Former number-one world professional tennis player Monica Seles shares her personal journey, battling depression and coming into her own after a career on the court. This excerpt from “Getting A Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self” was provided by the publisher to ABC News. Her book will be released on April 21.
Chapter 1: Blasting Through the Comfort Zone
For twenty-eight years, I was known as a tennis player. It had been a long time since I played a professional match, but the thought of giving up the security of that label had terrified me. Tennis player. A short, easy description that everyone is familiar with. It’s who I was to the outside world and it’s what I’d been calling myself for as long as I could remember. But it was time to move forward. I was ready to leave the past behind.
On February 14, 2008, I announced my official retirement from tennis. I’d been playing in exhibitions here and there, but I was tired of waking up every morning wondering if today was the day my foot was going to self-destruct again. When it felt good, I could play the way I had when I was at the top of my game, but when it felt bad, I couldn’t walk on it. I spent years debating back and forth in my head whether I had it in me to make another run for the top. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was tired of the debate. I waited so long to make it official because I wanted to be absolutely sure it was the right decision. I wanted it to be on my timetable and I wanted to claim complete ownership over the choice to close that chapter of my life. All the what-ifs about whether I could regain my former glory and win another Grand Slam began to fade away. My life was filling up with things other than tennis; I was feeling more content than ever before and the fear had left me. It took a long time to get to this point, but I knew that I didn’t need tennis to define who I was anymore.
At the time of the announcement, I didn’t think twice about the date. It just happened to be when my agent, Tony Godsick, released the statement. But it’s funny that on a day reserved for lovers, I declared my relationship with professional tennis to be over.
Somebody once told me that tennis is your husband, your boyfriend, your fiancé, and your best friend all rolled into one. It takes up every second of your time, every ounce of your energy, and every thought in your head. It had also been my adolescence, my education, my entry into adulthood, and my ticket to see the world. It had been my entire life and had tested me on every possible level. Somehow I’d come out the other side in one piece. Even better than one piece: I’d come out whole and healthy and strong. While staying out of the public eye, I’d been able to rebuild and fortify my core and I decided to put it to the ultimate test: ballroom dancing in front of millions of people. If I was going to test my newfound inner strength, what better way to do it than by risking total and complete public humiliation on reality television? Dancing with the Stars was my mom’s favorite program, so when the opportunity arose to be on it, I gave it some serious thought. I had several strikes against me: two left feet, the inability to wear heels, stage fright, and absolutely zero dance experience. My mission to embrace my fears would be taken to a whole other level. My friends thought I was crazy when I decided to do it: “Monica, you know that you have to actually dance on that show, right?” they asked. “Are you sure you want to do it?” No, I wasn’t completely sure, but what did I have to lose? I gave my new favorite answer to every opportunity that life threw my way: “Why not?”
I was paired with Jonathan Roberts, a show veteran who looked as dashing in person as he did when he partnered Marie Osmond, Heather Mills, and Rachel Hunter on television. One of the most patient people I’ve ever met, Jonathan wasn’t fazed by my hips’ complete inability to shake. Over and over he painstakingly went through the steps for our first two dances together, the fox-trot and the mambo. I had some prior work obligations, so we couldn’t hunker down in the L.A.-based dance studios like the other contestants. Jonathan gamely met up with me all over the place: we practiced in any empty rooms we could nd in Tokyo, Florida, and New York, eight hours a day for four weeks. With one week to go before the show, we headed to L.A., where the filming took place, for last-minute dance step cramming. My inner perfectionist kicked in when, with five days to go, I scheduled our dance sessions for seven in the morning.
“Seven?” Jonathan asked in disbelief. “I’m not even awake until nine.”
“But I don’t know the steps yet!” I was starting to panic. We’d just shared practice time with Christian de la Fuente and Cheryl Burke and they looked unbelievable gliding across the floor. I knew I was in trouble, and Jonathan — who had seen some of the other practices — wasn’t pulling any punches. “Monica, I’m going to be honest. We’ve got an uphill battle.” The whole I’m doing the show for fun mantra was being replaced with I’m terrified of making a fool out of myself.
“Okay, how about we compromise and make it eight o’clock?” he offered.
