When she was eight, Monica Seles of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, visited Monte Carlo with her family. She put a coin in a slot machine, pulled the lever and shut her eyes. Three lemons. Coins rained upon her. Unlike the lever-happy men and women all around her, though, she didn't feed the machine her windfall. She pocketed it.
Curious restraint for a child. But not for Monica, who has resisted numerous temptations since then—not from the slots but from her success at tennis, which seems to be beckoning her down the road to early stardom. Now 14, the 5'5", 100-pound Monica, who's known for her gauche on-court grunting and her mean two-fisted ground strokes, played her first two pro tournaments in March. Alhough she is still an amateur, she turned heads at both.
At the Virginia Slims tournament, in Boca Raton, Fla., Monica beat 35th-ranked Helen Kelesi, 7-6, 6-3, while Steffi Graf and Chris Evert looked on. Then Monica took on Evert, who is 19 years her senior. Monica lost 6-2, 6-1, but Evert conceded the score could easily have been a lot closer. A week later, at the Lipton championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., Monica defeated 140th-ranked Louise Field 6-0, 6-3. In her next match she held three set points against Gabriela Sabatini before succumbing 7-6, 6-3.
True, Monica suffered losses in both events, but what seductive losses they were—like coins from the slots, crying out, "Play harder. Gamble more." However, she refuses to give in to temptation. She says she won't turn professional until she finishes high school, and she won't have played another tournament until the U.S. Open this month. In the meantime she is practicing her serve and volley so they'll be as strong as her ground strokes. "Many people want to be the youngest to do this, the youngest to do that," she says. "I don't want to set records. You can hurt yourself. I just want to be good when I'm 19."
August 21, 1988
For all her humble talk, Monica is already a lot more than good. Since 1982, when she picked up her first tennis racket, put on a headband and tried to imitate Bjorn Borg, Monica has never lost to anyone her age or younger. At nine, just a year after she started playing, she competed in the Yugoslav 12-and-under girls championships. "She didn't know the rules," says Zoltan, 23, her older brother, co-coach and a former Yugoslav 18-and-under champion. "She was playing the points and not counting. She was always asking me whether she was winning or losing." Monica was winning. She pocketed her victory and returned home to hit more balls against the wall.
Monica reemerged at age 10 in 1984, winning the 12-and-under European championships, in Paris. In 1985 she was named Sportswoman of the Year in Yugoslavia, the first person under the age of 18 ever to be so honored. That same year, as she was winning the Orange Bowl 12-and-under crown in Miami, she was spotted by Nick Bollettieri, coach to such promising players as Andre Agassi.
"I saw this little pip-squeak, no bigger than a tennis racket," says Bollettieri, "and she was beating the heck out of everyone." Well, that sealed it. Nothing would do but for Monica to enroll at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on scholarship.
In 1986, Monica moved from Novi Sad to Bradenton, accompanied by Zoltan, who was fresh out of the army. Homesick and missing yogurt, ‚àÜí‚àö√üevap‚àÜí‚àö√üi ‚àÜí‚àö°i (a dish made of ground lamb and beef) and snow, the two awaited their parents' arrival. Monica and Zoltan lived at the academy.
Six months later their mother, Ester, took a two-year leave from her job as a computer programmer, and their father, Karolj, once a triple jump champ in Yugoslavia, put down his work as a cartoonist and documentary filmmaker. They closed their three houses—two in Novi Sad and a vacation home in the country—and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Bradenton without knowing a syllable of English. Of life in Florida, where tiny lizards slither underfoot, rich children play tennis all day and summer never leaves. Karolj, whose English is coming along, says, "I am on the moon."
But the strange surroundings haven't deterred the Seleses from their mission to make Monica into a great player. "Rarely have I seen a family so focused." says Ted Meekma, executive director of Bollettieri's academy. "They are very dedicated, very ritualistic in the way they train, and very patient."
While Monica grunts away on the court, Karolj, Zoltan and Ester observe. When she's finished, the multilingual family holds solemn little t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te-à-t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢tes in Hungarian. Monica, who also speaks Serbo-Croatian. English and French, listens and absorbs.
"Her concentration is unbelievable." says Bollettieri. It has to be, because Monica has three coaches: Karolj, who does drills and sprints with her; Zoltan. who hits with her; and Bollettieri, who works on Monica's strategy and strokes, and every now and then slaps Karolj fraternally on the back.
Early on, Karolj and Zoltan saw in Monica a very small, very aggressive player with a very odd style. A lefty, she throws all her weight at the ball, swinging at it with short, two-handed backhands and forehands. The grip—right hand over left—never changes. That means her backhand is almost normal, but her forehand is downright twisted; she has to turn her wrist over during the follow-through. "My father wanted her to play that way, and she accepted it." says Zoltan. "She likes it that way."
That eccentricity affects other aspects of Monica's game. In particular, the double-fisted strokes cut down on her reach. "It's harder to get around with two hands," Zoltan says. To compensate, Monica has to run a lot more than players who have one-handed strokes. Her shots appear as forceful punctuations in her never-ending sprint around the court. And because she doesn't have much time to place shots carefully, "she goes more for the big shots," says Zoltan. "She doesn't have any choice." Indeed, Monica hits so hard that Zoltan restrings four rackets a week for her.
Right now, says Zoltan, Monica is like someone who drives a car fast before she has learned to control it. "It's dangerous," he says. "And it's also unbelievably noisy." That's because every time she pounds the ball, she lets out an obscene grunt that sounds like a monstrous unfinished sneeze—haaa-ahhh, haaa-ahhh, haaa-ahhh.
"When I played Sabatini, I was almost heard in the grandstand," says Monica with a touch of pride. "People came up and asked is something wrong with me. It's not nice, they say. But it's O.K. with me. It's neat and interesting in one way." Why? Because "it's the same same kind of noise Jimmy Connors makes," she says. "He goes for every single ball and attacks it so fast."
Though she spends some time with her dog, Astro, and some time at malls and movies with her friends, she devotes most of her time to playing tennis and studying. She is an A student at Braden-ton Academy. Not only does she want to be No. 1 in tennis, but she's also angling to be a lawyer—"the kind that goes in front of the judge all the time," she says. Of course, that too must wait.
For now the whole family is involved in her career because "Monica's success is our success," says Zoltan. He means it. "Look," he says, pointing at a magazine article about Monica. "They spelled my sister's name S-e-1-a-s." The misspelled name was his, too, but that apparently wasn't the point. Seles is Monica and Monica is Seles.
The longer the Seleses stay in the U.S., the greater the chances become that they will be taken for immigrants, which they say they're not. They're caught in the delicate position of wanting to show Bollettieri that they are grateful and happy to be at his academy, while showing that they are not too grateful or too happy; that they plan to return to Yugoslavia one day.
In January, Monica played in Portland, Ore., as a guest of the U.S. team in an exhibition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. When she beat Natalie Zvereva, runner-up in this year's French Open, 6-2, 6-1, USA Today reported that Monica had played for the U.S. rather than as a guest. A Yugoslav journalist picked up the story, and it appeared in a newspaper back home. "People there thought that she had become an American," says Zoltan. But eventually the whole thing was straightened out.
Now everyone knows that "Monica is here because of her tennis," says Zoltan. "We don't want to force her too much, and we don't say she has to be Number 1. We just want to make her a good tennis player."
That may sound like a rather flimsy reason for a whole family to uproot itself, give up jobs and a home, move to a strange land and risk looking like it has deserted its country for good. Then again, you've probably never seen Monica Seles play.
Sarah Boxer, a writer who lives in New York City, plays tennis whenever possible.