Join Date: Sep 2002
Monica Seles: The Champion Who Was, Who Could Have Been And...
Monica Seles: The Champion Who Was, Who Could Have Been And...
Photo By Art Seitz By Angela Buxton
Those of us who remember spring 1993 will recall not only the murderous stabbing images that reverberated out of Hamburg, Germany, on April 30th, but also the sheer daring aggression of Monica Seles’s unorthodox game that mesmerized so many of us for the preceding four years.
Whilst Martina Navratilova, Seles’s girlhood heroine who was still playing singles at the time, always had a classic attacking game, like those serve-and-volleyers who preceded her, Seles introduced a completely new dimension. She attacked from the back, the side, mid-court… anywhere and everywhere, except from the net.
Here was a giggly young girl who had the consistency, accuracy and guts of a Chris Evert or Maureen Connolly, but with far more provocative and flamboyant shock appeal. Both her drives were crisp enough to slice the crusts off the cucumber sandwiches served up for tea at Wimbledon (with whom she developed a rather unfortunate relationship through her on-court demeanor, but more on that anon).
During those early years, she made more inspirational impact on young players than anyone in tennis would have guessed, simply by her sheer tenacious presence on court. Today, in rather interesting era-overlapping, young players feel excited and privileged to compete in the same events as Seles.
"I remember meeting Monica initially in California when I was about 10 years old," says Serena Williams, whose domination of today’s women’s tennis is similar to Seles’s a decade ago. "I was really excited about it. It was this meeting that helped me realize I definitely wanted to be a pro. I even started to imitate her grunting!"
Says Justine Henin-Hardenne, who lost her first four matches against Seles, but has won the last three, including in the quarterfinals of this year’s Bausch & Lomb Championships at Amelia Island, "I first saw her in the French final in 1992 when I was a schoolgirl. I was there with my parents as a result of winning a junior tennis prize in Belgium. Monica won 10-8 in the third set (against Steffi Graf). I remember it well. She is a legend to me, for sure. To come back after what happened in Germany is unbelievable. To my eyes, she is still the greatest fighter on the tour. I have a lot of respect for her."
Even 10 years later, "what happened in Germany" remains perhaps one of the most shocking moments in sports. Gunter Parche, a crazed Steffi Graf fan, leaned over the waist-high center court railing at the Rothenbaum Tennis Club and stabbed Seles in the back with a nine-inch boning knife while she sat courtside during a changeover in her Citizen Cup quarterfinal match against Maggie Maleeva. The physical injury, mercifully, was not too severe. The emotional injury, however, kept Seles off the tour for two years.
Today, she does not go out of her way to avoid the subject when it arises. When asked recently if there was anything she would change about her career if given the chance, with hardly any hesitation she responded, "Would I change? Yeah, I wish I didn’t get stabbed and played and competed at the highest level for those few years. But besides that, no, I was very happy that I came back." However, with the unfortunate anniversary of the horror looming, specific questions about the incident could be interview-ending for those granted one-on-one interviews.
Seles’s acknowledgment of how she was competing at her highest level when she was stabbed highlights the odd effect the incident has had on her career. It has literally divided her career in half, leaving one of the sport’s most dominant champions on one side and placing one of tennis’s most beloved competitors on the other.
"In the ’80s and ’90s when she was dominating women’s tennis," says good friend Mary Joe Fernandez, "she won eight out of nine Grand Slam (tournaments) in a row — easily! Actually, she lost very few games. So fans naturally cheered for the underdog, as they always do, which, of course, was not her. However when she returned to the tour in 1995, they started to cheer for her because she was the sympathetic favorite after what she had experienced. She was the underdog. Those two things together really made her the fans’ choice to root for."
Says Butch Buchholz, founder of the prestigious Nasdaq-100 Open. "She is now almost ‘off the sports page,’ so to speak. It’s sad because more people actually remember [the stabbing] rather than she was the No. 1 player in the world at the time."
Chronic injury has begun to give rise to questions about how much longer Seles will stay in the game. She played only one event, the Bausch & Lomb, during the months of March and April because of a left foot injury. But when healthy, Seles, who will be 30 in December, remains virtually unbeatable to all but the top players in today’s women’s game and commands respect by her mere presence.
"When I was starting, she was already No. 1 in the world," says Top 10 newcomer Daniela Hantuchova. "She had just won so many Grand Slams. She can be so proud of what she has achieved in her tennis career. What is more, she is still playing great tennis even now. So I wouldn’t be surprised if she keeps playing a while yet."
In September 1998, Seles said that she very much admired the way Chris Evert continued to play until she was 34. Seles went on to admit that she would like to do the same, saying that she was willing to pay the price. She has always been a hard worker.
"We worked an eight- to 10-hour day from the beginning," says Nick Bollettieri, who had the foresight to invite Seles to train at his academy when she was still just a twig of a girl. "But it didn’t matter to her which day. It could be Monday, Saturday or Sunday — even Christmas Day. Heck, it was all the same to Monica. She had absolutely no idea how long she was out on court. She just wanted to be out working on her game."
Today, Seles knows she has to stay fit and healthy to compete with the heavy bangers now on tour, but she cannot endure the extremely physical workouts she used to have. Plus, athletic, she is not. But Seles tries hard to overcome that by cleverly taking the initiative away from her opponents as quickly as possible. In this way, she manages to conceal her basic lack of mobility most of the time. However, she is approximately 5 feet 11 inches tall, with long slim legs and a long spine, making her more susceptible to injuries than someone shorter and more rounded.
Leg injuries, particularly those in both ankles, have plagued Seles since the beginning of her professional career at age 15. "Over the years, I have become an expert on ankle injuries," she says jokingly, but nonetheless quite serious.
