The roots of a legend: when Monica Seles played for TK Novi Sad - UBITENNIS
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The roots of a legend: when Monica Seles played for TK Novi Sad

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TENNIS – Monica Seles stepped on court again, in an exhibition against Gabriela Sabatini. For the occasion, Ubitennis went to see where the career of the talented two-handed player, that shocked women’s tennis at the beginning of the ‘90s, started. It was 1985, when the European under 12 tennis champion joined the TK Novi Sad tennis club… By Ilvio Vidovich, translated by Lorenzo Dicandia

 

Monica Seles is back on court: she played in the Madison Square Garden, in an exhibition against her great friend and former rival Gabriela Sabatini.

On the occasion of the New York match, Ubitennis went to see where the career of the champion born in former Yugoslavia started, paying homage to an outstanding player that would have probably rewritten women’s tennis history, if fate hadn’t decided otherwise.

The exhibition in New York is a rematch of the one played between the two players 25 years ago in the same city: the WTA Championship final of 1990 that Seles won in 5 sets (6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2). It was the first women’s final that lasted five sets since the 1901 US Open final (that at the time were called US Championships) won by home player Elisabeth Moore. But to fans, especially to Monica’s fans, what comes back to mind in this period of the year, even more than that match played in NY, is what happened in the January of some years later. The January of 1996, when in Melbourne it looked like the magic of her game had suddenly came back.

Untouched. As if nothing ever happened.

Monica Seles had just won her ninth Slam, only few months later having got back to competitions, after the aggression suffered in the spring of ’93 in Hamburg and the forced stop of more than two years. (from April 1993 to August 1995). She had already came close to her ninth Grand Slam title in the final of the US Open played some months earlier and lost in the decisive set against Steffi Graf.

But it was just an illusion.

The magic of her game, with her extraordinary sense of anticipation with both fundamentals played with two hands, that magic that allowed her to win – still a teenager – eight Grand Slam titles from 1990 to 1993 and to get to the top of the rankings, had disappeared.

The blade of Gunther Parche’s knife, in that spring of 1993, had made it disappear, breaking the equilibrium of Monica’s life. An equilibrium that, after other events like the illness and death of her father, she managed to regain only after a long and tormented path, as she wrote in her 2009 autobiography “Getting A Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self” and that has recently wanted to share again, in an attempt to motivate people that suffer the same illness she was suffering in that period.

After the aggression “Little Mo” (the nickname given to her when she was a kid in Yugoslavia, in honor of the nickname of another great tennis player, Maureen Connolly, that as a teenager revolutionized women’s tennis of the first half of the ‘50s. It was not only the nickname that linked the fate of the two ”Little Mos” of women’s tennis: also Connoly had to stop her career – but in her case for good- at the age of 19, and both have won 9 Grand Slam titles) won only that last Slam. Apart from the 1995 final, she reached two other finals of a Major (in 1996 in New York again defeated by Steffi Graf, and two years later in Paris defeated by Arantxa Sanchez – that before the aggression had lost in all the three matches of a major played against Seles: Roland Garros final of 1991, AO semifinal of 1992 and US Open final of 1992), won 21 WTA tournaments (she had won 31 between 1990 and 1993, not including her first tournament won in 1989 in Houston, when, at the age of 15, she defeated the great Chris Evert), and conquered three Fed Cups and an Olympic bronze under the American flag (she became American in 1994). But her game never matched again the incredible intensity of the first years of her career.

The magic was not there anymore.

Ubitennis went to see where that magic, later developed in the Hogwarts of tennis, the Academy of Albus Dumbledore Bollettieri, had born.

Legend says that the magic had born in Novi Sad’s Balzakova Ulica, and exactly in the parking lot of the street, located in the Liman neighborhood, where Karolj Seles drew tennis court’s lines and began teaching tennis to his 5 year-old daughter Monica. Karolj Seles – a pretty famous cartoonist and caricaturist in his home country – was not the typical father that acts as a tennis coach knowing nothing of the different ways and techniques of training. Being himself a good athlete, twice triple-jump national champion, he attended Physical and Sport Education at Beograd University, and was PE teacher for some years, becoming also a triple-jump coach (under his guide Radoslav Jocic became the first Yugoslavian athlete to jump longer than 15 meters).

