On 30 April 1993, Monica Seles - the dominant player of her era - was stabbed by a deranged Steffi Graf fan. It would be two years before she returned to the court, but her game and the sport would never be the same. L Jon Wertheim traces the star's remarkable story right through to its surprising final chapter
Those with a thing for symbolism were quick to note that the announcement came on Valentine's Day. On 14 February this year, Monica Seles issued a vanilla-bland press release asserting her retirement from professional tennis. This news, such as it was, hardly rated a blip on the radar, relegated to small print in the newspapers and ignored by most sports broadcasts. Outside of insular tennis circles, the scant mention it drew was usually along the lines of: 'Monica Seles? I didn't realise she was still playing.'
In truth, she wasn't. Once the grande dame of the WTA Tour, Seles had not scrunched her face and thwacked a ball in an official match since 2003. There had been talk of a return when her foot healed, but that never happened. Once Seles crossed the baseline into her mid-thirties, her public appearances were limited to meaningless exhibitions and pro forma sponsors' functions. It was somehow appropriate that this piddling out-with-a-whimper retirement announcement - no valedictory tour, no video montage, no farewell fanfare - consecrated the end of perhaps the most tragically unfulfilled career in sports history.
But then this, too, was fitting: a few days later, Seles made a second proclamation. She would soon be appearing on ... Dancing With the Stars, the irresistibly shlocky American version of the BBC reality show Strictly Come Dancing. A cast of celebrity contestants are partnered with professional ballroom dancers in a season-long competition. Come again? Dignified, modest Monica Seles would be dancing on television? 'Why not?' she told friends with a shrug. Why not indeed. Here we have a woman whose talents for tennis have always been rivalled by her talents for contradiction.
Once upon a time in Tito's Yugoslavia, there was a girl of Hungarian extraction, raised in relative, though not extreme, poverty. Monica Seles had a conventional childhood until it was discovered just how expertly she could swat a tennis ball against the wall of her apartment building. She could put all of her weight into her shots, yet control the ball as if she had sent it to obedience school. Though hardly a typical hyper-ambitious 'tennis dad', Karolj Seles, a cartoonist by trade, drew images of Tom and Jerry on the balls to sustain his daughter's interest. For hours, she would hit and hit and hit.
At age nine, still unsure how to keep score, Seles was winning national tournaments. By 11, she was the best junior in the world, courted by management agencies and the tennis hothouses. When the family settled on Nick Bollettieri's academy, the Seles clan moved to Florida's Gulf Coast, 5,600 miles - and an immeasurable cultural distance - from Novi Sad. Monica, then 14, had the best English skills, so it fell to her to read the contracts and negotiate the rent.
By the age of 15, Seles had turned pro and was beating Chris Evert. A year later, she won her first grand slam championship, the 1990 French Open. And from ages 16 to 19, Seles was damn near unbeatable, winning eight major titles and holding the top ranking for more than 100 weeks. (For perspective: currently, there are no teenagers ranked among the WTA Tour's top 10.) She also did what few had thought possible. She dominated - not beat; dominated - the once indomitable Steffi Graf, who was four years her senior. In a rare moment of candour, Graf once conceded that, even playing her best tennis, she was unsure she could beat Seles. This was an admission akin to Mike Tyson expressing doubts about his toughness. Had Seles sustained her trajectory into, say, her mid-twenties, she would have been recalled as the best female player ever to have gripped a racket.
Seles's game was simply revolutionary. She bludgeoned double-barrelled, two-fisted strokes, taking the ball so early she often seemed to 'short-hop' her shots - on the upward part of the bounce - in the manner of a cricket batsman. Then, as if to say it-ain't-as-easy-as-it-looks, she would punctuate her slugging with a piercing grunt - EEEEEEeeeee-uuuuuHHHHH!!! - that would become as much her hallmark as her relentless winning. (Peter Ustinov once remarked: 'I pity the neighbours on her wedding night.') Apart from the sound effects, one would be hard-pressed to call Seles a stylist. Her serve was an unseemly left-handed side-winding delivery. She treated the net as terra incognita, venturing there only when absolutely necessary. A deft touch was never her strong suit.
She won instead with a mix of insuperable power and insuperable confidence. While never particularly nasty or arrogant, she simply projected an unshakable self-belief. Time and again she sent a distinct message across the net: When it matters most, I won't miss. 'When the going got tough,' Pam Shriver says, 'Monica got you in a death grip and wouldn't let you out. That mental toughness was just unbelievable.'
