PRO GAME: Monica Seles: The TENNIS Interview
3/21/03 0:03 AM
By Peter Bodo
Excerpted from the April 2003 issue of TENNIS Magazine
Accompanied by a great whooshing sound and a blast of frigid Rocky Mountain air, Monica Seles swirled through the revolving doors of the Marriott City Center Hotel in Denver and came in from the night. The blond highlights in her hair gleamed in the bright lights of the warm lobby, and her customarily pale face was ruddy. She was dressed in a top the color of desert sand with matching ultra-suede slacks in a warm earth tone. Her shoes were stylish but sensible mauve flats. She had just come from a cocktail party preceding an exhibition match she would play the following day. It was odd to see Seles, the 29-year-old winner of nine Grand Slam titles and almost $15 million in prize money, with her hair down. For years she has resolutely put it up on court in some tightly wound variation of an all-business bun. Here, though, Seles' curly, shoulder-length brown and blond locks framed her oval face, giving her a Pre-Raphaelite look. But instead of tranquility, she projected a much more contemporary — and distinctly Monica-esque — sense of urgency. This has always been a woman in a hurry, a run-on sentence fleeing the inevitable period. Soon I was pushing back the door to the Marriott's Homestead conference room, which had been reserved for us. Regarding the long mahogany table and leather executive armchairs, Seles joked, "We can sit at far ends like two big shots." We had barely pulled the chairs close, and Seles hadn't yet opened the first of the four bottles of water she would drink, when she declared what the first item on the agenda in our 90-minute conversation would be: "The retirement thing." Then, in her signature stream-of-consciousness style, she made an impassioned plea for why we should avoid a subject that people recently seemed fixated on. "I don't have a timetable to stop playing, and I don't put conditions on it. I still love playing, and I'll keep playing as long as that's true." I assured Seles that we hadn't come to bury her, but to honor her — to make her the subject of the TENNIS Interview in the year that will mark the 10th anniversary of that chilly, somber day, April 30, 1993, when a lunatic plunged a knife into her back while she sat through a changeover during a match in Hamburg, Germany.
At that point, Seles was still a teenager. She had won eight Grand Slam events and more titles at a younger age than any woman in history. And while she has won only one more major since returning to the tour in the summer of 1995, she has become one of the most compelling and sympathetic figures in sports.
Here then is her story, in her words, told in the manner we've come to recognize: guarded, breathless, wonder-filled, private, ebullient, cautious, philosophical, sincere, and ever so slightly insecure. Perhaps you would be, too, in her shoes.
Ten years ago, you were stabbed on a tennis court in Hamburg, Germany. The knife left a small scar on your back — where else did it leave a mark? On my record, because it took away some of the best years of my tennis career, that's for sure. I don't think it left many others. To tell the truth, it's still very strange to me. I'm the only person in sports that this ever happened to.
But I don't want to revisit Hamburg in my head. It was not a happy thing, nor was it a happy time. And then, just a year before I came back, my father [Karolj] was diagnosed with prostate cancer, then stomach cancer [he died of the disease in 1998].
The attack also seemed to make me more sympathetic to the public. The incident reached a lot of people who never cared about tennis. During my comeback, it was like, "This is that poor girl who got stabbed and now she's coming back — how wonderful is that?" But I have no idea what nerve I hit or why I hit it. And it's not something I like to think about or influence.
I just want people to like me for who I am, for the qualities that my parents [Seles' mother, Ester, now lives with Monica in Sarasota, Fla.] instilled in me. I'm very proud of that, very proud of them. Hopefully, when I get married I can pass those qualities on to my kids. That's what really matters to me, and beyond that I don't want to do anything to make people like me more or less.
But the other thing is, I really love the game. I mean, I really love tennis. And that's helped me through all of the struggles, it saved me from being forever sad.
At first glance, you're right out of that cliché of prodigy, â la Jennifer Capriati or Venus Williams — groomed from birth for greatness by ambitious parents. Is that accurate? In some ways it was very scary for me how well my parents handled it all. My dad wasn't even thinking about me being a player. He always took things one step at a time and that aspect of his personality rubbed off on me.
My great stroke of luck was finding tennis as early as I did, and it really was by pure luck because my brother, Zoltan [now 37], was the player, the talent in the family. And I'm totally not kidding about that. He was an extremely promising junior, part of the same generation as Boris [Becker] and Stefan [Edberg]. My dad wanted Zoltan to be the player, so when I bothered them to go to the courts my father just shrugged, "Oh sure, you can come on along with us."
