copyright March 2009MONICA SELES
FROM TRIUMPH TO TRAGEDY TO HAPPINESS
"I used to wish that life was like a fairy tale," begins the 1996 autobiography of Monica Seles. It concludes: "Nothing is ever like you think it is going to be. If I've learned anything over the past few years, that's it."
The giggly, fast-talking ingénue from what was then Yugoslavia moved to America at 13 to pursue her tennis dream. At 16, Seles became the youngest champion in French Open history, upsetting reigning queen Steffi Graf. At 17, she became the youngest ever to rank No. 1 and win $1 million. At 19, the seemingly unstoppable prodigy had already racked up eight Grand Slam singles titles.
Seles overwhelmed opponents off both sides − a first back then − with powerful two-handed groundstrokes, and a furiously intense competitiveness. "She would crawl over broken glass to win," praised Ion Tiriac, a former Romanian Davis Cupper.
Capturing controversial headlines for being a publicity-provoking diva, Seles was labeled a Madonna wannabe. She often changed hair colors and styles, and she once skipped Wimbledon and mysteriously disappeared only to resurface at a New Jersey exhibition. She dismayed traditionalists with her trademark grunting. In truth, she idolized Suzanne Lenglen, the flamboyant 1920s superstar. "I admire her dare and dazzle," Seles once said.
Then, in an instant, her brilliant career, her fun-loving life and tennis history took a tragic turn. During a match changeover at a Hamburg tournament on April 30, 1993, a crazed German fan of Graf leaped from the stands and stabbed Seles in the back.
Her fairy-tale life essentially ended with that stroke. Although her physical wounds healed within weeks, the traumatized Seles sunk into a deep depression that sidelined her for 27 months. When she returned to the pro tour, she was overweight and never regained her greatness. Nonetheless, her popularity among fans and players soared, and a 2002 poll selected her for the WTA Hero of the Year award.
In this revealing and poignant interview, Seles, now 35, takes us back to her glory years, the unforgettable stabbing, and her beloved father/coach's death. She also tells us how her journey of self-discovery is inspiring others to overcome adversity through her radio program, Special Olympics coaching, and her new autobiography.
Paul Fein: What were your thoughts and emotions when you were informed that you were elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame?
Monica Seles: I was ecstatic and very honored to join such an amazing group of past inductees. It climaxes my career in an amazing way for me.
Your colorful career had a lot of highs and some lows, most notably the 1993 stabbing. What was your biggest high?
My biggest high was definitely winning my first French Open as a 16-year-old girl, because until then, I never knew if I could actually win a Grand Slam [event]. Everyone said I was the next big thing. Just to win at age 16 the tournament that I had watched growing up was very special, and it will always stay in my memory as one of my most special moments.
Would you please talk about your father Karolj and the role he played in your becoming a champion and a young woman.
Without my dad's support, I never would have nurtured my talent, and I never would have had a tennis career. It was because of his knowledge and making the game fun for me as a child and later on as a teenager that I became one of the top players in the world. He was a brilliant father and coach. I was just really lucky to have him as a father. Without him I would not have achieved what I did achieve in my tennis career, for sure.
One of the highlights of the second half of your career was reaching the final of the 1998 French Open, only a few weeks after your father passed away. What do you recall about that?
That was a very emotional tournament for me because I was debating if I should play or not. But my dad always said you have to do what you love. And even while he was dying, he encouraged me to go back on the tennis court and play tournaments. So, to get to the final was such an amazing feeling. That three-setter [a 7-6, 0-6, 6-2 loss] was such an emotional match against Arantxa [Sanchez Vicario]. Once it was over, I thought it was the best thing I could have done after my dad passed away because I really believe in that tournament I played with my dad's help.
Not much is known about your mother Ester because she stayed in the background. What are your mother's most noteworthy qualities? And how has she shaped your life?
My mother has huge inner strength, and I really got my inner strength from my mom. She never was athletic, but she was very supportive when she came to my matches. She always told me to do the best you can do, and always enjoy it. The inner strength that I got from my mom helped me so much in so many matches throughout my career.
You played your last pro match at the 2003 French Open. After that you faded away mysteriously from the tennis scene as fans wondered when or if you would come back. What were you doing and thinking then?