Seles seemed to relish being unknowable, experimenting with fashions and hairstyles and even accents. But the enduring mystery about her was the source of her on-court ruthlessness. It was so fiercely at odds with the rest of her personality. She would administer a cold-blooded thrashing and then, five minutes later, morph into a giggly girl who spoke at hummingbird speed and prattled about fashion or her Hollywood ambitions. An American columnist likened her to 'the giddy teenager at her first wedding reception on her third glass of champagne'.
Seles almost seemed to feel guilty about competition, as it, necessarily, breeds a loser as a by-product. She told the American writer Frank Deford that her favourite moments playing tennis were exhibitions, those so-called 'hit and giggles' most players grudgingly enter only because they are paid princely fees at the end of the night. How on earth could Seles prefer these burlesques to actual tournaments? Everyone is on their best behaviour, she said. Then, at the next official tournament, Seles would kick everyone's ass from here into next week.
Even at the peak of her powers, Seles tended to engender more respect than affection. Some of this was down to her relentless winning. What sports fan doesn't reflexively root for the underdog? But beyond that, Seles was hard to pin down. Was she an assassin or an airhead? A European or an American? She wasn't gay, but neither was she overtly sexual. She lacked the cool of 'Ice Maiden' Evert, the Teutonic detachment of Graf, the outspoken activist impulses of Billie Jean King or Martina Navratilova. But if the general public struggled to grasp Seles, those who knew her well were enchanted. 'Now we shall have Seles and she will be wonderful,' the tennis courtier Teddy Tinling, the British pro who was a figure on the circuit for 60 years, once remarked. 'Completely wonderful.' He knew more than he knew.
Even the most casual sports fan can recall what happened that afternoon in Hamburg on 30 April 1993. Seles was pasting Magdalena Maleeva, victory close at hand. As she sat in her changeover chair to rest between games, an unemployed 38-year-old German, Günter Parche, slithered past two security guards, leaned over the rail and plunged a serrated knife into Seles's back. Parche would claim that he was acting to preserve the honour of Graf, a player whose losses could make him feel suicidal.
The knife, blessedly, missed Seles's vital organs. The wound would heal in a matter of weeks. The psychological scars were another matter altogether. Any 19-year-old would be freaked out at the prospect of confronting her own mortality. It was particularly so for a giddy starlet living the gilded life of a professional athlete. Suffering from what would today be diagnosed instantly as post-traumatic stress disorder, Seles awoke to nightmares and spent days shrouded in grey. Her appetite changed. Her passion for tennis wavered. She retreated into herself. Evert tells a story of chancing upon Seles in Miami airport in 1995, two years after the attack. When Seles saw Evert, she hid in the back of the plane. 'I can't pretend I didn't see you, Monica,' Evert said. Seles never came out of hiding.
Her emotional recovery was filled with setbacks. The German courts treated Parche with remarkable lenience. Noting Parche's insanity and his intent only to maim Seles - and not actually kill her! - the courts gave him a two-year suspended sentence. Der Spiegel went so far as to compare Parche to the poor man in the Second Book of Samuel, who 'had nothing except one little ewe lamb'. The magazine wrote: 'Günther Parche is even poorer than the man in the Bible.' Though hardly vindictive by nature, Seles was outraged. She could not help noticing that, while Parche walked free, she was inhabiting the equivalent of a jail cell.
For a sport too often dismissed as genteel country club divertissement, tennis can be remarkably brutal. Never was this more clear than when Seles's colleagues voted down a proposal to let her keep her number-one ranking during her absence. Gabriela Sabatini was the lone hold-out. 'Gaby is a human being,' Seles said at the time. 'The rest, they treated it like it was a sprained ankle or something.' In the middle of all this turmoil, her father Karolj was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Anything else, God? Anything else you want to throw at me?
After 27 months, Seles finally returned to tennis in August 1995, and would win another major, the 1996 Australian Open. But she was a shard of her former self. She had lost her timing and gained weight, which restricted her movement. To little avail, she hired the Olympic sprinter Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her husband Bob to help her regain her fitness. The power game she single-handedly (double-handedly?) helped inaugurate was now her nemesis. The so-called 'Big Babe Brigade' - bigger, stronger players, with Venus and Serena Williams being the most obvious exponents - emerged, and they were capable of simply outgunning Seles. Plus, she no longer giggled.
Weeks after Karolj's death in 1998, Seles, dressed all in black and with her dad's wedding ring strung on a necklace, reached the French Open final. She lost and would never again come close to winning a meaningful title. In Miami in 2000, Martina Hingis laid bare Seles's weaknesses and thrashed her 6-0 6-0. This tableau of a former champion being so thoroughly humiliated, served the dreaded 'double bagel' by a cocky upstart, ranks among the more poignantly sad scenes I have witnessed covering sport. Afterwards I asked Shriver why Hingis hadn't taken context into account and shown the mercy to give Seles a game or two. Shriver smiled. 'Think Monica would have done any different in her prime?'
