A champion in life

by Frank Deford
She ventures how strange it is that it should have happened to her. After all, nothing like it had ever happened to anyone else in sports. She remembers the strangeness of it, the sudden pain — or, even more, the curiosity: what exactly is going on? And then, reflexively, she turned and in the instant before he was subdued, she saw his face just as he began to raise the dagger again.

Monica Seles was only 19 when she was stabbed 10 years ago this month in Hamburg, Germany.

Were it not for that terrible, awful, crazy horror, Seles might well have become the greatest female tennis player ever. In the three years leading up to the assault, she had absolutely dominated Steffi Graf, winning eight Grand Slams to her rival’s two. That, of course, is why the German lunatic named Gunther Parche stabbed her. He wanted to restore his countrywoman to preeminence.

And, in point of fact, he not only succeeded, but the German courts took more pity on his insanity than on Seles’ suffering. Der Spiegel even compared Parche to Samuel of The Old Testament: “The poor man owned nothing sweeter than a lamb. Gunther Parche is even poorer than the man in the bible.” Parche never served a day behind bars.

Seles, meanwhile, took months to recuperate physically, and also suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome. And what might have been the cruelest cut of all? Her fellow players almost unanimously voted down a proposal to let her keep her No. 1 ranking. Only Gabriela Sabatini chose humanity over business. “Gabby is a human being,” Monica says. “The rest — they treated it like it was a sprained ankle or something.”

When Seles finally did come back after 27 months, she was not the same great player. She struggled with her weight, which dulled her uncanny anticipation and shot-making ability. Worse, her father, her coach, whom she adored, lingered with cancer for years before he died in 1998. And yet Seles has stayed in the game, content to be an opponent, a quarterfinalist, a ghost of what might have been.

But why not, she asks. She simply loves playing. Tennis is a joy to her. That’s all. I’ve never met a champion who is less competitive. Her trophies are in the garage, boxed up. Once — imagine this — she told me that her fondest recollections were of exhibitions because “everybody is on their best behavior there.” Oh, sure, of course she wants to win. But she does not envision herself jumping the net. What is your tennis dream? I asked her once.

Shyly, laughing at herself, she said: “My dream is to be Suzanne Lenglen” — the glamorous, graceful French star of the 1920s — “to be like Suzanne, flying through the air, hitting a volley, both feet off the ground, flying.”

Seles never complains, never argues, never alibis. Grace attends her. She is a bright figure of humility among foggy egos. She speaks to the new kids on tour, never forgetting that she too was once a silly, giggly little thing whom older players spurned. There is no one who does not like her a lot. No, she did not need to almost be killed, she did not need to lose her greatness to a madman’s knife, to become the full, fine person that she is. But we can say that 10 years removed from hell, Monica Seles has won with a good, brave heart far more than she ever did with a tennis racket.

In her own simple words of praise, she’s a human being.