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SELES PROVES SHE’S BACK AND AT THE TOP OF HER GAME

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Monica Seles insists anybody can beat anybody in women's tennis. The way she played the Canadian Open, nobody came close to beating her.

Seles entered this event just to get in some matches before the demanding two-week grind of the U.S. Open. Instead, she walked off with the championship, overwhelming each of her opponents, only occasionally dropping a game, never dropping a set. She was broken just three times in five matches.Only once did Seles require more than an hour to dispose of an opponent. She needed just 4 hours, 41 minutes of total playing time to win the title. She wasn't just better than everybody else. She was a lot better.

Seles finished off the romp Sunday with a 6-0, 6-1 victory over Amanda Coetzer, a win that confirmed her status as one of the favorites going into the Open.

That sounds bizarre. Here is a player who spent nearly 21/2 years away from tennis. How can she be a favorite for the Open? Easy. She's just that much better than everybody else.

The Open can be unforgiving. It is two grueling weeks, a major test of stamina and strength. Seles talks only about being there, no small matter for someone who did not play competitive tennis for 837 days.

"The Open is different," she said. "It's a whole the new thing. The first match there, all I'll think is I'm so glad to be playing a Grand Slam.

"Whatever happens, as long as I play well and I'm having fun, that's all that matters."

Her only problem seems to be a gimpy left knee.

"I think my fitness is not the best," she said. "My knee is not the best. I worry about it. I never played hurt and I don't know if I'm doing the right thing. If the knee hurts, I have to stop playing."

It could be the only thing standing between her and the Open title.

Who's going to beat her? Co-No. 1 Steffi Graf, who seemed distracted losing her first match here? Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who struggled to win one match here? Mary Pierce, who looked great one day and terrible the next?

Maybe Anke Huber put it best. She managed the only three breaks Seles suffered all week before losing in the quarterfinal. That accomplishment alone made her something of an expert.

"She made all the important points and played them well," Huber said. "She's hitting the ball very hard. We all knew if she was coming back, she was ready for it. But nobody expected this."

Maybe they should have. Seles would not have returned if she weren't ready. She had worked hard in the three months since Martina Navratilova convinced her to return.

And would Seles qualify as a threat in the Open, a tournament she won the last two times she played it?

"She can win if she is in condition," Huber said. "She has a good chance to win."

Then came Gabriela Sabatini's testimony after she was nearly shut out by Seles in the semifinals.

"After two years, it's hard to just start playing tournaments again," she said. "She is very close to the level she was at before. She plays like nothing happened."

It was one thing for Seles to beat up on players like Kimberly Po and Nathalie Tauziat, and even, after early trouble, Huber. But Sabatini is another matter, a past winner of the U.S. Open, a consistent top 10 player who had three previous victories over Seles. It did not matter. Nothing Sabatini tried worked. Seles just destroyed her.

In the final, Coetzer forced Seles to three break points in the first set. Each time, Seles fought them off, eventually winning the game. She then broke Coetzer in the next game and after that, it was obvious that there would be no upset this day. It was anoth sub-1 hour match.

"None of us knows how fit she is," Coetzer said. "If she continues to play easy, short matches, she has a good chance."

Tennis players are trained to keep a poker expression on the court. Seles doesn't buy into that anymore. She often smiled broadly, clearly enjoying what she was doing.

"I have a little different, better perspective," she said. "Just to be playing again, it feels great."

So now it's on to the National Tennis Center. Seles insists she doesn't expect too much.

"It would be unrealistic. I'll expect more of myself early next year when I have a few matches and tournaments under my belt."

She talks of next January's Australian Open as a more likely target.

Seles has her reasons for keeping the Open low key. She has not been around the frenetic pace of a Grand Slam tournament since the Australian Open in 1993. She must adjust to the surroundings and the grind of a two-week tournament. She continues to worry about a sore left knee that gave her some problems here.

After each match here, though, she grew more confident about her chances. Watching her performance, which included a string of 18 consecutive games won in the last two matches, that seemed entirely appropriate.