Sporting Life

Lesson learnt after sharing the court with Seles

I should have broken my rule, I should have taken the selfie. I should have because there should be exceptions to all rules. Just like Monica Seles. Who played with two hands on the racket handle for backhand and forehand. Tall, she was. Ungainly. Looked a bit like that cartoon character, Olive Oyl, as a teenager. But hit like Popeye.

I don't take selfies with athletes because in my book either you're a journalist or a fan. If you're posing with an athlete with a silly smile one day, it's a bit disingenuous to write that they're an underperforming, entitled star the next. But that's just me. And this was her. My favourite player - which sounds like something 13-year-olds say - on the court with me at 11am on a Tuesday morning.

She's 42 now, very slim, lines starting to engrave themselves on her face, her smile as kind as her father used to be. Karolj Seles used to applaud shots by his daughter's opponents and the more selfish and tribal sport turns, the more preposterous that sentence sounds. Karolj the cartoonist drew Jerry on tennis balls and Seles became a six-year-old Tom who chased them. This is how you make legends. Now she's in town and the Singapore Tourism Board asks if I'd care to join a clinic with her. I'm not an autograph collector, and some clinics can be lame, but this I want to do. Of course, Seles is not going to smack the ball, or sprint, or stretch, but if you've got a chance to even hear Bono clear his throat, you wouldn't?

Timing is the music of sport (you can hear it and feel it), timing is what separates the average from the extraordinary, timing is what Seles has even now, though she'd laugh and tell you that she feels covered in rust. But yesterday, now and then, she'll lean just a little into a flattish stroke and you smile and know there's still a residue of genius in those wrists.

One of the little thrills of these WTA Finals is the history that loiters in the corridors. Martina Navratilova, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, framed faces on stadium walls now come to friendly life. Without history, sport is hollow; without history, no debate is stirred nor perspective found.\

The Straits Times senior correspondent Rohit Brijnath (third left) attending a tennis clinic held by former world No. 1 Monica Seles (far right) with other participants at the OCBC Arena. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Without history we'd never get into H.G. Wells' time machine and want to fly back to our youth, to 1992, to Paris, when Seles beats Steffi Graf 10-8 in the third set in the French Open final and sitting there that day, in my 20s, I am certain I'll never see a finer match.

How could tennis be played like that?

Why particular players connect with us is not easily explained or entirely logical. It's a form of love and thus complicated. I like Michael Phelps because he's an evangelist for swimming and Navratilova because she owns the courage to stand up for causes. I admire Lionel Messi for the cultivated way he scores goals and relish Seles because her tennis was like a new martial art form.

She brought no particular elegance to court, nor prettiness of stroke, instead she evoked wonder and fear and awe, all of it wrapped in a grunt that sounded like a Van Damme strike to the solar plexus.

She brought no particular elegance to court, nor prettiness of stroke, instead she evoked wonder and fear and awe, all of it wrapped in a grunt that sounded like a Van Damme strike to the solar plexus. She was a two-sided hurricane of hitting, whose competitiveness was like a jagged edge, which led the former Romanian player Ion Tiriac to say: "She would crawl over broken glass to win a tournament."

Yesterday Seles tells a tale which reveals that competitiveness. At 13, at Nick Bollettieri's academy in America, there are not many girls, so she hits with the boys - blokes called Agassi and Courier - but she wants to show she's as good as anyone, so she creates her usual geometric havoc with her angles, till Courier says he's not playing with her any more. "She's no fun," is what she says he says. And then she laughs.

Seles won the French at 16, was No. 1 at 17, won eight Slams by 19. Then she was stabbed and a piece of her was gone. In 1996 she returned to win her last Slam, in Australia, and yesterday she says "in terms of emotion" it was possibly unrivalled.

Yesterday the organisers provide equipment but I bring my own racket: This is Seles, dude, be serious. She is charming and generous, poses and signs, hits balls and tell tales. She talks about playing a teenage, powerful Serena Williams years ago and thinking, "Here is a better version of myself".

Life wasn't always kind to Seles and I hope she has found her peace. I am too old for awe and yet I am grateful for yesterday. To be at the clinic wasn't going to improve my game for it is too late for that. But to be there was a way of giving thanks to a champion for all that she gave me. It's why I should have broken my rule and taken the photo. Sometimes for the exceptional you must make an exception.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Lesson learnt after sharing the court with Seles'. Print Edition | Subscribe