SINGAPORE – Three-time WTA Finals champion and former No.1 Monica Seles is back at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global as a WTA Finals Ambassador. Aftr getting a chance to catch a glimpse at the Greatest Eight in action in Singapore, the nine-time major winner had one champion in mind when asked who had what it took to capture the Billie Jean King Trophy.
“I think you do have to favor Kerber,” she said in a press conference on Wednesday. “The way she’s playing, the way she handled pressure at the US Open, knowing she would be No.1 and to win her first US Open – I was very impressed by that.”
Seles has been keen on Kerber, the first left-hander to ascend to No.1 since the American herself, especially since she lifted her second Grand Slam title in Flushing Meadows, the latest in a series of major milestones for the German in 2016.
“I think she has matured so well, playing really consistent tennis. I’m so impressed with how strong she is, mentally. To have the breakthrough, winning the Australian Open, was huge – beating Serena Williams like that. But it was even bigger to win the US Open, knowing all the pressure of being No.1, winning a second Grand Slam to solidify it.
“Sometimes in winning the first one, you still have that innocence and can play without pressure. But when it comes to the second, and having that extra little pressure, I was very impressed with how well she handled it.”
Contrasting Kerber with another first-time major winner this season, Seles said all eyes will be on Roland Garros champion Garbiñe Muguruza, and how soon she can back up her big breakthrough on the terre battue.
“The first one is super hard to get, and very difficult, but I think going into the event, before you win the first one, you just don’t have the same pressure. You’re thinking, ‘Ok, I’m just going to go out there and swing at the ball.’ The second is when you’re feeling that you belong here and you want to prove, not just to everyone in tennis, but also to yourself that you’re meant to be here.
“I think that’s what Kerber has done so well. I think it’s also how you handle it mentally. She’s a bit more mature; she’s been on the tour, and nothing seems to faze her mentality. She fights so hard for every ball, and is in unbelievable shape. So she really prepared herself, both physically and mentally.
“For Garbiñe Muguruza, I think it might take another year – or however much more time, it’s hard to put – because she has the game to win more Grand Slams; there’s no question. She probably won on her least favorite surface, the one that would least suit her game, when you think about it.”
Looking ahead to the next batch of major champions, Seles has high hopes for Agnieszka Radwanska, the defending champion in Singapore. Though the Pole rode the momemtum of her WTA Finals victory into a 13-match winning streak at the start of the season, she stalled at the Slams since reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open.
“As a player who played the sport and now loves to watch it, it’s wonderful to watch players making their breakthrough. You’d hope a player like Radwanska, who won this event, will have a breakthrough where she puts it together at a Grand Slam too. Once a few players are exiting the tour, there will be a lot more changes at the top.
“She seems to play so well at the lead-up tournaments, but I think she has the game where she could really pull through and do what Kerber did. But you have to give so much credit to Kerber and her team for putting it all together at 28.”
Check out more quick hits from Seles as she weighed in on Serena’s chances of surpassing Stefanie Graf, Maria Sharapova’s return to the sport next spring, and how she forecasts the future of the sport.
On veterans making breakthroughs…
It comes down to generations. Before me, there was Tracy Austin, who was probably just as young. I think it’s a lot healthier for women – or even girls and teenagers – that players are maturing later. You can handle the pressure a lot better, both physically and mentally, at 22, than at 16. Improvements in recovery and training, the courts have been slowed down tremendously. The schedule is a lot lighter; the ladies now have two months off, which was unheard of in my generation. The WTA has made many great changes to extend the longevity of the players. I think you’ll see players staying in the game a lot longer than mine, where the average retirement age was 26-30.
On who is the Greatest of All Time…
I think Serena, Stefanie Graf, and Martina Navratilova are still fighting it out; it will depend on what Serena ends up doing for the next few years. It’s unfortunate that Serena had periods where she wasn’t able to play on because of injuries, because she is still playing unbelievable tennis at 35, but it’s definitely not her prime, the way it was when she was in her late 20s. To have a player like Serena has been great for the sport across the board.
I remember when I played Serena; she was 16, and we were playing in Chicago. I was No.1 in the world, and I lost to her; I told my agent that my days at No.1 were numbered because you could just feel that she was already a player who was so complete. I know everyone talks about how strong she is physically, but her groundstrokes, fundamentals, and technique are all very sound. As someone who loves the sport, I want to see her healthy next year, and try to go for a few more major wins.
On Maria Sharapova…
I think she’s probably one of the toughest competitors that the tour had. She’s mentally very strong. She’s never been a player that needed a lot of matches, kind of like Serena, to play well. I don’t think there’ll be any trauma to work through with her, so I think she’ll do well coming back. It might take a few matches for her, but I’m not sure it’ll even take that long.
On how she envisions the WTA’s future…
Since I stopped playing, the game has gotten a lot more global, and that’s only ten years, give or take. I remember when I first went to play in the Middle East and in China; now, there are tons of tournaments in those regions. Hopefully, we’re able to inspire a lot of young girls. I look back in my career, and I feel I inspired a lot of the younger ladies from Eastern Europe. I think Li Na has done the same in the Asia/Pacific region. I hope we continue opening up the sport for a lot more kids in different parts of the world, and try to prevent the sport from being too expensive so more can have access to it.
You look at the United States, where we have so many courts, and still don’t have the players we’d hope we would. But I think it’s about making the sport more accessible. It’s wonderful to see the younger players being more involved with the charitable side of things, where you do give back to the sport. All of us – legends and current players – are very thankful to be doing what we’re doing.
As juniors, I’m sure we never thought we’d actually be making a living in tennis, so it’s our responsibility to give back to the sport and make it grow, so we can see stars from different regions around the world.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.