But if Zoltan had the talent, I had the work ethic. The experience taught me that if I ever had a child to coach, in the long term I would take the one with the work ethic over the one with talent. I saw firsthand in Zoltan that talent will take you only so far. But you can't force it — Zoltan made his choice. Now he lives quietly and I respect his privacy. He doesn't want to be known as my brother. He doesn't want to be in my limelight.
Was it unusual for you, a girl, to be so interested? Well, I was growing up in Yugoslavia at a time when there were no female athletes to look up to, except Mima [Jausovec]. But also, tennis was the sport where you dressed in whites, the wealthy sport. In my hometown [Novi Sad] we had four tennis courts and zero indoor courts. I didn't even set foot on a real tennis court until I was 7. I grew up playing in a parking lot, right by the house.
Describe those circumstances — how did you get started? We lived in an apartment complex. My father was a professional cartoonist. Our family was close, and sports were important. My father had been a triple-jump track athlete, and he had a lifelong interest in sports.
I started tennis just hitting at the wall of the apartment house from the parking lot. Every day, from 6:45 A.M. until 7:15 and school time, I hit on that wall. I was always thankful that the people living in the apartment on the other side of that wall never complained. I mean that.
When we built our home in Florida much later, the only thing I really cared about was that it have a huge wall to hit against. To this day, at tournaments I'm most happy if there's a backboard wall. People make fun of me about that — you can ask [U.S. Fed Cup captain] Billie Jean King. Now, when we select a site, she always asks, "Is there a wall there for Monica?"
For me, the wall is the safety net. I started playing on one. It's still the tennis time that I love the most. I'm by myself and I can put on my music. You can't do that in a tournament. Plus, the ball always comes back. And no one else is talking at the other end, distracting you. The wall is the best.
Surely, though, there are other components in your success besides the work ethic? Who knows what they are? Certain stuff is just given. I know I didn't "work" on things in my mind or my personality. I don't overanalyze things. I just go with how it is. I'm the same way in tennis — I do the best I can, and I do things the same way in a match as I do in practice. I wouldn't get too psychological. I went with my dad and Zoltan because I loved tennis.
Still it was great to be with Dad because he would draw cartoon characters on the balls and put out targets to hit. He knew how to make tennis fun. But my interest in the game definitely created some conflicts and disagreements in my family. My mom didn't think I should be a tennis player. We would go shopping and she would tell me that I should be doing more girl stuff, hanging out with my friends, things like that. My dad would say, "Well, if Monica wants to be there practicing for four or five hours a day, that's her choice."
Ultimately, my parents let me decide. In fact, I'm very thankful that they let me decide on just about everything, including hitting with two hands on both sides. I can't even remember how many people wanted my dad to change that, and at all stages in my career, too, right until I became number one. But even when I was very young, he always just said, "If Monica wants to change it, she will. It's her choice."
Are families more alike than different, or do they operate in really mysterious, unpredictable ways? I think they're really different and I think I really lucked out with my parents. Everyone always had individual freedom to decide. My parents always gave me information and advice, but I always decided for myself. I learned some things the hard way, but I appreciate it because I have no regrets. I never ask, "What if?" I don't have issues with my family at all, unlike a lot of my friends.
Your father was in the limelight with you; what's your mother like behind the pleasant visage she has at tournaments? She's always been the backbone of the family. I seem to be a mix — very outgoing at times like my father, also quiet like my mother. In the beginning, Mom was the worrier, specifically about the pressure. She'd say, "All this travel, all this competition. You're just a little girl, what's this thing going to do to you?"
She still comes to the U.S. Open and the California tournaments, but she's tired of hanging around locker rooms, waiting for me. She's done it for so long. So she does her own life now. She stays behind the scenes, with her animals. We have a mini-kennel at home. My mom baby-sits two other dogs and pampers them just like our own, Ariel [a Yorkshire terrier]. I mean, she boils chicken for Ariel! It's just nonstop love. So when we heard that Lindsay [Davenport] named one of her rottweilers Zoltan, we got a kick out of that.
