July 02, 1990 12:00 PM

As if major international championships, pots of money and a shot at the world’s No. 1 ranking aren’t incentive enough, 16-year-old tennis star Monica Seles plays a motivational game with herself before every tournament: If she wins, the wunderkind promises herself, she can buy something special. Until recently Seles settled for a leather jacket here, a giant teddy bear there. But when she arrived in Paris for the French Open three weeks ago, she moved up to adult wish fulfillment. She told herself that if she won that one she’d buy a bright yellow Lamborghini she’d seen in a showroom. “If I really want something, and I work hard,” she said, with a girlish giggle, “I’ll get it.”

When the time came, Seles won the tournament but not the $130,000-plus car, which her parents decided would be too much too soon. It may have been the first time in months that Seles didn’t get what she wanted. The ponytailed prodigy with the unorthodox, two-handed forehand, who emits eerie, hyenalike screeches when she smacks the ball, has won six straight tournaments. Five weeks ago at the German Open, she upset top-ranked Steffi Graf, who had won 66 straight matches, by the score of 6-4, 6-3. A week before, she had trounced second-ranked Martina Navratilova 6-1, 6-1, to win the Italian Open. Then she beat Graf again, 7-6, 6-4, in the French finals to become the youngest woman to win a Grand Slam event in 103 years. As Wimbledon opens this week, the world’s eyes are on Seles (pronounced SELL-esh), whose arsenal of ground strokes is awesome. “I’ve only lost to Monica twice, so she’s not a nightmare yet,” said Graf, after the French. “I hope she doesn’t become one.”

All signs suggest otherwise. Since turning pro 16 months ago, Seles has rocketed from No. 88 to No. 3 in the world. Simultaneously, Seles has shot up six inches, from 5’3″ to 5’9″, necessitating a change in her game. “It [gave me] a totally different persepective,” she says of her height change. “All of a sudden I was seeing the court at different angles. And before, I didn’t have to bend my knees to hit the ball.” She slumped briefly early in the year, but since March she has won 32 consecutive matches. Inexperience may actually have helped. “I still don’t realize how important some tournaments are,” she admits. “I never play tennis for winning, always for enjoyment. Maybe that’s good. It’s still a game to me.”

A very profitable game, however. Already this year she has earned more than $700,000, and in May she signed a multi-million dollar deal to pitch and design Fila sportswear. So far success hasn’t made her any less kidlike. “I try to be the same as my friends,” she says, “not to have anything bigger. The same clothes from the same stores, the same makeup.”

Monica credits her father, Karolj, a newspaper cartoonist and animator, and her mother, Esther, for keeping her life “normal.” In her native Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, her dad gave her first racket when she was 6. “I played for two weeks,” she says. “Then I got tired of it and put it down.” Her interest revived two years later when her older brother, Zoltan, won the national junior championship. Then Karolj, a former triple jump champion, began playing motivational games. He would draw Monica’s favorite cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry, on her tennis balls. If a ball had Tom on it, Monica would pretend she was Jerry and whale it as hard as she could. Sometimes, Karolj would put a stuffed animal on the court. If Monica hit it, she got to keep it. “Even if I didn’t hit it, I’d get it,” she laughs. “But it made me want it more.”

At 9, Seles was her country’s 12-and-under champion. By 10, she was European junior champion. At 11, she was Yugoslavia’s sportswoman of the year. While she was playing a tournament in Miami in 1985, Florida tennis coach Nick Bollettieri spotted her. “I saw this little pipsqueak,” he recalls, “and she was beating the heck out of everyone.” He offered her a full scholarship at his tennis academy, and the entire Seles family came to Bradenton, Fla., the following year. Karolj and Esther gave up their jobs to support their daughter’s career, and she began training six hours a day. “Monica’s a perfectionist,” says Zoltan, now 24. “Whatever she does, she wants to do best.”

Feelings between the Seleses and Bollettieri turned bitter this spring when family and coach parted company. The Seleses are said to have felt Bollettieri was spending too much time on his other protégé, Andre Agassi. Bollettieri disagrees, and says he even turned down a chance to work with tennis’s other amazing infanta, Jennifer Capriati, to stay with Monica. “I’m shocked,” he says. “It would be very difficult not to be very, very hurt.” For her part, Seles insists that her father has always been her true teacher. “A lot of players—Capriati, Graf—have their fathers as coaches,” she says. “It’s important to have your family close.”

Whenever she’s back home in Florida—just four weeks in the past six months—Seles swims, plays basketball with her brother’s friends, dotes on her Yorkshire terrier, Astro, reads “everything in every magazine every week” and memorizes Paula Abdul dance moves. A straight A student, she studies on her own, taking tests—and passing them—whenever she returns from the tour. The schedule seems to suit her. “Every job has its advantages and disadvantages,” she says. “If you like it, you can accept it. I’m having fun each day, and there are rewards which for other kids are harder to have.”

For example, there is the Jaguar convertible that a women’s tour sponsor, Kraft General Foods, is offering to the player who scores the highest in Kraft’s point system. Since her parents turned thumbs down on the Lamborghini, Monica has set her heart on the Jag. “I’m second so far, pretty close to Steffi,” she says. “I hope I can keep it up until the end of the year. It’s very nice, the Jaguar,” she adds with a giggle.

—Susan Reed, Cathy Nolan in Paris

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