I was really trying so hard rehabbing one foot [because of a stress fracture] after the other, being in a cast for months at a time, getting out of a cast, rehabbing again. It was a very up-and-down period for me, very different from when you're on the circuit and you're in the daily grind, playing matches and winning and losing. This was more about knowing that I was near the end of my career, and it turned out to be the end of my career. I knew I needed to get fitter, and my foot was giving me so many problems. Ever since I was a child, playing tennis was all I had known how to do. So it was a huge transition period for me, those three years when I was living in a limbo. But once I decided to retire, I think that limbo really helped me, because I knew I had given it my all, in terms of trying to come back. Unfortunately, because of all the wear and tear I put on my body since age 6, it just couldn't happen.
You burst on the tennis scene in 1989 when you upset the great Chris Evert 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the Houston final in your second pro tournament. What do you remember about that huge victory?
It was one of those days when I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming or not. I remember before the match that I went out and I liked this one T-shirt in the stands at the Houston Country Club, and I bought it. Red is one of my favorite colors, and I thought maybe that will bring me luck. Beating Chris, who I grew up watching, who was this beautiful, graceful athlete, I thought there was no possibility I could beat her. So when I did beat her, it was kind of like "Wow!, OK, I might actually be a pretty good tennis player." After that match my career changed, and a whole new world opened up to me.
You whipped No. 1 Steffi Graf 7-6, 6-4 in the 1990 French Open final for your first Grand Slam title. Steffi led 5-0 and 6-2 in the tiebreaker. What did winning that title tell you and mean to you?
I think it showed that I had such great inner strength that I never gave up and I always believed that I could win the match. A little bit of luck helped, too. That's because I overcame the deficit [in the tiebreaker]. At the same time I always played some of my best tennis when I was under pressure.
You revolutionized women's tennis as the first champion to hit explosive groundstrokes off both sides while standing on, or even inside, the baseline. Who created your game with two-handed shots on both forehand and backhand when you were a youngster? And why?
All the credit goes to my father. When I was a little tyke, I picked up the racket and the racket was bigger than I was, because in those days we didn't have child-sized rackets. My Dad saw that I had such natural hand-eye coordination that I could right away hit the ball over the net. Early in my career and even throughout it, everyone would say there is not a single world-class player playing like that. But, my father being a cartoonist and very much an individualist, said, no, my daughter is an individual, and this is what feels natural to her, and I'm going to nurture it. So, total credit goes to my father. And the reason he stuck with it later on is because he saw I could control the court much better and hit great angles and hit the ball on the rise. And that's how I became the first female player to hit hard off both sides.
What many peopleadmired most about you was your terrific fighting spirit. Ion Tiriac once said: "She would crawl over broken glass to win." Did that come naturally to you?
I think so. Because my theory is that whatever I wanted to do, I wanted to do it 110 percent. And for me, tennis was really such a joy. But I played a very aggressive style. I gave it every ounce of effort whether I was ahead 5-love or if it was 5-all. I wanted to give it my best every single match. And I'm proud that I did that throughout my career.
What do you do on a typical day now?
I do a radio show on Sirius. It's for women and about nutrition and workouts and leading a healthy lifestyle because I am coming out with a book [Getting a Grip] on April 22. It's about the journey I had with my own weight loss, which, ironically, really happened after I stopped playing tennis and was doing all that exercise. Writing the book has taken up a lot of time. I speak to women. I do work here locally. I teach kids tennis, too. I really keep busy with my sponsors like Yonex, from Japan, which has been with me for 19 years. So I do clinics and attend different events for Yonex. It was the only sponsor to stick with me throughout and after the stabbing. They thought more about me as a human being than the financial aspects. I am very thankful to them for their loyalty in addition to their making, in my opinion, the greatest tennis racket, since I won a lot of Grand Slams with them.
One of your interests is reading biographies. Which biographies have interested and influenced you the most?
One of my favorites is Coco Chanel: Chanel and her World. She was a woman ahead of her time as a leading fashion designer and executive in France starting in the 1920s. In those days women were not supposed to work, and she was very independent. Another biography I really enjoyed was Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness. What an eclectic life he led.
Please tell me about your work with Special Olympics athletes.
