Long after donating her four Australian Open champions’ trophies to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Monica Seles still has the kitsch stuffed toys that for a time were the steak knives thrown in with the official tournament silverware.
There is a koala from 1992, the period when Seles was invincible at every major except Wimbledon. A kangaroo from 1996, the only slam she won after her return.
That tearful comeback victory retains a special significance in a tennis career so tragically altered by a knife-wielding Steffi Graf fan in Hamburg in 1993.
Seles has returned to Germany for personal reasons in the years since, but never played tennis there, and never will. Despite an open invitation from grand slam organisers, she has not been back to Australia since 2003, where her last loss at Melbourne Park was in the second round.
This month, a family wedding in the US takes precedence, but there has also been a longstanding reluctance to travel too far from her Florida home since the adopted American’s last official match in 2003. On the 21st anniversary of the 1996 triumph, however, it is clear that the engraving on her last Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup remains for Seles her most emotional achievement.
“Yeah, for sure, for multiple reasons,” the nine-time major winner told Fairfax Media. “I didn’t play for two-and-a-half years really after my stabbing. I was 19, so you’re going through ‘hey, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna return, am I gonna not?’ And everybody said ‘oh, my gosh, [they would have been] your best two-and-a-half years, all this stuff’. I wish I’d known what I know now: that you can still play great tennis at 28, it doesn’t have to be at 19 or 20, but at different times.
“It was a lot of unknowns, like ‘how do I play, how will I fare against the top players?’. The game had also changed, the bigger players like [Lindsay] Davenport started coming on the circuit who had a lot more power, and things like that. So, for me, when I won it that was really reassuring that in my own mind I made the right decision to come back and it was one of the last matches my dad got to also really see healthy.
“So I always will have a lot of positive memories besides just the whole tennis, life part. And I also loved Australia because they always respected my play – before my stabbing and after my stabbing. Always.”
There is no malice in the last statement, although it would be easy to forgive a subtle dig at those who – once the initial honeymoon period with the personable young prodigy waned – were less accepting of her on-court grunting, the slightly crab-like, double-handed style honed by her beloved late father Karolj, her refusal to speak out about the Croatia-Serbia conflict, her occasionally attention-seeking ways and the fact that, well, she kept on beating Graf. The youngest-ever No 1, at the age of 16, Seles dominated the sport in a two-year stretch launched by her maiden Australian Open title, winning 33 of 34 tournaments and six grand slam titles from the seven she contested in 1991-93.
Now 44, she is chatty and engaging in a rapid-fire-no-punctuation kind of way, running through sentences in her familiar hybrid twang rather than necessarily finishing them. So familiar, yet also not, for her features are sharper now, almost a little pinched, the super-lean Seles having spoken publicly about her years spent struggling with an eating disorder. Just as she was a complete professional in her playing days, she is still a delight to interview, all laughs and nods and warm reminiscences of a time that must seem so very long ago.
After a brief cameo as an early-exiting Dancing With The Stars contestant, more successful has been her work as a successful children’s book author. The “Academy” series is set in an international sports school; the central character, the scholarship kid “Maya”, hailed as the Next Big Thing in tennis. There are jealousies and rivalries. Gossip. Modelling contracts. Love interests. One blurb warns that “you never know who your competition is”. Guess all you like who might, or might not, be based on her own competition, back in the day.
“I enjoy it!” Seles beams. “When I played, I used to write a lot because I was a player that liked to be by myself before matches; I didn’t like to be with my coach or trainer, anybody, so that was kind of my way to relax, but I never had the confidence to kind of show it to anybody.” Then, when she eventually did, there was never a grand publishing plan, but certainly a familiarity with the subject matter. “It stays kind of still in my ‘wheel area’ of sports, but at the same time it’s kind-of like a fantasy that in some way I wish it was so exciting when I was at these academies, like what my characters get to live through.”
Seles is passionate, too, about animals – and, no, not just stuffed Australian marsupials – and also retains the deep love of tennis instilled by her late, much-admired father, Karolj, now helping out several young players at a non-elite level. She has never lost touch with the game, watches regularly on TV, attends the US Open each year and speaks with interest and authority about the current generation.
The youngest French Open champion and first woman in the Open era to win her first six grand slam finals recalls with admiration playing the extraordinarily talented 16-year-old Serena Williams who was even then heralding a new, more powerful, era in the game, and still marvels at the 35-year-old’s longevity. If Williams claims a seventh Australian Open, she will break the Open-era singles record of 22 currently shared with Graf.
So, as the tennis world digests last month’s knife attack on the universally liked Petra Kvitova by an intruder into her Czech home, does Seles ever allow herself to wonder whether she would have been in Serena/Steffi territory had things been different? “Oh, no,” she demurs, modestly, the answer out before the question is even finished. “No, because I really don’t think I could have gotten to those numbers. I might have been to the 15 numbers but not the 20s, no way.”
A variation on the same theme, then: does she ever feel robbed? “Well, I feel what happened to me is very unusual in any sports career, so it is what it is. I think as you get older, we all know life is not fair; different little circumstances can make changes. But I also learnt that you can’t dwell on the past and you’ve just got to move on.
“Some people have it better than me, some people have it worse. I still, in the big picture, had it good. Did I wish that didn’t happen? All that stuff? Of course. Normal. But other parts I had so many wonderful things and then I look and I still have a really healthy relationship with tennis, I have a great family and all those things … Tennis is a big part of it, but it’s not life.”
As to how she feels she would stack up against the now generation, that depends. “Players that are more defensive, I think I could still do pretty good, as long as I would be what I call my ‘fighting weight’ before my stabbing. After my stabbing if I would be at the same weight I don’t think I would have a chance, because you look at the players’ fitness level right now and it’s like they’re track-and-field athletes, their body fat is just mind-boggling.
“I think for (world No 1 Angelique) Kerber that was one of the things that she improved so much – her movement – and to be able to slide on hardcourts. I’m like ‘I never could have done that in my dreams’. But against players who are hard-hitting, I still would have hated playing someone like Serena Williams, even on her off day.”
Which is pretty much the crux of her critique of the current game: despite Kerber’s two-slam, No 1 year, Seles still prefers to watch Williams, believing that “when Serena is playing Serena tennis, there’s no player out there that can beat her. So when she’s not it’s a little bit more frustrating to watch.”
The strategist in Seles is apparent when she speaks about her enjoyment seeing players trying out tactics to bring the American champion undone – such as Kerber in Australia last year and Garbine Muguruza at the French. “It’s just really interesting to me how they approach it, and as a former player, I’m kind of ‘OK, gee, maybe I should have done this when I played Serena’ because to me she was my toughest opponent that I played.”
Back in the day, of course, and on one in the near future she has assured AO tournament director Craig Tiley that “I’ll get out there”. Really, she insists. Promise. Love it there. Second home, etc. Indeed, at one point in this interview Seles reveals that had she not moved to the US from her Yugoslavian birthplace as a 13-year-old, she probably would have become an Australian, instead.
When we joke in mock horror to one of the great tennis champions that it’s a bit late to mention that now, her kangaroo and koala collection notwithstanding, Seles says a lot with just a few words. “Well, life, sometimes, um …” She trails off. Seles would know. Sometimes, yeah, um, well, life just does.