At U.S. Open, Monica Seles only living in the present

Former great recalls career fondly and refuses to dwell on stabbing that derailed her brilliant career.

There is no use prompting or prodding Monica Seles. Twenty years after a heinous, unpunished stabbing sabotaged her Hall of Fame career, and 18 years after she lost the U.S. Open final to Steffi Graf after a questionable line call, Seles will not linger over stolen years and pilfered trophies.

“I don’t go back,” Seles said. “I don’t dwell.”

This is an exultant time for Seles, 40, who will be inducted Sunday into the Court of Champions at the National Tennis Center. She has immersed herself in the tennis, in the crowds at Flushing Meadows. Seles chatted Thursday with fans at the Time Warner Cable Experience, knocked the ball around, then headed to Ashe Stadium for a fun doubles exhibition with Chris Evert.

This was nothing like it was around here in 1995, when she finally returned to Flushing Meadows and to tennis after a 28-month hiatus that had ended just weeks earlier. The match then on Armstrong with Graf was dripping with drama, layered with psychological torments.

“I did well at a tournament in Toronto, but there’s a difference between a one-week and a two-week tournament,” Seles said. “This was against Graf, the pinnacle, with everyone watching. I was just so happy to be back and it made me realize how much I missed tennis.”

Seles had been stabbed in April of 1993, on a Hamburg court by Gunter Parche, a deranged Graf fan. Seles was ranked No. 1 in the world when it happened, already had captured two Opens and eight majors before the age of 20. Callously, the women on tour initially voted not to freeze Seles’ ranking. When she returned to the Open, though, she was extended a co-No. 1 seeding with the introverted, inscrutable Graf.

Seles appeared a bit heavier, a bit slower, than before the stabbing. Now slim and elegant, she admits to having trouble with binge eating at the time. Still, her two-fisted groundstrokes retained the kind of power that could pin any opponent, including Graf, yards behind the baseline.

“There was a lot of tension, so much back story,” former player Rennae Stubbs said. “Steffi must have felt a lot of responsibility. She was very quiet, very introverted, but she went to the match with this thing in her brain. Both felt things they wouldn’t naturally feel. It was the ultimate competitive environment, and that first set was unbelievable.”

Graf won the match, 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3, replete with brilliant rallies, clutch shots and one notoriously decisive moment. Serving at setpoint, 6-5, in the first-set tiebreaker, it appeared Seles had ripped the winning ace. She danced toward the changeover seat. Her serve was called out, however, and there was no replay available.

“If they had the challenge back then, she would have won,” Martina Navratilova said. “She had that ace on set point. Eventually, she just ran out of steam in the third set. There was so much riding on that match. It went so beyond tennis.”

Navratilova remains furious at the whole unsatisfying finish to Seles’ brilliant career.

“The guy (Parche) altered the history of the sport,” Navratilova said. “It was an awful act that could have been avoided. I mean, you never know what might have happened in a tennis career. She could have been in a car accident. But she could have been the greatest, and she was never the same. She’s such a great person. She’s got such a good attitude. I still haven’t let it go. She has.”

Not only has Seles let it go, she even finds a silver lining in the stabbing.

“When I was 15 years old against Chris Evert on Armstrong, I may have had five people rooting for me,” she said. “Then after my stabbing, it had the opposite effect and players said they hated playing me because the crowd didn’t want to see me lose.”

Her favorite memory here, understandably, is not that Graf match. It is her classic, 1991 victory over Jennifer Capriati in a semifinal, a battle of young belters. As a kid, Seles had started hitting those two-fisted forehands because she was “a tiny girl with no kid’s rackets.” She was thrilled this summer to see Marion Bartoli, another two-fisted player, win Wimbledon.

There were a lot of things to celebrate. She will be honored on Sunday, before the women’s final. She was playing Thursday night alongside Evert, who had beaten her here in 1989 at Seles’ first U.S. Open.

“I’ve come full circle,” Seles said. “You have to pinch yourself. This is the gravy on it.”