One of my great joys as a tennis player has been to do things close to my heart. And when I first got involved with the Special Olympics in 1994, I realized what courage, what strength, and what determination they have. I was just blown away by that. After seeing that and how much they enjoy the sport of their choice, it gave me new energy to come back after my stabbing. I said, "I have to − because look at those kids and how much they enjoy what they do, and what I do with tennis." They give me so much strength that I decided I am going to give back to them as much as I can.
You once said, "It's very difficult for me to find somebody I can trust because I will never know if a man is after my money." Is that still true?Is there a special man in your life now?
I've been very lucky for several reasons. And I've always kept my private life private. I've really enjoyed it that way because I've had such a normal life, and that has really helped me stay grounded and not become crazy through the up and down years. I really never said that quote. I think love is one of those things that strike you [by surprise]. It's not easy. I'm not married, so we'll see. I think once you start talking about your personal life you open up a can of worms, and it always brings bad luck. I've seen it with my friends and even fellow tennis players, and I've said I'd never do it. And I've kept it private for 15 years. I've been very lucky and very happy, and that has helped me keep my feet on the ground because in some ways tennis players lead such a crazy life.
What do you consider to be your weaknesses and shortcomings as a person?
My shortcoming definitely is that I want to see results right away. I'm not the most patient person. And I speak very fast, so a lot of people have a hard time staying with me. I've worked on that, but that is something that is just me. My weakness is that I love chocolate. So whenever I have a chance and whenever I have a bad day, I have my chocolate bar. But I learned to do it in moderation now, not like in my good old days.
One of the great paradoxes in your life is that you were tenacious enough to compete with a champion's killer instinct, yet so fragile in your psyche that it would take 27 months after your tragic stabbing before you returned to the pro tour. Would you please explain this contradiction.
When I got stabbed at age 19 on the tennis court, it was something that never happened in sports before or since then. So it was a very unusual situation. I had to deal with a lot of issues. Unfortunately, it took away a lot of my best tennis years. That wasn't something that I expected to happen. But I'm very proud that once I did decide to go back, I made that choice and I never looked back. I was a little six-year-old when I first picked up a tennis racket, and I started playing because I loved the sport. And that's why I returned [to the pro tour]. And really to this day, that's why I still play tennis.
On the other hand, you produced an unbelievable return to near-championship form in August 1995 so soon after being sidelined for so long. You won your first comeback tournament at Toronto, giving up only 14 games in five matches. Then you gained the U.S. Open final before Graf beat you in three sets. Looking back, how did you do that?
I don't know. That surprised me. This might sound very strange, but throughout some of my great years in the beginning, then the middle years, then the not-so-good years at the end, I just really liked to play. To me, the results were like an afterthought. To me, the best part was going out there and competing every single day. Maybe that's what helped me when I didn't play for 27 months and then I came back and suddenly I started doing so well. That's because I was so happy that I was just playing tennis and the joy that I got from it. Unfortunately because of the stabbing and the sadness after that, my career never kept up the full steam that it had before my stabbing.
You started your gripping 1996 autobiography, Monica: From Fear to Victory, by writing, "I used to wish that life was like a fairy tale," and you conclude it: "Nothing is ever like you think it is going to be. If I've learned anything over the past few years, that's it." What have you learned about life in the past 13 years?
Oh gosh, a lot! How many pages do you have? And I'm going to still keep learning. That's what's so great about it. I think being humble is one of the best things and always having a curiosity about life. I've learned that so many things like your health and your loved ones' health are the most important things because I've lost quite a few friends and family members. I've learned to appreciate them when they are here because in tennis you are on the road 11 months of the year, and you really don't have much time to slow down. That is the biggest appreciation I've had.
In the first half of your career, you were often controversial. In the second half of your career, you became one of the most popular women on the tour. A 2002 poll selected you for the WTA Hero of the Year award. Why do you think you became so popular with players and fans?
When I was doing so well and losing only one or two matches a year, I was playing a very aggressive style of tennis and grunting. I was beating everybody. (Laughter) People just wanted a change. At the same time I was also going through my teenage phase, when I wanted blond hair one week and dark hair the next week. I was growing up in front of the world. That was a fun period, but it wasn't an easy period because I was trying to find out who I was as a woman. The second part, after I came back after the stabbing, people realized what a difficult period I went through and then [they learned about] my father's illness. But my true fans − some of them are coming to my Hall of Fame induction − have stayed with me from Day 1. And it is really just amazing, and I am so thankful for them. They have been a huge part of my success.