“All right, but not a minute after.” I was having flashbacks to being thirteen years old and, having just moved to Florida from the former Yugoslavia, showing up at the Academy’s courts at 6:40 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. session. I was so used to the tiny windows of time that were given to me on the adult courts in my hometown of Novi Sad that I didn’t want to waste a second. By the time a coach arrived, I’d already be warmed up and ready to launch straight into hitting. I’d mellowed a lot since then, but that Type A, gotta-get-it-right girl was still lurking inside me. We practiced our routines a hundred times and I videotaped Jonathan executing the more intricate footwork that I couldn’t get down during our rehearsals. At night I’d go to my hotel room and watch the footage over and over again, pausing it to practice in front of the mirror. I was relieved that the first episode of the show would feature the guys. All I’d have to do was sit in the front row and smile. But I became even more panicked when I saw how good they looked. They looked like naturals. Even the guys who weren’t as coordinated could pull off a decent performance by standing in one place while their professional pixie partners twirled and sashayed all around them.
The next day, as I was psyching myself up for my big dancing debut, I was in for another shock: the preparations were like a prom, a wedding, and a beauty pageant rolled into one. Spray tans, hair extensions, fake lashes, manicures, and endless layers of makeup. All in all, the process took six hours. Sitting in a chair for that long was tedious, but I did learn how to make the nose I inherited from my dad appear smaller. The tricks of shading can work wonders. When it was all over, I hardly recognized my lacquered-up new self and I was exhausted before I even set foot on the dance floor. My outfit was a long, frilly pink ensemble that looked like Cinderella swathed in cotton candy. My eight-year-old self would’ve died for that dress, but the thirty-four-year-old me had very different taste.
I looked around at my competition — Shannon Elizabeth (actress with never-ending legs), Marlee Matlin (actress with spunky spirit), Priscilla Presley (actress with confident grace), Marissa Jaret Winokur (Broadway star with energy to burn), and Kristi Yamaguchi (Olympic ? gure skater who looked like she was born to dance) — all decked out in sparkles, spangles, and heels. There was a hum of nervous energy in the air, and with a jolt I realized that I was out of my league. These women all had backgrounds in performing and playing to an audience, while I’d spent my career tuning the crowd out so I could focus on the ball. Without a doubt they’d know how to work the camera, and I didn’t have the slightest idea where it was. Was it too late to back out?
“Ten minutes until curtain!” the stage manager yelled. Yep, it was way too late. We each took our place for the cast introduction and I was lined up at the top of the stage’s stairs next to Jason Taylor, the stud NFL player who had performed beautifully the night before. I must have looked like I was about to face a ?ring squad because he took one look at me and said, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
“I have no idea,” I managed to squeak out.
“At least on the football ?eld I know what I’m doing,” he said as we began the dramatic descent toward the audience. I felt so much better knowing I wasn’t the only one who was feeling way out of the comfort zone. If a tough football player was nervous, then my legs had every right to be shaking like a skittish colt’s.
After the opening sequence, I went backstage to wait for my cue. Jonathan kept telling me to just have fun. He sounded like my dad before huge matches. There was no way I was going to have fun out there. I’d do it, but it wasn’t going to be fun. I was too busy mentally replaying the sequence of steps in my head to remember something as silly as having a good time. Convinced I wouldn’t hear the beat of the music, I told Jonathan to wink at me when it was my cue to start our dance. We took our places on the stage, and before I knew it, he was winking at me.
Showtime. He twirled me around the floor and I tried to keep up with his flawless fox-trot as best I could. My turns weren’t as tight or controlled as they could have been, but I didn’t miss a step and I didn’t fall flat on my face — a success in my book. Unfortunately, not messing up wasn’t a strong enough showing for the judges. I got the lowest score of the night and was told that I looked “uncomfortable” and “awkward” and that my “core wasn’t strong enough.” How ironic. After years of working to build up my inner core and working out with my trainer, Gyll, to strengthen my physical one, the biggest criticism was that my core wasn’t up to par. Yikes. Thirty seconds of negative feedback wiped out the hesitant confidence I’d built up over the past several weeks of practice. Thirty seconds was all it took to shake me off kilter. After the show, all of the contestants moved through the press line, doing short interviews with the media outlets. To my total shock, halfway through the line, tears started flowing down my face. I finished the rest of the interviews as quickly as I could and rushed backstage to get myself together. The harder I tried not to cry, the more the tears kept coming. Jonathan immediately found me and told me there was no reason to be upset. I’d done every thing I was supposed to: our goal had been to get all our steps into the routine, so who cared that we got the lowest score? Big deal. Easy for him to say. He hadn’t been torn apart for being awkward, uncoordinated, and cursed with bad posture in front of millions of households in America. The thing was, I truly thought I’d done well. If I had thought I’d performed horribly, then I would have been fine with the criticism. But my definition of “well” and the judges’ definition of it were not even close. I had never danced before, so my frame of reference was quite different. I was going to have to accept it. I went to my hotel that night upset and rattled. I took a look at my puffy eyes in the mirror and went into reality check mode.
