

“Even I could be 30 and some 14-year-old could come beat me,” she said. “As long as I know I went out there and gave it my best shot and I was honest about it to myself. I gave it my best against Martina. She was just better. If I gave the match up or if I tanked, I would get my butt off the court.”

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Seles has been supported here by her mother, Godsick and Fernandez. Martina Navratilova, playing doubles at the French Open, has always been a source of inspiration and assistance to Seles.

“I just hope she doesn’t decide to play singles,” Seles said, laughing. “I don’t want to face her.”

Seles was one of the first players to call Navratilova after hearing about her plans to return to the tour. She wouldn’t mind playing doubles with Navratilova, if Mariaan de Swardt was not available as Navratilova’s partner.

“That would be a dream of mine,” Seles said. “But I am very good friends with Mariaan.

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“As a I child growing up, I had a poster of her [Navratilova] over my bed. And the whole thing, very few players were supportive [after the stabbing], her and Gaby [Gabriela Sabatini] reached out. That meant a lot to me.”

To win her fourth French Open, Seles would have to get through three more difficult matches--Pierce, possibly Hingis in the semifinals and, getting through that, probably Venus Williams, Conchita Martinez or Sanchez-Vicario in the final. It would be the 10th Grand Slam singles title of her career and first since the death of her father. But the 26-year-old Seles is realistic.

“In my life, it hasn’t happened yet, any of those storybook endings,” she said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Wake-Up Call

Monica Seles has won two of three tournaments since losing to Martina Hingis on March 30 at Key Biscayne, Fla.

AMELIA ISLAND

April 10-16

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* Round of 32--Defeated Anna Smashnova, 7-6, 6-0.

* Round of 16--Defeated Corina Morariu, 6-3, 6-1.

* Quarterfinals--Defeated Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 6-1, 6-3.

* Semifinals--Defeated Paola Suarez, 6-3, 6-2.

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* Final--Defeated Conchita Martinez, 6-3, 6-2.

HILTON HEAD

April 17-April 23

* Round of 32--Defeated Erika de Lone, 6-0, 6-0.

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* Round of 16--Defeated Elena Likhovtseva, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6.

* Quarterfinals--Defeated Ruxandra Dragomir, 6-1, 6-1.

* Semifinals--Lost to Mary Pierce, 6-1, 6-1.

ITALIAN OPEN

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May 15-May 21

* Round of 32--Defeated Magdalena Maleeva, 7-5, 6-1.

* Round of 16--Defeated Anne-Gaelle Sidot, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1.

* Quarterfinals--Defeated Jelena Dokic, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.

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* Semifinals--Defeated Morariu, 6-2, 7-6.

* Final--Defeated Amelie Mauresmo, 6-2, 7-6.

FRENCH OPEN

May 29-June 10

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* First round--Defeated Silvija Talaja, 6-2, 6-2.

* Second round--Defeated Emmanuelle Gagliardi, 6-0, 6-1.

* Third round--Defeated Rita Kuti Kis, 6-1, 6-2.

* Fourth round--Defeated Mauresmo, 7-5, 6-3.

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