Who were the people who stayed loyal over the years?
They will come to the Hall of Fame induction in July to share this moment. Gary, Kristen, Esther and a few others. That's very, very special. Some are flying across the country to be there in Newport, Rhode Island. I am very thankful for that.
Is it fair to say that years after the stabbing, instead of being a bitter person, you are a better person?
I don't think I'm better or worse. I think I'm the same person. I was probably a 17-year-old girl who wanted to have a different hair color all the time. I just wanted independence. I wasn't a mature person. After the stabbing and definitely after my father's death, I realized how fragile life is. Even in my career, if the knife had gone in less than half a centimeter to the left, I could have been paralyzed. So I just realized that I shouldn't take anything for granted. Unfortunately, as a tennis pro, you're not going to have a teenage life. You're not going to be able to do the things teenagers do. You have to sacrifice. I realized it's OK to sacrifice, it's OK to be different. And this is just the path I chose to do because of the love I have for the sport.
As a teenager you idolized charismatic Suzanne Lenglen, tennis's first female superstar, and told Sports Illustrated: "She was a rock star long before there was rock. There was such anticipation before her matches. Everybody wondered about Suzanne, what she would wear, what she would look like. I would love to be like that." Do you think you were like that? And why, or why not?
One of my dreams was to play in one of those old-style dresses, like Suzanne, because there was just such glamour to it. When I was at the Tennis Hall of Fame last year for the induction of Mr. [Mark] McCormack, I got to see some film of Suzanne Lenglen. One thing that some people don't know about is a gentleman by the name of Ted Tinling, who was the face of women's tennis for many decades. He designed some of the most beautiful dresses in history, like for ["Gorgeous"] Gussie Moran and the new generation, like Virginia Wade and Chris Evert. I sat down with him in 1989, and he told me some of the old glamour stories in women's tennis. Those stories stayed with me. If you asked me what era I would like to go back and play tennis in, the 1920s with Suzanne Lenglen would be it.
A little bit later, in 1992, you confided: "My life has become a prison. My new haircut helped. It gave me breathing space for about a week. But then the first pictures came out and that blew it." What made you change yourmind about the price of fame and the burden of being No. 1?
Why I said the things I said when I was a teenager, I have no clue. When you're a teenager and on the world stage, you are front-page news if you go out and change your hair color. It was very different in those days. In the early 1990s, we didn't have the Internet. We didn't have as much information as kids nowadays do. I don't know which way is better. So I had to grow up in the public eye, and there was nobody before me I could ask: "How do you deal with this?" You are living in a high-pressure environment and traveling one week here and one week there. But looking back, I turned out OK. Each memory I have is really a happy one. So I look back at it and say "That was a fantastic time." I had such an amazing career from the beginning to the end.
Over the years, you've made friends with and hobnobbed with luminaries such as Prince Albert of Monaco, real estate tycoon Donald Trump, actor Alec Baldwin, IMG founder Mark McCormack, billionaire Paul Allen and Shaquille O'Neal. Would you please tell me about these famous people.
One great thing is that most of the famous people I've met have been very nice because they love tennis. So that's a mutual bond; that's how you meet each other. A lot of them wish they were tennis players or soccer players or whatever their favorite sport. Those people you named are lots of fun. They're actually down-to-earth people besides being so successful.
Your thrilling 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 French Open final victory in 1992 over archrival Steffi Graf ranks as one of the greatest matches in tennis history. She fought off five championship points before bowing, and afterwards you called it "the most emotional match I ever played." Please tell me about that match and what it meant to you.
That was another of the hard-fought matches that Steffi and I had when we were going back and forth winning. We were really the only women who were battling for the Grand Slam titles then. The rain came and there were rain delays. There were lots of highs and lows. She was in charge of the match at one point, and then I was. We were both so mentally strong players out there. We were both thinking like "I am going to win this match." At the end it was really a battle of wills.
