Flashback: The tragedy of Seles

Monica Seles was at the peak of her sport as she prepared for the French Open in 1993. In an instant, she lost everything.

By Marcus Chhan

Number one in the world at the age of just 19, Seles headed to Hamburg for a warm-up tournament before Roland Garros that year.

She recalled in her autobiography Getting a Grip: On My Game, My Body, My Mind (published in 2009) the day when a 38-year-old German named Günther Parche decided to change the course of tennis history.

“It was Friday, April 30, 1993, a sunny day with a bracing chill in the air. I was in Hamburg for a warm-up tournament before the Paris Open, facing Magdalena Maleeva.

“I was up 6-4, 4-3 in front of a crowd of 10,000 when we took a break. I remember sitting there, towelling off and thinking. Just two more games. I can close this out quickly and go home to rest. I leant forward to take a sip of water; our time was almost up and my mouth was dry. Drink this down quickly, I thought.

“Doctors later told me that if I hadn’t bent forward at that precise moment, there was a good chance I would have been paralysed.

“The cup had barely touched my lips when I felt a horrible pain in my back. Reflexively, my head whipped around towards where it hurt and I saw a man wearing a baseball cap and a vicious sneer. His arms were raised above his head and his hands were clutching a long knife.

“He started to lunge at me again. I didn’t understand what was happening: for a few seconds I sat frozen in my chair as two people tackled him to the ground.

“He had plunged the knife 1½in into my upper left back, millimetres away from my spine. I tumbled out of my chair and staggered a few steps forward before collapsing into the arms of a stranger who had run onto the court to help. My parents had stayed at the hotel that day – my dad hadn’t felt well – but Zoltan, my elder brother, was by my side in an instant.

“The pain was worse than any I could have ever imagined. I heard people yelling for the paramedics. It was chaos. One thought raced around in my head: why? During the ambulance journey, as I clutched my brother’s hand, shock shielded me from the realisation that my world was falling apart.

“On Sunday morning, two days after the stabbing, Steffi Graf came to visit me in the hospital. I’d pushed her into second place in the world rankings when I became No 1. By that time everyone knew the attacker was a deranged fan who wanted her back at the top.

“Our conversation lasted just a few minutes before she said she had to leave to play in the final. I was confused. The tournament was still going on as if nothing had happened?

“I’d assumed it had been cancelled. The organisers thought differently. That was a harsh lesson in the business side of tennis: it really is about making money over anything else.”

Seles would play professional tennis again, but a lack of consistency meant she was never the same fearsome player she once was.

Before the stabbing, she became the youngest-ever French Open champion at the age of 16 when she won the tournament in 1990. She was best women’s player on the planet for the next three years. Seles won three Australian Opens and French Opens, two US Opens, and Wimbledon in a short period from 1990 to 1993.

The shot at becoming, perhaps, the best to ever play the game was cruelly taken away from her by a psychopath over 18 years ago.

Seles returned to the tennis circuit in 1995 and pushed through mental and physical barriers to win the Australian Open in 1996. It was to be her last Grand Slam success.

She officially retired from the sport which had given her everything and also taken so much away on February 14, 2008.

Although it pales in comparison to the personal loss Seles suffered as a result of the stabbing, it is notable that the incident also robbed tennis of an intriguing rivalry for the ages. The Seles vs Graf history book was only a few chapters old before that fateful day in Hamburg.

Would this rivalry have gone on to eclipse Navratilova-Evert? We will never know, but there is no question it would have been fascinating to watch. The grace of the long-legged Graf versus the exuberant youth of Seles. Graf’s classic single-handed strokes against the now trademark double-handed Seles backhand.

Quite perversely, Seles’ assailant got exactly what he wanted. Before the incident, there had been indications that the left-hander’s game was rapidly evolving and Graf struggled at times against her power from the baseline. But Seles was never the same after the stabbing and the German went on to establish a hegemony that lasted through the 90s.

In some respects, their rivalry might have ended up being similar to the Federer-Nadal rivalry in the men’s game. Graf was the champion whose elegance on the grass courts of Wimbledon like Federer knew no equal. Then Seles, just like Nadal, arrived on the scene with a bang by winning the French Open as a teenager.

In time, Nadal’s dominance on the red surface would spread to the hard courts and he would even have his day against Federer on center court at Wimbledon. Perhaps Seles might have developed into a more complete player given the chance.

Instead all that is left are memories – good memories it has to be said – of a player who must never be forgotten.