Sport scientists and specialized trainers have, in the past decade, found new ways of strengthening ankles in the developing young bodies of those ambitious enough to seek careers in professional sports. It might be too late for Seles now, as there seems to be a recurring weakness there. However, youngsters just coming into the game today should definitely not overlook what’s on offer in that area. One only hopes that, in Seles’s case, wisdom will prevail before the accumulation of extensive injuries take a lasting toll on her in later life.
Interestingly, sport science has already had a lasting impact on Seles’s career. Back in the ’80s when Seles was developing her game, the LGE group (James Loehr, Jack Groppel and Pat Etcheberry) offered powerful information about enhancing performance through breathing techniques. Exhaling into the action, which LGE advocated, introduced another dimension. Many players, Seles among them, took this new information to the extreme, and exhaling quickly became grunting.
This was good and bad for Seles. It was good because Seles did not hold her breath. On the other hand, as her dominance escalated, jealousy and envy were not far behind. Some in tennis decided to take exception to her grunting. The All England Club (i.e., Wimbledon), unfortunately, was one.
Seles was the odds-on favorite to win Wimbledon in 1992 and, as such, the No. 1 seed. Her only real rival was, of course, Steffi Graf, whom she had just beaten in the French Open final, the match Henin-Hardenne remembers so well. Nathalie Tauziat, in the quarterfinals, and Martina Navratilova, in the semifinals had complained about Seles’s grunting, citing it as a breach of Rule 21:
If a player commits an act which hinders his/her opponent in making a stroke, then if this is deliberate, he/she shall lose the point.
Seles’s exhaling was hardly deliberate, yet Referee Alan Mills was persuaded by the Committee of Management to caution her and introduce a "gruntometer" for the final against Graf. The idea was that if Seles’s grunts went above a certain decibel, she would forfeit the point. Wimbledon’s arrogance and flawed logic has been well-documented and, certainly, belongs to a bygone age. But the Seles family was understandably stunned.
Simply, it was a cruel ploy to bring Seles down, reminiscent of biblical times and strong-man Samson being tricked into having his hair cut to see if that would sap his unusual strength. Both, unfortunately, had the desired effect.
Seles lost tamely to Graf, 6-2, 6-1, and was unrecognizable as the same player.
"I let it get to me, and I decided not to grunt," Seles says now. "[It] definitely wasn’t the right approach in the final at Wimbledon. If I get an opportunity again, I would probably do it differently. I would probably keep grunting. But to have a chance at Wimbledon right now is the least chance I would give myself from all the Grand Slams."
There is sadness in that statement, considering what might have been. Seles’s father, Karolj, who insisted on being her sole advisor, should have persuaded Monica to call Wimbledon’s bluff and ignore their threats. No way would Wimbledon have had the nerve to disqualify their colorful, charismatic and much-publicized star. It would have made Wimbledon look more of a farce than it already was.
Everyone was anxious to see Seles play Graf, particularly bearing in mind that Seles had mysteriously skipped the previous Wimbledon amid false rumors of a quickie marriage, elopement and, even, pregnancy. With or without her grunts, the public simply wanted to witness her superb style of play.
Seles perhaps revealed more of her feelings than she wanted when she once said, "I don’t wish to be remembered as ‘The Grunter’ or ‘The Giggler’ or even the girl who got stabbed. Wimbledon is still very special to me because it’s the one Grand Slam [tournament] I’ve never won."
With the insane stabbing nine months after the 1992 Wimbledon farce, it is actually fitting that Seles not only bounced back, but came back within two years as the most popular player on the WTA Tour.
"Monica Seles is obviously a name that is well recognized by all our fans, sponsors and broadcasters," Buchholz says. "So when Monica plays, she adds a stamp of credibility to the event."
Says Fernandez, who selected Seles to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, "We all came to realize that she is really a class act both on and off the court. She has this huge heart and is far more approachable today than she was in her teens. In fact, I believe that she alone has touched more people than any other player."
Indeed, Seles maintains a certain approachability even with fans. One would understand if she were more leery, particularly since she questions whether current tour security measures are sufficient. "You’re totally accessible (to fans),” she says. "There’s no other sport that you’re as accessible as in tennis." But she does not complain. Quite often, she is not even recognized. Or she is held in such high regard that fans respectfully give her space.
"Certainly tennis was changed forever simply by her presence," Buchholz says. "I think it’s very hard for something like [the stabbing] to happen nowadays. For example, when the top-ranked players walk to the outside courts from the locker rooms, they are escorted by several security guards — also at the hotels, all of which we, the tournament, pay for. Everything is our responsibility while they are with us."
Seles indicates she has not given much thought to how she might retire, when that day comes. For now, she does not think poorly of a farewell tour such as the one Michael Chang is enjoying. Nor does she hint that she might just stop playing in a manner similar to Martina Hingis. Seles is too private to reveal what she might do after tennis.
"Knowing Monica as I do," Fernandez says, "I think her future is bright. She can do so many things. She has so many interests outside of tennis. She’s also very compassionate and has a great perspective on life. Off the court, she realizes there are far more important things in life than tennis."
Says Bollettieri, "My lasting feeling about Monica is that… I was well compensated by knowing simply that I was able to help one of the most competitive athletes of our time."
Angela Buxton, a Wimbledon doubles winner and singles runner-up in 1956, ran her own successful London academy in the ’70s and ’80s. She is now a consultant, dividing her time between the United States and the United Kingdom while helping guide young enthusiasts with their careers. Her last story for Tennis Week was about Anna Tatishvili in the Feb. 14, 2002 issue.