Casino serves up backdrop for match

Saturday, December 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) _ A month after a basketball legend christened Mohegan Sun's new 10,000-seat arena, a couple of tennis greats kept the good times rolling on Saturday.

Hall-of-Famer Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles played an entertaining three-set exhibition match in the new venue before more than 3,000 people.

Seles beat Navratilova, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4. The match got off to a bumpy, if not humorous start as the two players contended with what appeared to be inexperienced ball boys and girls. The young retrievers were often slow to run down loose balls or ran in front of the players at the wrong time.

But when the balls were finally in play, both players attacked in their own styles. Seles hammered at Navratilova with a relentless baseline game. Navratilova, 17 years older, could still counter with quick, athletic volleys. To prove her stamina, she did three quick push-ups just before the final game of the match. Seles then proceeded to serve out for the win.

The grand opening on Oct. 26 featured Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards against the Boston Celtics. After Jordan's sold-out show, the casino packed the room for popular country and western star Tim McGraw.

``We were having a very good run,'' said Paul Munick, the casino's vice president of sports and entertainment.

Tennis was next on the menu but it nearly didn't happen. The match originally paired Seles, the No. 10 player in the world, with top-ranked Lindsay Davenport. But a knee injury forced Davenport to pull out.

``Disappointed? Absolutely,'' Munick said Saturday.

Unless another high-profile and high-ranked competitor could be found _ and soon a _ the event was in trouble.

``If we weren't able to get Martina, it probably would have been a stretch to keep this thing alive,'' Munick said.

That's when Munick reached into his past. A former VP with Madison Square Garden, Munick was well acquainted with the women's tour, which held its annual championships there. In fact, he helped raise Navratilova's banner to the Garden's rafters when she retired in 1994.

A quick phone call to Navratilova in Colorado solved his problem.

``Martina said sure she would come and she was available,'' he said. ``So it worked out.''

Navratilova, 45, retired from singles competition seven years ago, but has been playing doubles on tour. She earned 18 Grand Slam titles and her 167 singles titles are more than any male or female tennis player.

Seles, playing on the eve of her 28th birthday, is a former No. 1 player and a winner of nine Grand Slam titles. When recently won her 51st career singles title at a tournament in Shanghai. The crowd on Saturday serenaded her with ``Happy Birthday.''

``I have to think this is the best birthday present I've gotten,'' Seles said about playing Navratilova. ``It is special to play Martina again. I never imagined I would play her again in singles.''

Navratilova thanked the crowd, then thanked Davenport for the opportunity.

``I had this amazing opportunity to play singles against Monica. I never thought that would happen again,'' Navratilova said.

No stranger to Connecticut, Seles has played team tennis the past two years for the Hartford FoxForce and is a regular participant in the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven.

Navratilova also is a Nutmeg State favorite. In 1994, she drew more than 12,000 fans for an exhibition match at the Connecticut Tennis Center in New Haven and has also played a team tennis match in Hartford.

Munick said he hopes to book at least one FoxForce match in the new arena. The same surface Navratilova and Seles played on Friday night will be used in Hartford this summer during the team tennis season, Munick said.

He said he also hopes the tennis Senior Tour will make a stop in Uncasville. Indoor lacrosse also is in the works.

There will be more basketball later this season. The University of Hartford will play a men's and women's double-header against Clemson on Dec. 28. Central Connecticut will square off against Massachusetts on Dec. 15.

Seles and Navratilova arrived on Friday and had a small reception at the casino. Munick said Seles was so impressed with the surroundings, she called her mother in Florida and told her she had to see the place for herself. Her mother flew up Saturday afternoon in time to see her daughter practice.

``It's to explain to people what this place is all about until they get her,'' Munick said.

Navratilova called it a ``most amazing place.''

``I don't gamble, I'll just come out here to look at the building,'' Navratilova said.