The "Monica before 1993" thread got me thinking about a long message about Monica's father and her family's history which I once posted to another (Monica-only) message board. After re-reading it, I didn't think it belonged in the other thread, but I think this forum is far more suited than that of the average fan for commenting on historical subjects, so I edited it slightly to clean up a few mistakes and I'm reposting it here.
Karolj Seles apparently learned English late in life, so what he spoke in English was very fractured, yet enthusiastic. The general meaning of his words was usually clear. Bud Collins called his peculiar and lovable attempts at English "Karolj-Speak."
But I want to take that phrase, "Karolj-Speak," and turn it into something a little different: "speaking about Karolj." The man and his life.
Karolj formed Monica's game. We've heard the feel-good stories: how he strung a string across a parking lot, how he drew Tom and Jerry on the tennis balls, how he drove 12 hours for a tennis racket (on separate occasions) for each of his children, how he was very fair to all people and applauded Monica's opponents as well as Monica.
But what else about Karolj? What little I've read beyond these common facts, I've either forgotten or lost. Monica's autobiography (From Fear to Victory
) tells us a little, but not really much more.
Geography and language
I'm an American, and like most of my countrymen, my knowledge of things foreign is pretty darn pathetic. I couldn't find the old Yugoslavia on a map if my life depended on it. I have no idea of the ethnic situation or the cultures there.
I know that the Seleses are Hungarian, and that they lived in a Hungarian enclave in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. But do they speak Hungarian? Is there even such a language as "Hungarian?"
In this press conference
, Monica specifically answers a question both in Croatian and in English. Does this mean Croatian is her native language, or simply another that she knows in addition to her native language? Can she speak Serbian? Is Serbian the same as Croatian? How many people with guns and bad tempers did I just offend with that last question?
I've heard that "Seles" is actually pronounced "Shelesh" in their native language, because that language has no letter for the "s" sound. I've also heard that Monica's name is pronounced "Moh-NEEK-ah" in her native tongue.
I read somewhere that the Seleses were upper middle class and had a home in the country as well as in Novi Sad. In FFTV, Monica talks about Karolj liking his money, while Esther was the prudent one who curtailed the spending.
The best information I've been able to find about Karolj is a tribute to him after his death
This article says:
In his youth, Karolj Seles was an Olympic-caliber triple-jumper. As a university student, he studied sports science and biomechanics along with fine arts. Later, he frequently extolled the virtues of combining such disparate interests and took pride in being identified as a Renaissance Man. Although Seles worked as a television director and cartoonist, the twin passions of his life were sports and the family he raised in the ethnic Hungarian enclave in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia.
I had to look up both "triple jump" and "biomechanics" in the dictionary. (I'm a couch potato. Sue me.)
: "A distance jump in track and field consisting of a hop landing on the take-off foot, a stride landing on the other foot, and a jump landing on both feet."
: "1. The study of the mechanics of a living body, especially of the forces exerted by muscles and gravity on the skeletal structure. 2. The mechanics of a part or function of a living body, such as of the heart or of locomotion."
I read once, somewhere, that as a triple-jumper, Karolj served as an alternate on the Olympic team. But for which country? What year? What university did he attend? What was his degree? I don't know.
In addition to his cartooning duties, Karolj once hosted a children's television show in Yugoslavia. I know nothing more about it. (And Esther was a computer programmer, in the 1980's when computers were rare
I've often wondered what unique perspective Karolj brought to tennis. As a cartoonist and a studier of biomechanics, he would have an incredible perspective on the human body and its movement, and looking at the way Monica plays tennis, I think I can see that influence, that way of thinking. I marvel that Karolj -- at least, so it seems -- knew virtually nothing
about tennis -- certainly not on the level of other professional coaches -- when he began coaching his two children to respective Yugoslavian junior championships.
