by Monica Seles
Professional tennis is all about control. Control the ball, the power, the placement, the point, the set, the match. Control yourself. The tennis season circles the globe for about 11 months a year. Those months are packed with airports, training, matches, sponsors, the press, and then more airports. There’s often an entourage with you to maintain that control: coaches for your game, agents and managers to handle the business, nutritionists and trainers for your body, family and psychologists for mental support. All there to keep you focused, to keep you winning, and to keep you in control. For the most part it works. It won me the French Open at 16 and seven other majors in the next three years. And then you find yourself in that moment where you have no control.
That moment for me was April 30, 1993, when Günter Parche, a fan of my rival Steffi Graf ran from the crowd and stabbed me in the back at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany. I was 19. In a split second my world spun out of control, and it took me years to recover. It was again out of my control when my father, who taught me how to play tennis, got stomach cancer. There was nothing that I or anyone else could do. My dad was unable to eat as the cancer worsened, and I started to binge-eat. As I tried to regain control of my game and career, I also gained a lot of weight. I practiced six hours a day. The trainers had me in the gym. The nutritionist fed me protein shakes. They tried to control every calorie, every workout, and every practice session. But when the day was over and we all went back to our rooms, I ate and I ate, out of control. From bags of potato chips to pasta, I would eat to try to find comfort. I tried every diet known to man, but the weight kept coming back.
The press was unrelenting. Even though I was winning again, including the Australian Open in 1996, and reclaimed my No. 1 world ranking, that extra weight, I suspect, was the ultimate cause of the foot injury in 2003 that ended my career. Then the speculation really got ugly. If I had put on that much weight as a player, they said, just imagine what would happen to me when I stopped the hours of practice and was left alone without the nutritionists and trainers.
But I found something just as important as control: balance. I didn’t have to spend hours in the gym. I liked walking, so I’d take a walk every day and maybe hit the gym once or twice a week. I didn’t have to live off protein shakes and deprive myself of the pasta and cookies I loved. If I wanted a cookie, I allowed myself to have one, because food is there to be enjoyed. But it was all about finding the balance in my life so I could take control again.
I love the game and the life it has given me. I have seen triumph and tragedy and survived them both. If there is any advice I could give to a young world-class athlete, it would be: as you try to find the level of control that will make you a winner, also try to find the balance in life that will make you happy.
Seles, the winner of nine Grand Slam titles, is a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy (laureus.com), a group of 46 of the world’s greatest living sportsmen and -women. She is the author of Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self.