They say that those who can’t do, coach…unless you’re a tennis legend in 2015, of course. Then, you do both.
But don’t expect Monica Seles to be joining that short list any time soon.
On Thursday, the former World No. 1 and nine-time Grand Slam champion participated in a conference call to promote this year’s edition of the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden, slated for “World Tennis Day” on March 10. Seles and Gabriela Sabatini will serve as the first match of the twin bill, which also features Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov.
On the call, Seles dished on everything from her “return” to singles play and her relationship with Sabatini, to coaching and the present state of tennis.
Seles and fellow Hall-of-Famer Sabatini will lace up their sneakers and take to the court at MSG for the first time together in over two decades. Both Seles and Sabatini competed at the WTA Championships when they were held at the historic New York City arena; the two faced off three times under its roof, with Seles winning all three matches.
This year’s edition of the BNP Paribas Showdown will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Seles and Sabatini’s classic five-set final in 1990 – one which Seles won, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. It was, at that time, the only final at the WTA Championships to extend to five sets, a format that the tournament used in its championship from 1984-1998. In total, the championship match went the distance on three occasions.
“I always loved playing three out of five,” Seles said, when prompted to give her opinion on the “three vs. five” debate in the first question of the afternoon. “It’s more of an equalizer if you’re a slow starter…more of a true barometer for the players. I would like that…I think the ladies are definitely fit enough to play three-out-of-five set matches, and that’s kind of a non-issue.
“Tennis is a pretty traditional sport, and change is slow to come…[but] I think at Grand Slams it would be a lot of fun in the semis and final.”
The WTA held its season-ending championships at Madison Square Garden from 1978-2000, an illustrious 23-year run that saw nine different women crowned as champion. Since leaving New York, the WTA Championships underwent a re-branding as the WTA Finals, and has brought elite women’s tennis to cities such as Madrid, Doha, Istanbul and Singapore.
For Seles, however, nothing can compete with the concrete jungle.
“For me, one of the saddest days in my tennis career was when the season-ending championships were moved from Madison Square Garden to Germany,” Seles said, referencing the 2001 edition of the tournament. “I thought it was the perfect setting for the season-ending championships. [The fans] move with you through every single point, and there’s no feeling like it. The fans are really close to you…and you feel their energy. As a player, you thrive on that.”
Although she did not retire officially until 2008, Seles’ last professional match was a loss to Nadia Petrova in the first round of the 2003 French Open. In 2008, she appeared as a contestant on the U.S. edition of Dancing With the Stars, one of the latest in a long line of tennis players to trade sneakers for high heels, and Hard-Tru for ballroom hardwood. A year later, she released her memoir, Getting A Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self, which touches on her life on and off the court; her battle depression and food addiction after her 1993 stabbing; her relationship with her father, Karolj, his cancer diagnosis and passing; her reconciliation with the sport and life after retirement.
However, one place you won’t be seeing Seles – for now at least – is in a player’s box.
“Coaching, at this stage in my life, does not appeal to me,” Seles said. “I just don’t want to travel again. I did it for so many years and I just really don’t want that lifestyle. I do, at home, work with a young lady that I enjoy working with her and hopefully in the future, we’ll hear a lot more about her.”
While she doesn’t want to throw her hat into the ring, Seles believes that the recent influx of legendary players-turned-coaches is a positive thing.
“I think Madison Keys having Lindsay [Davenport] as her coach is a tremendous asset. Not just from the game, but also from the mental aspect. Now, [with] Martina Navratilova coaching [Agnieszka] Radwanska, I…will be very excited to see the different dimensions she’ll bring to Radwanska’s game. And Mauresmo, [is] obviously, breaking the mold with coaching Andy Murray.
“It’s just interesting to see these star coaches…I think it’s a great idea. You bring so much experience to current players, and I wish in hindsight, that I would’ve done that when I was playing.”
Seles said that she would’ve hired someone like Navratilova, who “could have helped me with my net game…my lefty serve and things like that.”
Although her match against Sabatini is just a one-night exhibition, Seles has been taking her preparation very seriously. She’s hoping to shake off a few years of rust on the singles court, and is working with fitness trainers to get her in shape to put on a show for the New York crowd that she holds so near to her heart.
“The bottom line is, I love to play tennis and I love to compete,” Seles said. “This is just a highlight for me, and [it’s] a great honor to be a part of it.”