Media

Monica Seles brings energy back to Madison Square Garden

It has been nearly 25 years since Monica Seles outlasted Gabriela Sabatini in an epic WTA final at the Garden — the first five-set tennis match ever for women. The year-end tournament soon left New York for Germany, and the five-set format never caught on. But Seles thinks of both that match and her opponent in the fondest terms.

“I always loved playing three out of five, it’s more of an equalizer if you’re a slow starter, more of a true barometer,” Seles said Thursday, in a conference call. “I think the ladies are definitely fit enough to play best-of-five matches, and I think at Grand Slams it would be a lot of fun in the semis and final.”

Don’t hold your breath for such a radical change. In the meantime, Seles will play a best-of-three exhibition match at the Garden on March 10 against Sabatini, part of the BNP Paribas Showdown before Roger Federer takes on Grigor Dimitrov.

Seles was just 14 years old when she first faced the more established Sabatini at the Miami Masters in 1988.

Seles lost. The occasion was nearly as intimidating as Sabatini’s heavy topspin groundstrokes.

“She was already a star and it was my first night match,” Seles said. “I was absolutely star-struck with her. But she was such a lady on and off the court, if you won against her or lost against her.”

Seles ended up winning 11 of 14 matches against Sabatini, but what she remembers most about the glamorous Argentinian is Sabatini’s support after Seles was stabbed in 1993 by a madman in Hamburg. Upon Seles’ return to tennis two years later, Sabatini was the only top woman player who openly supported Seles’ bid to freeze her No. 1 ranking.

“She thought about a human being before a dollar amount,” Seles said. “That speaks about a tremendous amount of character.”

Seles, 41, said she is looking forward to playing at the Garden again, and would play as competitively as possible.

“For me, one of the saddest days was when the season-ending championships were moved to Germany,” she said. “The Garden was the perfect setting. You play at MSG, the stands are really close and you feel the energy. As a player, you just thrive on that.”