You grew up as part of an ethnic minority in Yugoslavia, a nation that no longer exists, and at various times you've had to travel under assumed names, fearing politically motivated violence. What is your "official" identity? I wouldn't want to revisit the problems caused by ethnic issues. My background is that I'm Hungarian — it's the language I speak with my mom and brother. But really, I see myself as international. I still have friends I speak Yugoslavian [sic] with, and I have my entire American life. So I guess I'm a combination of those three things.
It was very difficult coming to America, leaving behind my friends. And then to see everything that happened in the next few years [the breakup of Yugoslavia and ensuing wars]—it all left an imprint on me that will stay, but I don't like to talk about it.
I've been back to the place I grew up and still have friends and family there. I'll spend much more time there once I stop playing, when it'll be easier.
Do you believe in fate? I don't want to answer that. [Pause] Let's say it goes too much into how I think, and I don't like the reader knowing that. I'm a private person and I've gone to extensive lengths to keep it that way. And I don't have to answer, right? That's one of the things that's so great about America.
Coming to the U.S., to the Bollettieri Academy, represented an entirely different way of life. Was it a difficult transition? Anytime you leave home at that young stage is very, very hard. You're being shaped as a person, and all of a sudden everything changes — language is a nightmare, the school system is entirely different. . . . On the other hand, you see the opportunity. For me, it was simple: the chance to play tennis in the winter. Imagine that!
Zoltan and I came out on kind of a trial, for six months, when I was 12. That was really hard because we had never been away from our parents that long. It was one of the worst times in my life because every night I just wanted to go home. [Seles' parents settled in Florida when Monica was 13.]
We stayed in town, just outside the Academy, in a rented apartment. We had no adult supervision, no curfew, no nothing. Actually, I have zero memories about it except that I was learning so much in school [the Bradenton Academy] and playing tennis so much that I was dead tired all the time.
We would hit in the morning, go to school from 1:00 P.M. until 3:00, hit again, study, maybe do the gym or something. I remember I couldn't wait until it was Sunday.
Some of Nick's protégés, including Jim Courier and Andre Agassi, have gone through ups and downs with Nick. What was your relationship with him like? Andre had a different relationship with Nick than I did because by then Andre was doing great and Nick spent a lot of time traveling with him. Nick spent time on the court with me, but that was it. Things got confusing because people kept saying Nick was my coach, but the only person who gets that credit — maybe I'm being biased here — is my dad.
When I first went to the Academy, my game went down. I was losing matches 6-0, 6-0 to girls like Carrie Cunningham who I had beaten before. Nick was there on court a lot, but the one who really understood my game, and who I had the rapport with, was my dad. Nick and his staff took good care of me. Nick loves this game, he's given his life to it. And that's wonderful.
What were your father's great technical assets as a coach? He studied the game. I hate to watch tapes, but he would just drag me. It was great when I got to be good, I could just say, "I don't have to watch any more tapes!" My father would study my opponents, study me, and he liked using video. He didn't play very well, but he could feed [balls] great, and his work ethic was amazing.
To this day, whenever I have a tough day or long workout I think, "Shoot, dad was 55 or 60 and he would outlast me on the court." Sometimes, after hitting 100 serves, you're like, "Oh, my shoulder's sore, that's enough." Not him. He would hit 500 balls.
He taught me all about the angles — I shouldn't really go into this while I'm still playing — and he would teach me all kinds of strategy. He also was into working on physical fitness and I should have listened more through my career. I really did not want to do fitness.
I argued with him about that, and other things, too. We argued a lot. But we cooled off fast because we had similar personalities. We would come in and my mother would say, "You just had this big argument, you were both like 'Arrggghh' and now you're just fine?" And we were. That's what was cool, and unusual.
Maybe that's why to this day I don't stay mad that long. Even if someone really screws me up, after a little while I'm like, "Yeah, whatever."
Even by accelerated "prodigy" standards, you rocketed to the top and were virtually unbeatable by 1992. What was the tennis player of that era like, and what was it like to have that aura? You know, I don't like to look back too much, not while I'm playing, anyway. It's too scary. But the consistency I had — to lose just one or two matches in a whole year — that was pretty cool. But I worked very hard for it, and I was totally focused. Winning tennis matches was my life, and to be honest everything fell just the right way for me in that period. It was my life.
But this idea out there that I didn't think I could lose, that I just walked out there full of confidence, that's inaccurate. I had the same mental stuff then that I have now. I thought before every match: I'm going to lose. It was even worse when I went a few months just winning and then lost a match. It was like, "Oh, my God! What's going to happen now?"