To know something more about that period, Ubitennis contacted the Teniski Klub Novi Sad, the main tennis club of Seles hometown, where the player of Hungarian roots trained – at the age of eleven- during 1985, before moving to Florida at the court of the American guru, that has last year been welcomed in the Hall of Fame of tennis.

Monica had just began creating some noise, winning in the summer of 1984 the under 12 European championships. This is what a Yugoslavian sports newspaper wrote at the time:

Tennis fans and experts are enthusiastic about the game of our player and the majority already sees her as the one that will take the place of Martina Navratilova. She remains almost indifferent to all these compliments, but she’s not lacking ambitions: “My duty is to study at school and to train, just like my dad Karoly and my brother Zoltan say. Dad worries about finding out all the new training techniques of tennis, my brother shows them to me and helps me applying them. Judging from the constancy of my wins, I would say that all three of us are doing a good job” says the little Monika, almost unconscious of the dimension of her successes.”

The sign-up of Monica for the club of the Serbian city, capital of the autonomous province of Vojvodina, dates back to the February of 1985, after the Orange Bowl win in Miami (where she was spotted by Nick Bollettieri, that since then began to get interested in having the amazing kid signing for his Academy in Bradenton).

Monica Seles's membership form for the TK Novi Sad tennis club

Monica Seles’s membership form for the TK Novi Sad tennis club

TK Novi Sad has published the sign-in form on the homepage of its website (notice the different spelling of both her name, Monika instead of Monica, and of family name, the more Hungarian Szeles instead of Seles, and the patronymic Karolja, daughter of Karolj).

We don’t know a lot about that period. Monika played at our club for a short span of time, from the beginning of 1985 to the fall of the same year, when she moved with her family to the United States.” says Peter Zvekic, secretary of the club.

Regardless of the quantity, the quality of those few things they know lets us understand that there was something special going on.

From what the members that were already here at the time say, Monica was very shy and humble, but well conscious and responsible when it came to training, considering her age. She trained two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, always super focused, something that the other children her age couldn’t do.”

Fun fact: the writer of this article, between 1984 and 1985 was in Novi Sad, and went to TK Novi Sad to try to see some training sessions of the young rising star everybody talked about. Unfortunately without any success, otherwise this article would have been enriched with yet another memory of Seles during her time at the club…

The club also sent a picture of the time when Monica trained on its courts

11 year-old Monica Seles on court at the TK Novisad Tennis Club

11 year-old Monica Seles on court at the TK Novisad Tennis Club

The technical staff of the club never followed the eleven year-old kid that was exclusively coached by her relatives.

Monika was coached by her father and her brother. The latter, Zoltan, was also a talented tennis player, but he gave up his career in order to coach his sister.”

It is necessary to point out, however, that the tennis growth of Seles was not only managed by her relatives. For a short period of time, between the home-made court in the parking lot of Balzakova Ulica and the clay courts of TK Novi Sad, she was coached by Jelena Gengic, the famous Yugoslavian coach that in those years followed also Goran Ivanisevic and that later was the mentor and first coach of the current number one player in the world, Novak Djokovic.

In an interview released in 2011, Gengic, died in 2013, remembered her years with Seles and her father:

When they were young I trained Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic. I followed them in junior tournaments for four years. I taught Monica almost everything you need to know to have success in tennis. Her father Karoly has really sacrificed a lot for her career. He was constant and was there at almost all her training sessions. He never interfered and was always collaborative.”

TK Novi Sad – equipped with 9 outdoor courts, 6 clay courts and 3 synthetic, 7 of which lighted – although has in Monica Seles its flagship, has also helped other good players, many of whom have become national champions both individually and with the team. Two names are to be remembered among women: Tatjana Jecemonica, current Serbian Fed Cup captain and former number 86 of WTA ranking (6 ITF titles won in her career), and Sandra Nacuk, former n 81 in the world (4 ITF titles won, and a third round reached in 2000 at Wimbledon, when she lost in 3 sets against Arantxa Sanchez, then defeated by Seles in the following round.)

TK Novisad Today

TK Novisad Today

The club organizes every year an ITF under 18 tennis tournament, got to its 17th edition now, and won in 2011 by Borna Coric, fifteen at the time and now n. 60 ATP and future star of men’s tennis.

