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For these, more to life than sports

Baseball has its training wheels affixed. NCAA basketball is approaching tournament zeal. NBA and NHL races are warming. World Cup soccer in America is all but afoot. Race cars thunder on multiple major fronts. Golf and tennis tours are rising to spring/summer prominence.

As the Winter Olympics melt in Norway, the U.S. athletic pace revs with intriguing diversity. But, among us in the Tampa Bay community, three of the more noted sports practitioners on Earth are in dry dock for reasons as varying as they are discomforting.

Monica Seles, Paul Azinger and Jennifer Capriati are indefinitely hibernating and, we pray, healing at their respective manses in Sarasota, Bradenton and Tampa.

You hear no definitive answers to nonstop queries on "when?" two gifted tennis women and a heroic golfer might return to their sporting work. But these are comparatively small issues, when measured against "if?"

Azinger's restraints are wholly physical. Winner of last year's PGA Championship and $1.4-million, he has lymphoma, a form of cancer.

Optimistic doctors suggested the 34-year-old Zinger might be cured by summer. Pessimistic friends from the PGA Tour came to worry, with Paul all but uncommunicative. They wondered if the Bradenton string bean might be sicker than announced.

I've got upbeat news.

Azinger went to a recent Orlando Magic basketball game with tour crony Payne Stewart. Last week, he fished with a commercial associate from Guess watches in the Florida Keys.

Zinger's voice was loaded with Monday spunk when Greg Kraft, another tour pal from Clearwater, got through on the phone.

"He sounded fantastic and full of excitement about the future," said Kraft, who called from the Doral Open in Miami. "There's no longer pain in Paul's shoulder where the cancer is located.

"Zinger was leaving for Los Angeles and more radiation. He said there's weight loss and nausea after treatments, but the pounds quickly return and then he feels great. Zinger says he'll be there (March 16) when former champions are honored at the Bay Hill (Orlando) tournament."

Now, in search of similar hope from Seles and Capriati, let's look to Sarasota's semi-reclusive Monica, the finest female tennis talent on Earth, and to Jennifer, a high school senior straining for normalcy.

Both are running in privacy, convalescing from wounds far different. Neither Seles nor Capriati will, or can, say when, or if, their next tennis hurdle will be approached.

Seles hasn't competed since April, when she was stabbed in the back by a Steffi Graf fan at a German tournament. After 10 recuperative months, Monica's reason for continuing reluctance has to be beyond physical.

Psychological demons, including paranoia, are understandable. But, just maybe, a new brand of personal emotions has festered with a 20-year-old native of Yugoslavia who, while tour inactive, had time to discover that there can be more to life than backhands, volleys and global fame.

Women's tennis is suffering without Monica, its grunting dominator. There's nobody to combat Graf, who rose to No.

1 after a knife took Seles out of the way. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario isn't quite good enough. Gabby Sabatini has lost focus. Capriati became a dropout at 17.

Graf romped at the French Open in May, Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September and the Australian Open in January. She's odds-on to repeat in Paris, then London and maybe New York. Majors are minor feats for Steffi, without Seles across the net.

Capriati turns 18 this month. She's thinking senior prom, not tennis rankings. It's difficult to be normal when you're Jennifer Capriati, but hurrah for her trying.

Outsiders had figured the giggly, grinning Florida teen would never burn out. Capriati was a celebrity millionaire at 13, history's youngest Grand Slam semifinalist at 14 and an Olympic gold medalist at 16. She seemed to be having so much fun. But, within Jennifer, trouble was crackling.

Cheers for Jenny, recognizing the need to back off. High fives for her new gig, for as long as the kid needs to unwind and enjoy. Maybe this is payback for a childhood Capriati all but missed. Let her return to tennis when she likes, and if she wants.

Living is a higher sport.