For Seles, the barrier was gender

PROVIDENCE — When the little girl was 7, her father wanted to take her to his club to play tennis.

“She can’t play tennis here. She has to wait until she’s 12,” the manager told them.

Undeterred, the father took his daughter home, stretched a string between two cars parked in the lot of their high-rise, and hit with her. Later, when the pint-sized kid who was “smaller than the tennis net” started winning tournaments and getting publicity, the club relented and allowed father and daughter to play, but “at hours that were still very unfavorable.”

From those humble beginnings, Monica Seles rose to the top of the women’s tennis world, winning 53 tournaments and 9 Grand Slam singles titles on the women’s pro tour, earning $14.8 million, reaching No. 1 in the Women’s Tennis Association computer rankings in 1991 and 1992. After recovering from a 1993 stabbing that sidelined her for two years and three months at the peak of her career, she regained the No. 1 standing in 1995.

Seles, 33, has been retired from competitive tennis for about four years as a result of a chronic foot injury. She recalled her childhood and her life in pro tennis yesterday for an audience of about 150 professional women as guest of the Women’s Initiative, a group of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge female lawyers and their clients that meets periodically to network and discuss issues of interest.

The setting was ironic because the Hope Club on Benevolent Street was a bastion of male power in Providence for decades.

Seles didn’t dwell on April 30, 1993, when a 39-year-old unemployed lathe operator, Gunter Parche, leaned over a 3-foot barrier and stabbed her in the back with a 10-inch kitchen knife while she rested during a changeover of her quarterfinal match at Hamburg, Germany. She simply divided her career into two parts, before the incident and after, and said, “I realized in that moment that life can change.”

Instead, Seles spoke enthusiastically about her start, joining the women’s tour at 14, meeting Billie Jean King, feeling empowered by playing tennis, coming to understand how fortunate athletes in America are, working with pre-schoolers in Florida to help them avoid obesity, and using the tools she learned in tennis to address her future.

Seles paid tribute to her parents, Karolj and Ester, but especially to her father, her first coach, who fought against traditional beliefs so she could play.

“Even in my own family, playing sports was not allowed. I remember how many times my father, who was my mentor and my coach, fought with my grandmother, who really believed that girls shouldn’t play any sports. She should just be playing with her friends or playing with dolls. She would get me these Barbie dolls,” she said.

She recalled an argument her father and his mother had over the callouses that little Monica was developing. Seles’ grandmother lamented that “She’s not going to be feminine if she going to have these callouses. What are you doing to my grandchild? . . . I was 8 or 9 and winning tournaments under-12. Her concern wasn’t that, ‘Gosh, I might have a granddaughter who could one day be a tennis player,’ but it’s more about ‘What is this going to do down the road for her?’ ”

Seles credited her parents for standing up for her and saying, “My daughter will get to do whatever she wants to do. If tomorrow she wakes up and doesn’t like tennis any more, that’s fine, as long as she does do something in her life.”

That tomorrow, of course, never dawned. Seles won the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament, caught the eye of junior tennis guru Nick Bollettieri and enrolled in his academy, moved with her family to Florida and grew up to be a tennis star.

“I realize now how lucky I was to have such wonderful parents who encouraged me and let me follow my dream,” she said.

Seles became a U.S. citizen in 1994. She had heard about Billie Jean King but did not meet her until 1996 with the U.S. Federation Cup team for a match in Japan.

“She’s a lady who is so amazing,” Seles said. “I had so much to learn from her. We just sat there and listened to her stories.”

Seles spoke about the value of sports for girls. She said sports taught her discipline and the value of a strong work ethic, mentioning that when she was No. 1 she worked harder because she knew there was a hungry player coming up who wanted her position.

Tennis, she said, empowered her. “I knew who I was. I am a strong person. It gave me so much self-confidence. The skills you learn as an athlete in any sport are life skills.”

Her work with pre-schoolers in Florida is an attempt to teach them to have fun and to help moms, so busy with work and households and family, to interact with their youngsters in a healthy activity, she said.

Seles appeared relaxed as she mingled with female professionals of all ages. She joked about her height, saying she grew 2 1/2 inches in the two years she was out of action.

She was critical of the emphasis popular culture and the media place on size and appearance.

“We live in an age when the media takes over . . . What role models are kids seeing? What they’re seeing is unattainable.”

This was Seles’ first visit to Rhode Island. As Renee A.R. Evangelista of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge said in her introduction, she will be back at some point for her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

“Even in my own family, playing sports was not allowed. I remember how many times my father, who was my mentor and my coach, fought with my grandmother, who really believed that girls shouldn’t play any sports.”