That was no optical illusion. And it wasn't fear playing mind tricks on mere mortals--although there was plenty of that to go around, too. Fact is, Monica Seles has grown another inch during her 28-month absence from tennis, and she's gained six or seven pounds of sheer muscle.
Up at the Canadian Open, she must have looked eight feet tall. Like Martina and Chrissie and Billie Jean rolled into one. The others--the mortals and midgets and pretenders of women's tennis in 1995--had told themselves she couldn't possibly be match-tough or crowd-ready, not after one casual exhibition match. They were wrong. Following a convalescence and vacation some thought would never end, Seles rolled over the world's No. 19 player, Nathalie Tauziat, 6-2, 6-2, toyed with No. 10, Anke Huber, 6-3, 6-2, and dropped just one game in two sets to No. 18, Gabriela Sabatini.
Poor Amanda Coetzer. In the Canadian final, the five-foot-two-inch South African lasted just 51 minutes under six-footer Seles's withering assault. She boomed her serve past her helpless opponent, fired dozens of forehand passing shots at the baseline and threw in enough sharp volleys to re-establish herself as a relentless attacker. For better or worse, she also punctuated the show with a trademark grunt every time she hit the ball. Coetzer went down in flames, 6-0, 6-1, and two minutes later women's tennis started to quake. Forget about Mike Tyson: Monica was back!
This week's U.S. Open will be only her second tour event since a lunatic stabbed her in April 1993, and she might just win it going away. That says as much about the quality of women's tennis these days as it does about Seles's dominance, but so be it: The slackers had better get in shape.
Clearly, Seles's triumphant return at the Canadian couldn't have come at a better time. Soon after the Hamburg stabbing, American hope Jennifer Capriati vanished into her lost adolescence, Martina Navratilova retired, and the glamorous Sabatini took time off. Suddenly, women's tennis found itself without major stars, and none emerged to replace them. Mary Pierce's patented "Big Babe" game and queasy stomach most often collapse. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is quick and canny, but she can't surf the net like taller players and could be a paper tiger. Jana Novotna's got a will made of tissue paper. Conchita Martinez? Flashy but flukey. California's Lindsay Davenport? Maybe. If she can drag herself away from the buffet table.
Said another way, the only real players on the women's tour for the last two years have been the Spaniard Sanchez Vicario and the German Steffi Graf--and that's about to change. For a while there, you never knew if it was live tennis or tape you were watching on the boob tube, so many times did these same two opponents face each other in the final. And U.S. tennis fans looking for a top homegrown product could never get their hopes up: The last American woman to win the U.S. Open, for instance, was Chris Evert, back in 1982.
Given her traumas, her bravery and her game, Seles now belongs to the world--and it won't be long before she owns Graf and Sanchez Vicario again. In Canada, they say, Graf was so worried about her father Peter's tax-evasion case that she got knocked off by Coetzer in the first round, and Sanchez Vicario was allegedly suffering from a head cold when she lost in round three.
Alibis won't hold up so well this week at Flushing Meadow. If you're not ready to play a Grand Slam event, you're not ready to play. So if Seles, who's seeded number two behind Graf in New York, tears through the field as she did in Montreal, it will not only signal one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports, it will undisputably reveal the current weakness of the women's game--a subject that's been more hotly disputed than is justified. There aren't any Martinas or Billie Jeans in the game right now...and there's only one Monica.
Frankly, I don't think Graf, who is now 26, can carry Seles's racquets. If she proves otherwise--these two have won five of the last seven U.S. Opens--the women's game may once again have a scintillating rivalry, the kind of thing it's needed since Evert and Navratilova bowed out. Certainly, that all-American Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras matchup for the ages has left a lot to be desired on the men's side: These guys never seem to get to the same final.
As for the overrated Sanchez Vicario, the only reason she's reached the top is that the top has drawn so close to the bottom--that and Seles's protracted absence. If she gets Seles in the U.S. Open final--and let's hope she does--the fraud of the decade could be quickly exposed.
So look out: Monica's back! And if, at the tender age of 21, she looked eight feet tall in Canada, wait till her opponents get another look at her in the Big Apple. Women's tennis is suddenly a whole new ball game, and she owns the ball.
Your Colorado Rockies are in their first divisional race (for another ten minutes, anyway), and Cal Ripken Jr. is about to surpass the Iron Horse. But the most interesting baseball spectacle was being played out last week by eleven- and twelve-year-olds.
The Little League World Series, which has never endured a players' strike but has had its share of scandal (overaged Taiwanese ringers), is one of those events that turns everyone's cliche machine on full blast: Between the innocence of the players ("Favorite band: Hootie and the Blowfish") and the purity of their hearts ("Favorite subject: math"), these kids and their once-in-a-lifetime quest are awfully hard to resist.
But I'm not sure they want you to think they're kids.
When Spring, Texas, faced Yorba Linda, California, last Tuesday--this was just after Saudi Arabia (Saudi Arabia!) got beat--I found myself fascinated by, among other things, a lanky twelve-year-old Texan named Wardell Starling III. This budding Doc Gooden--same high, slow leg kick, same rubber arm--came equipped with a 68-mile-per-hour fastball (90 mph in big-league translation) and a steely-eyed attitude he'd clearly expropriated from big-league TV games. Nothing rattled Wardell--not a wild pitch, not the two consecutive homers he gave up, not the ESPN mini-cam stuck in his face. And when his equally stone-faced teammates patted him on the shoulder after a bad inning, he just glowered.
Wardell Starling III was cool. He was also careful to step over the foul line whenever he strode to the dugout. Cool big-league superstition.
In fact, most of Wardell's teammates seemed like mini-grownups too. The team's 4-8, 85-pound shortstop probably doesn't have his home run trot perfected yet, but 5-6, 165-pound first sacker Mike "Spike" Cepeda does. Meanwhile, many of the kids were encased in enough elastic wristbands and leather batting gloves to stock, say, the entire Texas Rangers clubhouse. What's waaay cool, by the way, is to drape the fingers of your two batting gloves out of your back pockets when you're, like, not at the plate. That's what they do in the Bigs.
But posing can present hazards. In the course of one at-bat, a five-foot, 100-pound infielder (sorry, I didn't catch his name... or ask for his autograph) got so tangled up in his paraphernalia--wristbands dangled on skinny wrists, untied shoelaces, too-large batting helmet, too-tight batting gloves--that he finally called time, dropped his bat and simply divested himself of most of the extras.
Despite himself, he also grinned--a big wide, eleven-year-old gap-toothed grin--which is something big-leaguers don't often do. Then he ripped a clean line-drive hit to left field, lurched down the basepath and--we hope--found his childhood waiting for him, right there at first base.
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