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Three Rounds, Out for a Subdued Seles

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 1997; Page E1

WIMBLEDON, June 30 — Monica Seles has been distraught and distracted during this Wimbledon, her once aggressive play often defensive, her once bubbly demeanor fading fast into memory. Her heart is with her ill father, Karolj, back in Florida, where he is fighting a losing battle with stomach cancer. Her head, too, is often elsewhere. And her game has understandably suffered as a result.

On Court 3 this afternoon, a joyless Seles lost her concentration, her razor-sharp groundstrokes and her shot at the Wimbledon championship — the only Grand Slam title she never has won — when she collapsed in the third set of her third-round match with France's Sandrine Testud and lost, 0-6, 6-4, 8-6. This is the second straight year that Seles has departed early from the Wimbledon singles draw, with her defeat last June coming in the second round.

"I felt today it was frustrating," said Seles, who looked drawn in her post-match news conference, like a woman who had not slept in several days. "I played really aggressive points and for no reason I stopped doing that. I have to look at that a little bit more, and think about it."

Pete Sampras, the top-seeded man, took an easy straight-set victory from Zimbabwe's Byron Black, finishing in 71 minutes. After three rounds, he has yet to drop a set in this tournament. Three-time champion Boris Becker — who would meet Sampras in the quarterfinals should both players win their next matches — also cruised today, and with his straight-set victory over England's Mark Petchey, he, too, has yet to drop a set here.

Seles was the only seeded woman to lose as third-round play was completed here today. She looked ready to catch the next plane out of England, if not for the fact that she is entered in the doubles competition. Tennis clearly is not foremost in her mind.

For that reason, Seles never appeared to be a serious title contender here, despite her No. 2 seeding and despite the fact that she managed to play her way to the semifinal at the French Open, where she lost to Martina Hingis. She is clearly unhappy, clearly not in good match condition and admittedly unable to focus as well as she would like on her game. Once a dynamic and giddy teenager who captivated the tennis world, the 23-year-old Seles now looks like a weary woman, well-schooled in life's troubles and almost out of place in a locker room dominated by carefree 16-year-olds.

She has her reasons. More than four years after she was stabbed on the court during a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, Seles still seems haunted by the memory. She describes herself in a current state of "transition" and divides her life, as well as her career, into two portions — pre- and post-stabbing. Pre-stabbing she played the best tennis of her life; post-stabbing she has struggled, and has not won a tournament since the Canadian Open last August.

Even that terrible trauma, though, has paled in comparison to her worry over her father. Karolj is suffering a recurrence of stomach cancer, and by all accounts is gravely ill. He stayed home in Sarasota, Fla., for treatment while Seles played both the French Open and Wimbledon, and Seles has telephoned him every day. Although she was able to speak of her father's situation in general terms without choking up a few weeks ago at the French Open, Seles can hardly bear mention of the topic now. She brought her mother to Wimbledon with her for support, but Esther Seles was never seen courtside at any of her daughter's matches and was not in the stands when Seles played on Court 3 today.

The match started rather routinely for Seles, who won the first seven games, and recovered from a second-set loss to dominate the start of the third. By the time Seles took a 5-2 third-set lead, Testud — ranked No. 23 in the world, yet never before able to advance past the second round of Wimbledon — seemed ready to concede defeat.

She didn't have to. Seles crumpled instead. Serving for the match at 5-3, Seles lost the first point, then became entirely flummoxed when the chair umpire overruled a line judge and awarded the second point to Testud, whose ball had appeared to be out. Mumbling as much to herself as to the umpire, Seles lost her focus, and had her serve broken.

Seles had another golden opportunity in the 12th game, when she destroyed Testud's 40-love lead by winning four straight points and put herself on the verge of winning the match. This time, Seles smacked a backhand long on match point, and Testud recovered to even the set at 6-6.

In the final games, Seles was grunting as loudly as she ever has, and hitting the ball as hard as she has in recent memory, but her mis-hits were almost shocking, coming from a player as accurate as she. She was broken when she hit one backhand long, and she set up match point for Testud in the next game when she completely mis-hit another backhand. Testud then finished the match with an ace.

"I was up 5-2, then I had the match point, so many chances, and I never should have let her back into the match," Seles said. "A little bit was going through my mind."

Asked if she was too "distracted" to be successful here, Seles said "no," but her demeanor and her play seemed to prove otherwise. Although she was shaken out of her doldrums temporarily by the fervent support of the Centre Court crowd on Sunday, People's Day here at Wimbledon, she had not a trace of a smile on her face when she came to the All England club this morning.

"I love the game," Seles insisted. "I think that's the reason why I came back and keep playing it. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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