In Public Power, Private Pain
, author Sue Heady details how Steffi Graf was spotted as a talent early in life, and the sports-obsessed German government gave her top-notch facilities even as a child, nurturing her all the way. I think it says much about Monica's skill and talent that she was easily Steffi's equal with far fewer resources; she couldn't practice in the winter, and the four tennis courts in all of Novi Sad were of poor quality. She didn't get the government nurturing and the state-of-the-art facilities. Yet Monica still won the Orange Bowl, and the European 12-and-Under championships twice. I think that speaks volumes not only about Monica, but about Karolj, as well.
Monica mentions Karolj's ability to serve hundreds of times a day in practice, whereas much younger hired practice partners would tire out after about 200 serves or less.
Monica adored him not just as a father, but as a coach and the architect of her game. She claimed to receive coaching tips from him over the phone when he was bedridden late in life, and using those tips to win matches she would otherwise have lost.
Frankly, I don't think the stabbing affected Monica's overall career nearly as much as Karolj's death. She won the Oz Open in 1996 and came within an inch (1st-set tie-break) of winning the US Open in 1995, all while overweight
! But when Karolj's cancer returned in early 1996, and it seemed to be worse than ever before, that's
when her game crumbled.
When Steffi's father was in prison, she practically had to use the tennis court as a refuge because the authorities wouldn't let them speak to each other. But when Monica's father's health deteriorated, she couldn't do the same; unlike Steffi, Monica had the power to be by her father's side, and she made that choice. Monica's lowest years while still on the tour are 1996-1999, and I'm convinced that cancer is to blame. It came along at the precise moment it needed to to ensure that Monica's career continued to suffer from something not of her making, just when she had overcome the previous obstacle. If the cancer had to return, then its timing, at least, could hardly have been worse.
What would Monica's career look like if Karolj were still alive and healthy? Would he have eventually taught her to volley? Does Monica have a reluctance to try new tactics because, subconsciously, holding onto her baseline way of playing is a way of holding onto her father, and trying something new would seem like a betrayal of his teaching? Would he have found an answer to the Williams sisters?
And would it take another cartoonist and biomechanist to take his place?
Karolj didn't like communism (or socialism -- I realize they are actually not the same), having lived under such a system for most of his life. In FFTV, Monica talks about being able to understand even at the age of 8 that she couldn't get a good tennis court, or shop for good things, without having special privileges. As a political cartoonist, Karolj once drew a relatively famous cartoon (probably in 1984) showing the five Olympic rings as the mouths of Soviet guns. Again, I cannot find the article, but he is reputed once to have redrawn this figure in the dirt with his shoe while talking to a reporter, and saying something like, "This country, me like, no."
But why, exactly, did he "like, no" the Soviet Union? Well, Karolj was born in 1933 or 1934. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1954, when Karolj was 20 years old. Is this why so many Hungarians emigrated to Yugoslavia? And if Yugoslavia was also a communist government, was it really any better? I'm no expert on European history, so I don't know.
(For an example of the Soviet-Hungary strife, go to this web site
and do a "Find" on the word "Soviet." It's about halfway down the page.)
Also in FFTV (and elsewhere), Monica talks about how Karolj's father, Jakab Seles, was mentally tortured during World War II because he wouldn't renounce his pacifist philosophy, pick up a gun and fire it. Karolj had to grow up living with the mental scars inflicted on his father.
Karolj worked for the media, and I think he would therefore have his finger on the pulse of history more than most people. Did he sense the coming war in 1989? Was the move to Florida, at least to some extent, an effort to get out of the country before it started? Being no lover of communism, I doubt he felt any sense of loyalty or pride in the nation of Yugoslavia, but I won't presume to read his mind.
At the time, many people remarked upon the Seles's need for secrecy, wigs and assumed names in the early 90's. I don't think this need was exaggerated or trivial; I'm certain they received death threats from the beginning. The bomb threat at Wimbledon is one documented example of this. Monica lost her chance to play in the Olympics -- and endured criticism -- because she didn't play Fed Cup for Yugoslavia, but it's not hard to read between the lines why
she didn't play for that country (which I believe she never did). She didn't like it. She didn't want to be associated with it. She asked that tournaments list her as a resident of Sarasota, Florida, rather than representing the nation of Yugoslavia. She and Esther became U.S. citizens as quickly as they could. I believe Karolj would have become a U.S. citizen, or at least had the same rights, as soon as Esther became one, by association of marriage. Perhaps Zoltan, as well.