The tournament has every year many participants coming from Italy, and they always have good results” (Last year Federico Bonacia got to the final in the boys singles draw, and Ludmila Samsonova in the semifinal among girls) “we have always good memories of them, both of the players and of the coaches. We share a really similar mindset and we are always ready to have fun together,” said the secretary of the club.

As already said, Monica played on TK Novi Sad courts till the end of 1985. She moved in the Stated in the spring of 1986, when her father managed to sell his Balzakova Ulica house and Seles’ family left to be close to their daughter that had began training at Bollettieri’s Academy. In an exclusive interview given to ubitennis.en, Nick remembered Monica in this way:

Imagine a skinny girl, that at the age of 12 hits with two hands from both sides and stays always on the baseline, moving fast. This is what I saw watching Monica play at the Orange Bowl many years ago. What did I do? I offered her and her family a scholarship, and I never changed anything in her game, no matter what people told me to do. Monica is one of the greatest of all times and she couldn’t be a better person off court.”

Monica came back to Novi Sad in 1990 to play an exhibition against Arantxa Sanchez. Since that time she periodically comes back to her hometown.

As if Monica has never forgotten Novi Sad, also Novi Sad has never forgotten its “Little Mo.” Indeed, apart from the pictures at the club, there’s also something else that remembers her in the city.

In the May of 2012 on the shores of Danube, the river that flows through Novi Sad, a new sport complex has been inaugurated, with two tennis courts. One of them, with the approval of Monica, has been named after her and has her signature at the end of the court.

The court dedicated to Monica Seles

The court dedicated to Monica Seles

But the most peculiar memory can be found at Balzakova Ulica 26, where Seles used to live. In the October of 2013 on the façade of the house, that Monica as a kid used as a training wall, there is now a mural of her with a trophy in one hand and a teddy bear in the other – like the picture at the beginning of this article – and on the side there are her name in the original Hungarian spelling and the phrase: “It all began here” written in Serbian.

Remembering where the magic started.

The mural for Monica Seles at Balzakova Ulica, Novi Sad

The mural for Monica Seles at Balzakova Ulica, Novi Sad

By Ilvio Vidovich, translated by Lorenzo Dicandia

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Serena Williams’ 1000th Match Ends In Defeat To Podoroska

Serena Williams was defeated in Rome as she reaches a landmark milestone of 1000 WTA matches.

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Serena Williams (@WeAreTennis - Twitter)

Serena Williams’ 1000th WTA tour match has ended in a 7-6(6) 7-5 defeat to Nadia Podoroska in Rome.

 

The American made her return to tour for the first time in 84 days as she looked to build momentum heading into Roland Garros.

If the first few games were to set the tempo of the match then it would prove to be a long contest with Serena struggling to get any free points on her serve.

It was the Argentinian who got the first break of the match in the third game as she tested Serena’s stamina early on in the contest.

In typical Serena fashion, the 23-time grand slam champion produced some stunning ground-strokes especially from central positions to break to love straight away.

On serve, Serena looked fairly comfortable as she ended the match with eight aces although she only made a first serve percentage of 48%.

That was her key downfall as it was Podoroska who looked the more comfortable on return as she used some devastating angles to force unforced errors from the Serena racket.

A break for a 5-4 lead ensured that the last year’s Roland Garros semi-finalist would serve for the opening set.

However Serena used her power and good point construction to once again break back which was met with a roar from the world number eight.

Eventually the first set would head towards a tiebreaker with Podoroska dominating the majority of it.

She had three set points which came and went as Serena used her fighting qualities to roar back into the match.

But once again some unforced errors would cost the four-time champion as Podoroska took the next two point to claim the opening set in 66 minutes.

In the second set, Serena was the early aggressor as she dictated points better setting the pace of the match.

Again though Podoroska extended the rallies and made the American move all round the court exposing as much space as possible.

The Argentinian was rewarded for her court coverage when she broke in the sixth game as Serena began to tire.

As in the first set, Podoroska couldn’t serve out the second set as her cautious play lead to Serena levelling it up at 5-5.

However Serena’s serve was just not working when she needed it too and Podoroska secured the final blow to seal a fantastic victory for her.

For Serena its onto Roland Garros as she will look to improve her fitness in the next couple of weeks.