I've always said that I don't really enjoy the competing part. I always found it very difficult to go out and really want to kill that other person. In that sense, my persona on the court is probably the opposite of how I am in life. Off the court, I'm not competitive at all — you can ask anyone. Games, celebrity tennis, I couldn't care less. It's only on the court, in an official match, that the competitor comes out.
Who do you really admire in tennis, male or female? I always said this: Suzanne Lenglen and Maureen Connolly. Each one did very different things for the game. But the big influences on me were Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. I had a poster of Martina over my bed as a little girl. Of course, my choices were limited because we could only get one magazine, and we had to get it from Italy. Billie Jean I only came to know through Fed Cup as my captain since 1996, and now I realize the magnitude of what that woman has done.
Are there signature Monica Seles' tennis performances in your memory bank? You know, in Rome, 1990, I beat Martina [Navratilova] like one and one. That was one of my best matches ever, in that I couldn't miss a ball. The five-set final in the Virginia Slims Championships against Gabby [Gabriela Sabatini] at Madison Square Garden, that stands out. And for sure when I beat Steffi [Graf] to win my first Grand Slam. But only because it was my first major.
When I came back, at Toronto in 1995, that first match against Kim Po was tough. I hadn't played in a long time, the tour was different, I was so nervous. I remember that dogfight I had with Jennifer [Capriati] at the '91 U.S. Open. There were times in that match when even I just closed my eyes for a moment and thought, "Wow, this is cool. OK, back to it."
You can't afford to do that, to enjoy it, as a player. The game goes too fast. You have to banish everything else from your mind. But at times, you can't help it.
What were the pluses and minuses of growing up in the public eye? The big plus is that you get experiences and meet people like most people don't. The minus is that you can get a big head if you're not careful. You can get caught up in how wonderful you are, all that stuff. It's hard sometimes in that situation to know who your friends are, who you can trust.
So you need to know what you want because tennis is a tough industry, a nonstop industry. You don't get to pause, rest, or reflect too much. But the way of life can give you great discipline, and that's the key to whatever you do. Tennis taught me that when I give my word, it's a real commitment and I have to keep it.
At the height of your power, before the incident in Hamburg, you were variously described as a "Madonna wannabe" and a capricious "mystery girl" wrapping tennis around her finger. Was the perception accurate? A few things happened all at once, it was weird. I skipped that Wimbledon [in '91, Seles pulled out unexpectedly without explaining that she had shin splints]. The press made a huge issue out of it, and for the first time I experienced their power. It was a huge controversy and the rumors and accusations were flying. They said I thought I was bigger than the game, I wanted to be a starlet and not a tennis player, my hitting partner had made me pregnant. Some of that was really hurtful.
When I made my comeback [at an exhibition in Mahwah, N.J.] a few weeks later, I was totally unprepared for the circus-like atmosphere. My mom always said I lacked self-confidence, maybe she's right. It was a little naive of me, for sure, not to see that coming. It made me realize how big I was in the public eye.
In perspective, I was a 16-year-old on top of the tennis world. I liked fashion and I was outgoing, it was quite a mixture. Also, I would say stuff like, "I'm going to get a Lamborghini." You know, it was just kind of fantasy. I never really wanted one, I just maybe saw one and thought it'd be cool to have one so I said it.
Also, my tennis was so good but there was no crazy father, no controversial boyfriend. Everything was very smooth, very private. The only thing out there was that I was coloring my hair, and I wanted a Lamborghini. The only other player I've seen going through anything like that has been Anna [Kournikova], and she's different from me.
I never got into playing that game or doing things for the press. But I did enjoy some of it. If I was in Milan and I happened to say I wanted to go to a fashion show, boom, the next thing they'd call up Armani and you're at the fashion show. As a kid, you think, "Oh wow!"
It's crazy, you meet people and they give you their telephone number right away and say they'll do anything for you. When you're that young and impressionable, everything goes fast. Everybody wants you. And it's fun. Why not?
So at times when I regret not having been a "normal" teenager who went to the prom, I remind myself that at that age I could go to any concert and meet the musicians afterward. And that was just because I was Monica Seles.
What role does music play in your life? It's huge, I love music. My favorite is Motown, all the songs that came out of Detroit. I would have loved to be a singer — if only I had a voice.