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SELES PREPARES FOR GRAND SLAM PLAY WHILE PLAYING JUST FOR THE FUN OF IT

The giggle is back at the U.S. Open, and Monica Seles feels home at last.

Seles returned just for the fun of it Sunday, playing doubles for charity with comedian Bill Cosby in the Arthur Ashe AIDS Tennis Challenge, and is set for prime time Monday night in her first Grand Slam match in more than 21/2 years.Seles looked delighted to be back at the National Tennis Center as she signed dozens of autographs for children on one side of the stadium, then jogged to the other side and signed dozens more. The crowd gave her a long, warm ovation when she first came out, and another when she was introduced at the start of a celebrity doubles match with Tracy Austin and Nick Lowery.

Laughing most of the time on court while Cosby joked around, Seles still managed to show off a few of the strokes that made her a champion.

"It felt great," Seles said of her return to the stadium where she won the title in 1991 and '92 before she was stabbed the following spring in Germany. "I get very nervous playing the pro-celebrity stuff because you are not sure how hard you're supposed to hit. I don't think my entire career I ever won a celebrity match.

"Friday night, when I first practiced in the stadium, the first five minutes everything felt very new. But after five minutes, it felt like I was here. It was like my home."

Earlier in the day, Seles shot a commercial in Forest Hills, the former home of the U.S. Open.

"(Forest Hills) was just an eerie feeling," she said. "It was such a pretty place, and it was so empty. Flushing, which is so modern, was, like, what a contrast."

Seles said the tendinitis in her left knee remains painful and could worsen the longer she plays on the hardcourts at the Open. She plans to rest her knee for several weeks after the Open.

"I can't bend down all the way, and I can't, in any way, train or do any running," she said. "It started from running a lot on the pavement, which my dad told me not to do. But, of course, being stubborn, I did it anyway. And in playing on hardcourts, I think the combination was just too much. Being very inflexible, the tendon just started pulling inside and it got tighter and tighter."

Seles clenched her fist to shot how tight and stiff the tendon feels.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Open wasted no time putting their featured attraction in the spotlight the first night, and she was given a draw that could let her cruise to the final.

Seles is coming off a victory in the Canadian Open and expects little trouble Monday night, except perhaps some nervousness, against No. 44 Ruxandra Dragomir of Romania, who lost in the second round last year and the first round the year before.

"Everything to me is again really new," Seles said. "So I am learning. Also I am trying to remember how to get ready for a match . . . when to go in and warm up with your volleys and when to start to serve. All those things. I am trying to get back into that routine. That was automatic before this happened. Now I have to re-do that.

"Physically, I am definitely not in the shape that I wanted to be, but that is something that you have to accept and make the best of it."

In some ways, Seles believes she's a better player than ever, now that she's grown 2 inches to nearly 5-foot-11, but in other ways she's not quite at the level she used to be.

"I think my height probably helped a little bit with my serve," she said. "And a little bit on my volleys - my reach. At least that is what Martina said. If you reach so much farther with your volleys and with the long arms, that helped my game. Probably movement-wise, I am not that good. I think ball-feeling-wise, I am not, because it was such a back-and-forth period that I didn't have that consistency that I used to have, day in, day out."

Five former U.S. Open champions are playing the first day of the two-week tournament: defending women's champ Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Gabriela Sabatini, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Seles.

Though none of the seeded players should have a problem winning Monday, the first round is studded with potential pitfalls for some of the top players on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Chief among them is top-seeded Steffi Graf's first-round match against Amanda Coetzer, who upset the German in the first round at the Canadian. Graf won their six previous matches, though not easily in the second round at Wimbledon this summer.

Andre Agassi, the men's top seed and defending champion, also has a potentially difficult first-rounder against Bryan Shelton, who won their only previous match at the Lipton in 1992. Agassi is on a 20-match winning streak.

Other intriguing first-round matches include fiery Jeff Tarango against No. 7 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who lost 6-0, 6-1 to Tarango last year on a hardcourt in Bourdeaux, France, their only previous confrontation.

Jim Courier, seeded No. 14 and an Open finalist in 1991, may not have an easy time in his opener against Bernd Karbacher, who recently beat Pete Sampras in the semifinals in Indianapolis.

Todd Martin, No. 15, also may be in for a rough start against Guy Forget. They split their two previous matches, both this year.