It is considered bad form to bring up Parche's name in tennis circles. In the wake of Seles's retirement, the WTA's website contained a lengthy 'career obit', which conspicuously avoided any reference to the stabbing. But in the end, Parche, the deranged German, had more of an impact on tennis than any racket innovation or rule change. He skewed the dynamic of the relationship between the athletes and the ticket-buying public. Players, who once signed autographs never imagining the fan might be armed with a boning knife, grew understandably wary of the crowd.
But more than that, Parche was thoroughly successful in his goal of altering tennis history. After the incident, Graf would go on to win 11 more grand slam titles, her place in the sport's pantheon assured. Assessing Seles's career, meanwhile, was reduced to a counterfactual exercise. If she had never been savagely assaulted, might she have...
In the crass, Wikipedia-style recitation of the facts, the Seles saga seems almost unendurably sad, an aria of misfortune. But, really, it is not sad at all. After the stabbing, something unexpected happened. Transformed from champion to tragedienne, Seles became far more popular than she was while winning all those titles. It became impossible to root against her. At first, it was strictly out of sympathy. 'A part of me wants to see Monica win,' Lindsay Davenport, one of Seles's closest friends on the circuit, once told me. 'And I'm the one who has to play her.'
Then it became something much deeper entirely. The more Seles struggled, the more fans' connection to her deepened. For all the millionaire athletes who seem to reside on another planet, Seles was gloriously mortal. She, too, grieved for a dead parent and fought a protracted battle with her waistline. She, too, struggled in her job and felt the weight of depression and woke up some mornings lamenting the state of the world. In short, she was one of us.
For throngs of fans, she became a sort of ***** for grief. I was speaking to her at a rinky-dink tournament in Oklahoma City when we were interrupted by a woman who clasped Seles's hand and explained: 'I know what you're going through because my husband Eddie has cancer.' A colleague of mine once attended a Seles match in San Diego and noticed that his seatmate was cheering mightily while holding a clear plastic bag filled with grey dust. When he could stand it no more, he asked the woman about the contents of the baggie. She explained that it was the ashes of her dead brother. He had been in a motorcycle accident that deprived him of the use of his legs and, from that moment on, became a huge Seles fan. Particularly in America, the therapeutic Oprah Nation, Seles achieved goddess status.
And, as the public embraced Seles, she hugged back. Somehow it helped her to commiserate with the woman behind her in the queue at Starbucks or share a cry with the stranger who had approached her in the supermarket. In a weird way, there was comfort in the anonymity. She could share with others the feelings she could not even discuss with her mother. 'It helps,' she told Sports Illustrated of these encounters. 'I know I'm not by myself.'
It was all so counter-intuitive. She was more popular - beloved, really - as a diminished player. And while she had every right to be paranoid and guarded after being knifed by a stranger, she was more approachable and accommodating than ever, revelling in her 'Everywoman' status. The same athlete who once took to wearing disguises and checking into exclusive hotels under an alias, started flying economy class and lounging in bookstores. Having become an American citizen shortly after the stabbing, she was summoned for jury duty in Florida a few years ago. Any self-respecting celebrity would have called her agent to get her out of it. Deeming it a patriotic responsibility, Seles dutifully served.
A few years ago, I met her at a midtown Manhattan hotel. Our conversation was supposed to be about tennis and some forgettable product she was being paid to endorse. But she spent most of the time raving about the television show Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was the sort of pleasant, frothy small talk worthy of any office cubicle. When we were through, she mentioned that she was off to go shopping. At Barneys, the posh emporium a few blocks from the hotel, I foolishly speculated? No, she replied, at Century Twenty-One, a glorified outlet store in Lower Manhattan. 'The subway goes right there,' she added cheerfully.
So it was that the star-crossed tennis champion appeared on a reality show. She was hailed as a 'celebrity' contestant but, really, this was the ultimate populist exercise. Looking remarkably happier - and remarkably fitter - than when she was playing tennis, Seles did a vague pantomine of the foxtrot against an omnium gatherum of other contestants including Elvis Presley's former wife, Priscilla, the magician Penn Jillette and the R&B singer Mario. She was 'booted off' after the initial episode, an ignominious first-round loss, one might say. But what the hell? Seles had fun. And everyone was on their best behaviour.
Credit: spiceboy, who posted this in the Selestials forum. I put it here, so none of her fans miss out on it. Thanks, spiceboy.