As for Podoroska she will play Petra Martic after the Croatian beat Kristina Mladenovic today 7-5 6-3.

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Naomi Osaka’s Clay Woes Continue After Pegula Defeat In Rome

Naomi Osaka went out in the second round in Rome to Jessica Pegula.

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Jessica Pegula (@TickTockTennis - Twitter)

Naomi Osaka’s clay court woes continued in Rome after losing to Jessica Pegula 7-6(2) 6-2.

 

The world number two admitted previously that learning the clay court trade would take time and this continues to be the case after another early defeat on the surface.

After losing in the second round in Madrid to Karolina Muchova, Osaka knew she needed a quick start in this match and she produced that with the early break for a 2-0 lead.

Pegula’s loss in Madrid was in the third round although that was to the eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka and she had every reason not to be intimidated as she slowly worked her way in the match.

The American reaped her rewards as she took her second break point to bring the match back on serve.

Despite the setback, Osaka continued to dictate play using her athleticism to bring shots back with depth and pace as she was arguably playing the better tennis.

In the latter stages of the set, the Australian Open champion had created three set points before some bold Pegula tennis denied Osaka the set.

Eventually the first set went to a tiebreak which saw the world number 31 be more aggressive and produce some stunning tennis to win seven of the nine points on offer to win the tiebreak 7-2.

In the second set, Osaka fell apart as her backhand, net play and general point construction crumbled quickly.

Pegula offered more in attacking combinations and produced some big serves as she broke three times in the second set.

Despite breaking in the sixth game, it was another disappointing performance from Osaka who conceded defeat in 90 minutes.

As for Pegula she has set up a third round clash with Ekaterina Alexandrova.

In other results so far today Elina Svitolina survived a scare as she edged past Amanda Anisimova 2-6 6-3 6-4 in 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Garbine Muguruza also edged past Bernarda Pera 2-6 6-0 7-5 in just over two hours after the Spaniard struggled with a foot injury.

There were comfortable victories for Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova while Petra Kvitova was knocked out by Vera Zvonareva 6-4 3-6 6-4.

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Madison Keys Outlasts Stephens As Bencic Exits Rome

Madison Keys outlasted Sloane Stephens while Belinda Bencic crashed out in Rome.

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Madison Keys (@TickTockTennis - Twitter)

Madison Keys Outlasted Sloane Stephens 4-6 6-2 7-5 to reach the second round as Belinda Bencic lost in Rome.

 

In a rematch from the 2017 US Open final Keys avenged her loss from then and last month’s defeat in Charleston to reach the second round in Italy.

In a topsy-turvy contest it was Stephens who took the opening set despite heading a break down early in the set.

A crucial break in the ninth game gave her the third break of the set as the Lucky Loser took the first set in 49 minutes.

In the second set Keys responded well, managing to dictate points more comfortably and despite losing the early break advantage broke Stephens in her last two return games to level the match at one set all.

Unlike the first two sets, it was Stephens who managed to break first as she won the opening game of the final set.

The pair then shared a combined three games in a row with Stephens losing her momentum and racking up more unforced errors as the final set was back on serve.

Both players then saved break points on there serve before Keys eventually pushed over the finishing line on her third match point to seal victory.

Despite victory, Keys’ 56 unforced errors doesn’t bode well for her second round match tomorrow against Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek as the American will need to play a much cleaner match to make the last 16 in Rome.

In other results so far in Rome, Belinda Bencic crashed out in Rome after a 6-3 6-4 defeat to Kristina Mladenovic.

Despite a convincing win for Bencic over Mladenovic in Madrid, the doubles grand slam champion managed to control her game in a close match which saw Bencic lose all the close points and games.

Mladenovic will now play Petra Martic in the second round which has seen Serena Williams part of the draw open up nicely.

Speaking of Serena, her first match of the week will be against Nadia Podoroska after the Argentinian beat Laura Siegemund 2-6 7-6(3) 6-1.

Here are some of the other results so far on day two in Rome:

Yaroslava Shvedova def Martina Trevisan 0-6 7-6(4) 7-6(6)

Caroline Garcia def Elisabetta Cocciaretto 7-6(8) 6-2

Bernarda Pera def Tamara Zidansek 6-3 6-2

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