In 1992 you came within one match of winning the Grand Slam, losing only to Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon final. After you put an exclamation point on your spectacular year by crushing Martina Navratilova 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in the season-ending Virginia Slims Championships, Martina said: "Had she played like this, ten years ago when I was dominating, she would have beaten me. At her best she's as good as anybody I've played in 20 years." What is your reaction to Navratilova's comment? And what do you remember about that match and that year?
I was very honored when Martina said that. To me, it was like "Wow!" because as a child growing up, I had Martina's poster in my bedroom. So here is my idol saying that. I just remember that was one of those matches I could do no wrong. Everything was going my way. I played so well that year, so I had a lot of confidence. It was one of those matches that I thought "Wow, life is good." (Laughter) When you have some of those terrible matches, it helps to think back that you had some of those great matches like this one.
Late in your career, you said, "Tennis will never end for me because I love it so much. When my professional career is over, I will continue to play all my life." Do you still love tennis? And, if so, how are you expressing your love for tennis?
Yes, I still love tennis. I still play, that's number one. To me, that's the bottom line. I played at the world-class level in world arenas, but at the end of the day, I love to play tennis. I still get such a joy from it. I enjoy playing with younger kids, especially with little kids who are just starting to play. I also enjoy hitting with some of the former [touring] pros who live in my area [in Florida].
In 1992 when you were hounded at Wimbledon by sexist British tabloids who measured your decibels with "grunt-o-meters," New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey defended you, saying: "The whole point of women's tennis in the last generation has been that women are free to be powerful, competitive, sweaty, noisy jocks, just like the men." What do you remember about the grunting controversies?
I remember all those funny cartoon characters, especially because my dad was a cartoonist. So he always put a brilliant spin on them. Still, for a 17-year-old kid, it was hard for me to see people making [critical] comments like that. To me, grunting was something that came naturally. I never realized that I was doing it. I've done it since I was probably eight years old in junior tournaments. And I did it for two years before I joined the professional tour before anybody said anything. But suddenly when I was No. 1, everything got exaggerated. Now people look at grunting differently. But women are supposed to be powerful, and I played a very powerful game. I gave it every ounce of effort I could. I wasn't the strongest person, so I had to put everything into every ball. That was me. That's how Monica played tennis. I was very passionate about the sport.
In your autobiography you wrote: "Top 10 players have no friends at their level on the tour. It isn't done because it isn't smart tennis." Why isn't it smart tennis? And weren't you friendly with Gabriela Sabatini,Jennifer Capriati, and Martina Navratilova?
Yes, I was. But to be a close friend with someone you are going to win or lose a Grand Slam final against is very difficult. That's because it's a very competitive environment. We saw how competitive it was after my stabbing. It became a business, and everybody wanted to take my [No. 1] spot right away. But I've been very lucky. I've made some great friends, like Gabby, like Jennifer, Betsy [Nagelsen, a former world-class pro and the widow of the late Mark McCormack], Mary Joe [Fernandez]. They were friends throughout my career, and they still are now. There were also other players who saw me as a human being and not just a tennis player.
Your rivalry with Steffi Graf ranks as the most exciting and important rivalry in women's tennis history after the legendary Navratilova-Evert rivalry. What stands out in your mind about your great rivalry with Steffi?
All the great matches we played − some of them that she won and some of them that I won. Both of us played really aggressive tennis. We were fighting for the Grand Slam championships. Steffi was fantastically athletic. I was more of an angle shot player. So we had a little bit different styles. But we were both the first female power players of our era.
During your 1990-93 prime you won eight of the 11 Grand Slam events you played, and you beat Steffi Graf in three out of four Grand Slam finals against her. Do you think that, if you had not been stabbed and sidelined, you would have continued your domination over Graf and ruled women's tennis for the rest of the decade, as Pam Shriver and others have said?
Unfortunately, nobody knows the answer to that. But it was definitely looking like I was on that path. But unfortunately my path got interrupted by a person that stabbed me. And it [the course of history] didn't go that way. I learned that when I can't control things, I've got to move on. And that's what I've tried to do.
Do you think that being overweight during the second half of your career prevented you from playing your best tennis and winning more major titles?
Oh, definitely. That was one of the biggest struggles for me. My weight, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how hard I tried, it would not come off. Because of the two-hander on both sides, I was already handicapped by my movement, so I had to be even faster. Instead, I was slower. If I were in better shape, I would have won a lot more tournaments.