Why are you being so hard on yourself? This is a dance show. It’s supposed to be fun. So what if you got a little criticism? Nobody’s perfect. Shake it off and do better the next time. Your core, the inner one, the one that’s the most important, is strong. It’s going to take more than some dance judges to throw you off balance. Just get right back out there and try again. I turned on the video camera and watched Jonathan perform our moves from the mambo, our next dance. I had a few days to get it together and come back with a vengeance. I showed up at our rehearsal in the morning bright-eyed and on a mission. But I was momentarily thrown off course by the Hungarian bakery downstairs from the studio. The aroma of fresh baked goodies wafted through the air and tempted me like crazy. It appealed to all of my childhood cravings. After some especially disheartening practices the previous week, I had slipped into an old bad habit and indulged in some key sugary purchases. They hadn’t done me any good. No, not this time, I told myself as I walked right past the open door. Pastries will not make me a better dancer.
I mamboed myself to the point of exhaustion for the next three days and, taking the advice of the costume designer, decided to make my appearance a little more va-va-voom. My dress for the second dance was a gold-spangled number that barely covered my rear. I’d seen how hot Shannon Elizabeth’s outfit had been and I knew I had to sex it up a little more, but there was only so much va-va-voom I felt comfortable with. The designer and I compromised on the hem length and I loved the finished product. I showed up for the second show ready to shake my stuff. Jonathan gave me one piece of advice: Smile.
“No matter what you do, just smile. If you miss a step, trip over your own feet, mess up a spin, just smile. If you smile enough nobody will ever know.”
“Okay, got it: Smile,” I repeated back to him.
“And especially on the split. Look right into the camera and smile as if your life depended on it,” he added.
The music started, Jonathan winked at me, and we were off. I channeled my inner vixen and strutted all over the dance floor with as much conviction as my heels would allow. I smiled until my face hurt, and when it came time for the split, I searched for the camera. Damn. There were six of them. Which one was I supposed to grin seductively into? I took a wild guess and did my best. I finished the number without any of my bracelets flying off and hitting Jonathan in the face — again, a success in my book, but I knew it was unlikely to impress the judges. I was right. I got the lowest score again and I knew I was destined to be booted off first. Luckily for me, Penn Jillette was kicked off at the same time, so I didn’t have to brave the rejection solo. Misery loves company. And I was pretty miserable for the first few days. People recognized me all over the place — at the grocery store, the gas station, the airport — and they were incredibly kind to me. The only thing I’d wanted to do was stay on the show for at least a week, and I was mortified that I hadn’t been able to do it. But nobody seemed to remember just how dismal my performance was. They told me how great I looked and how gutsy I’d been to try something new. I was disappointed in my performance and crushed that it had been in front of millions of people, but those lovely dance-show-watching strangers were right — I had been brave to give it a go and my legs had looked pretty good in that gold dress.
If I’d done the same thing five years earlier, I wouldn’t have come back for the second dance. I would have returned home to Florida, cried, eaten, cried some more, eaten even more, and hidden from everyone for weeks. I would have carried the sting of those comments around with me like a scarlet letter. I would have avoided social situations and spoken to few of my friends. The humiliation would have been too much. But I was a different person now, and it took only a few days of moping around before I realized that I was fine. I’d faced my greatest fear, performed despite a case of nerves that was worse than any I’d had before my Grand Slam finals, subjected myself to the judgment of total strangers, and taken criticism without falling apart in front of millions of people. In the end, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared it would be. If you don’t take risks in life, you won’t get anything out of it. If my core could take that and still be in one piece, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t take on.
Excerpted from Getting A Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self by Monica Seles. Copyright © April 2009 by Avery Books, a division of Penguin Group USA.