What could Monica have done at the 1992 Olympics? She came within one match of winning the grand slam that year. Another example of people being unable to fulfill their dreams because of the nation in which they were born. Had she been a U.S. citizen at that time, I'm certain she would have gone, and would have been the favorite to win. By the time the next Olympics rolled around, everything had changed.
As a human being
Karolj seemed to have a great outlook on life, always wanting to move forward. "I tell Monica, if I die tomorrow, my philosophy? Forget." I think that for someone with his life experiences, that would be the only philosophy which could possibly lead to success, as all others would lead to depression.
Just before Gunther Parche was to be retried, around May 1995 (I think), Karolj wrote an editorial for the New York Times
, expressing his grief over the effects of the attack on Monica, as only a father could. It may have been in this editorial, or it may have been elsewhere, when he said, "I wonder how judge Elke Bosse can look the world in the eye after what she did."
And, FWIW, in his book My Aces, My Faults
, Nick Bolletieri paints a very un
flattering portrait of the Seles family while they stayed at his academy, saying that they were always forgetting things and money, hoarding food like they were poor, making demands and then not following through with their end of the bargain or forgetting that they had made the demands in the first place, etc. I think the most bizarre story is that Monica's brother Zoltan once kicked down the door of the canteen when he found it was closed. For the complete story, check out Nick's book, as it's too much to state here. I suspect most of it is true, but biased, with other facts omitted. Since people are people and not perfect Gods, it doesn't change my opinion of the overall goodness of the Seles family. (One man's criticism doesn't really stand up to hundreds of people's praise, and it was all a long time ago, as Nick himself says.)
All I will say about Nick Bolletieri's stories is this: either he or Monica is simply lying about their split. I've read both of their accounts, and they are diametrically opposite
. It can't possibly be a situation of different perspectives. Monica claims that she and her family were stunned when they were told that they had been locked out of the academy, leaving them scrambling for new resources and facilities, forcing them to eke out time on public courts until they could find a new practice venue; Nick claims they simply left with no explanation, leaving him thoroughly puzzled as to what had gone wrong. There's no gray area, there; someone's just plain wrong.
For one last good review of Karolj, check out the final six paragraphs of this long article on "sport parents."
Monica Seles' father and coach, Karolj, was, in my opinion, the epitome of a model tennis parent. Karolj and Esther Seles always sat side by side in the stands...Esther blissfully chewing gum, and Karolj, ever smiling, and happy, clapping not only for his daughter's good shots but--wonder of wonders--for her opponent's shots as well.
Monica first picked up a racquet at age 6. But, six months later, she decided to stop. Karolj never insisted his daughter continue to play. If she wasn't having fun, then she shouldn't play. But when Monica saw that her older brother was having fun, and winning tournaments, she decided, at 8 years of age, to try again.
Karolj knew how to motivate his daughter. At the beginning, they played together in a parking lot, between cars. When she was a bit older, they tried it on a real tennis court. Often, Karolj drew some cartoons on the tennis balls so that Monica would find it interesting. Monica and her father were always close, they were good friends. Karolj was the only person on earth who knew Monica was going to have success with her two-handed forehand.
After Monica was stabbed in Hamburg, Karolj wrote a public letter in which he poured out his anguish. In it, he said "Monica has lost her smile and what a beautiful smile it is." Several years later, Karolj died from stomach cancer. Esther, however, still appears at Monica's matches. She sits in the stands alone, calmly chewing gum, quietly watching her daughter play.
Karolj Seles' love was unconditional--win or lose. One senses the same of Esther. They are living proof that the "win-at-all-costs attitude" is a hoax.
If any of you can add any knowledge or fill in any blanks here, I'd appreciate it.