Since you quipped "I don't know a tango from a mango," what made you take part in the popular TV show, "Dancing With the Stars"? And since they reportedly rehearse as much as eight hours a day, were you able to handle rehearsals?
I love challenges, and I knew this was a big one for me. I was fit going into it so the practice and stamina weren't issues for me, but more so the rhythm since I have two left feet. I'm very happy that I did the show because I had a blast doing it.
You were born in what was then Yugoslavia and became a U.S, citizen in 1994. Please tell me what helping the U.S.win Fed Cup
titles in 1996, 1999 and 2000 mean to you.
It was great. That was one of the highlights of my career. Also, playing [Fed Cup] under one of my heroes, Billie Jean King, was great. I was like a sponge, learning from Billie. I'll never forget my first Fed Cup match in Tokyo. Just the wealth of knowledge Billie gave me was terrific. I said, "Oh, my gosh, here is this woman and she is our Fed Cup captain." It was just a really fun era. We had some great teammates. In tennis, it's always so much individual, and to be part of a team, I really loved it.
Aside from Venus and Serena Williams, who are 28 and 27 years old, we have only No. 38-ranked Bethanie Mattek-Sands and No. 89 Jill Craybas in the top 100. As someone who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, what do you think is wrong with American tennis?
That's the million dollar question. I wish I knew the answer. But we definitely have to do something about it because it's not going the right way. It's really sad that we don't have that many good players coming up who are contending for the Grand Slams because we're such a large country. So I hope things will change.
In your autobiography you wrote: "When I hear people say that you can't make it in tennis if you don't have a lot of money, I know they're wrong. We lived in a socialist country, and we didn't have much money. But I loved the sport, and that was enough."Hard-working Eastern Europeans, such as Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic, seem to prove your point. But, does having too much money reduce the hunger and incentive to be a champion?
If you look at the history – and I can't say for sure because I don't know how wealthy some of the players' families are − of all the top athletes, most of the women from Eastern European countries haven't come from privileged backgrounds. I think a humble background gives you the hunger. Look at Venus and Serena and Martina [Navratilova] and myself and Graf. It definitely helps to have that drive because in tennis to make it, you're going to have a lot of down times. Only ten people in the entire world make it [among the elite] out of all the millions who play. So it's not an easy thing to do. You have to have that inner strength, inner drive that you're going to make it and to work harder than anyone else.
In Nick Bollettieri's 1996 memoir, My Aces, My Faults, he wrote: "One of the reasons I wanted to coach Mary [Pierce], I'm sure,
was that I hoped she might someday be good enough to beat Monica [Seles], who had turned her back on the academy and me. I've always believed in getting even." Have you and Nick improved your relationship since then?
Oh, definitely we have. For the last ten years we've been pretty close friends. I went to the 30th anniversary reunion for the [Nick Bollettieri Tennis] academy a few months ago. And his wife Cindy has been on my radio show. She has a camp for overweight kids up in Vermont. What Nick has done is amazing. I absolutely hope that one day he will be inducted into the [International] Tennis Hall of Fame, which he rightfully deserves. Many champions have come and will be coming out of the academy. Nick was a huge part of my life.
Early in your career you said, "I have so many different personalities" and rattled off being like Madonna and being crazy or being reclusive, and shifting often. You had great fun in those innocent days. Please tell me about that period in your life, and your personality or personalities today.
I don't know if I said it that way. It was more about having a great time. I was having fun. I was a teenager who was playing a sport that required a lot of discipline, and I needed an outlet to have fun. One of the great things about Nick is that he was a big jokester. I was, too, but I wasn't so good at pulling it off. I maybe came off as being too serious. But it was all done in fun; tongue in cheek. Life was so stressful at the top, and I was a teenager who I needed an outlet. And for me, that was having fun.
You once said, "I don't wish to be remembered as the ‘grunter' or ‘giggler' or even as the girl who got stabbed." How do you wish to be remembered?
I wish to be remembered as someone who loved to play tennis. It's that simple. I gave it my all. I was lucky enough to find something early in my life that I loved. And I was good at it, which was a bonus. I loved to play tennis. And everything else that came with it, the fame, the money, was just a bonus.
I had never read this before. Interesting read.