Monica Seles’ 27 months of anguish melted away the moment she walked on the court, and all the old shots came back with such stunning precision that even Martina Navratilova bowed in homage.
Soon, other players may do the same.
Seles returned Saturday with her famous grunt, that distinct sound of summers past renewed after so long an absence, a tennis court once again resonant with her thrumming cadence on two-fisted, swing-from-the-heels groundstrokes.
Taller, stronger and perhaps better than ever, the 21-year-old Seles brandished a wicked serve and attacking shots she once only dreamed of taking.
The score, a 6-3, 6-2 victory by Seles over semiretired and slightly injured Navratilova, hardly mattered. This was an exhibition that defined an end and a beginning for Seles: the closure of one tormented chapter in her life from the courtside knife attack in Germany April 30, 1993, and the start of a new phase that carries the promise of more championships to come.
A national television audience and the crowd of 7,500 at the Atlantic City Convention Center saw the gleeful revival of a great career that had been perilously close to abandonment after eight Grand Slam titles by the age of 19.
Nervous and tentative at the start, Seles opened by dumping two faults into the net, the first of her six double-faults in the match. But she won the next point, stretching for a backhand and passing Navratilova down the line. It was vintage Seles, and there would be plenty more of those, along with applause by an impressed Navratilova.
“Leading up to here, it’s been very nerve-wracking, especially the last week or so,” Seles said. “Today when I walked through the locker room and onto the court, it was just an unbelievable feeling. I can’t even put it into words.”
As the ovation continued, she buried her face in her hands almost in embarrassment. She slapped a high-five with Navratilova, exchanged kisses, and began her comeback in earnest a few minutes later.
Seles won the first game with a service winner as hard as any she hit in the past - thanks to the inch she grew over the past two years to reach nearly 5-foot-11. And by the time her grunting became louder midway through the first set, she seemed as good as ever.
She broke Navratilova to take a 5-3 lead, drilling a forehand crosscourt deep to force a weak backhand by Navratilova into the net. On the point before that, Navratilova bowed deeply to pay respect to Seles when she lunged for a backhand and smacked it hard down the line into the corner for a winning pass.
The court was surrounded by security guards - 65 from the Convention Center, 30 Atlantic City police officers, 20 guards from Caesars. Seles sat on changeovers as she always did, back to the crowd, facing the court, the same way she sat when she was stabbed. But here, she was far from anyone’s reach, and a bodyguard sat behind her.
In the second set, Seles double-faulted three times, a small penalty for a much bigger serve than she had two years ago. She had two aces and several service winners, played aggressively, moved well and hit hard from both sides. She struck shots cleanly and never lost serve.
“Those passing shots were not a mirage,” Navratilova said.
“She beat me, and I ain’t no slouch potato out there. I didn’t play badly. Monica’s going to be a contender anywhere she plays. She’s playing great tennis. I didn’t see much difference from when I last played her 2-1/2 years ago to today. The second point, she hit a laser passing shot down the line. She hit three winners the first game, like she hasn’t missed a beat.
“Tennis-wise, she’s right there. And mentally, she’s always been tough. And I expect her to sail through it. And emotionally, she handled it great today.”
Seles broke Navratilova to start the second set, broke her again with a crushing forehand return for a 5-2 lead, then hugged her at the end after putting away the match on serve.
“Major, major, major,” Seles exulted when asked about completing her first match.
“I still can’t believe I’m actually doing this and I’m actually here. It’s like a dream … It’s so exciting. It’s what I love to do, it’s all I’ve ever asked for.”