LOS ANGELES — The armor, which once had shone so brightly, often has dulled by the time an athlete is first asked how much longer they plan to play. A step is gone, wisdom has begun to substitute for once-astounding power and athleticism, and the infallible gait of a champion begins to show the first signs of a limp.
At 28, Monica Seles crossed the imaginary age barrier that tends to precipitate questions of retirement a few years ago, but has no plans of retiring in the immediate future. She still has designs on at least one more Grand Slam title.
Although Seles hasn’t dominated women’s tennis as she did before being stabbed at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993, she has consistently been ranked in the top 10 since 1995, when she returned from 27 months of inactivity after the attack.
You look at what the press says that you're old and washed up when you're 25 or 26. It's not as bad as gymnastics, but it's almost getting to be like that,'' Seles said.But I think I’ll play max, another two years, like at 30 I’m going to stop.
`But who knows? If I go Australia in January and I'm just like,Gosh, this is not what I want to be doing,’ then I’m going to stop. There’s no pressure there.
“I’d love to win a Grand Slam before my career is over. But it’s not the only thing. If I don’t win another one, it’s not like I won’t be happy with my career.”
Seles is ranked No. 7 and is seeded sixth in the Women’s Tennis Championships that begin tomorrow at Staples Center. It will be her first tournament since September as she has been rehabilitating a stress reaction in her right foot that has hampered her play since April.
Seles previously was having one of her best seasons since she became the youngest No. 1 player at age 17 in March, 1991. After ending Venus Williams 24-match winning streak in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in February, Seles reached the semifinals or better in the first five events of 2002.
“For Monica, I think it would be hard to stop because she’s always finished so high, she always has these great years, she wins titles and she’s always kind of giving herself a chance at the Slams,” said close friend Lindsay Davenport, who will be Seles’ first-round opponent Wednesday night.
“You should keep playing if you’re able to stay up there. I think it’s tougher if you’re up there and then you fall, and then you’re barely ranked 50th. But (Monica) still hits the ball better than anybody, she hits amazing shots and she returns so well. Her game is a great game.
“I haven’t played her this year, but it seems like she always beats the players she’s supposed to beat, and is always in the quarters and the semis and the finals of all the tournaments.”
But when Seles talks of playing until 30, you have to remember that for two years and three months, at the peak of her career, she did not even pick up a tennis racket. Seles was only 19 when 38-year-old Gunther Parche jumped on to the court and plunged a 9-inch boning knife between her shoulder blades during a change-over in her quarterfinal match against Magdalena Maleeva at the Citizen Cup Tournament in Hamburg, Germany, on April 30, 1993.
At the time of the attack, Seles had been the most dominant player in women’s tennis for two years. At 19, she already had won eight of the 14 Grand Slam tournaments in which she had played … second fastest in the Open Era behind Margaret Court (who won seven titles in 10 attempts).
In 1991, on her way to the No. 1 ranking, Seles reached the final of every event she entered and won all three Grand Slams she entered. In 1992, she repeated as champion of the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and compiled a 70-5 match record.
Parche said later that he had not wanted to kill Seles, merely to injure her so Steffi Graf could regain the No. 1 ranking. But had Seles not been bending down when Parche stabbed her, doctors said he could have killed her as the knife narrowly missed the spinal area.
Parche never has been punished or spent a day in prison for the attack and Seles remains deeply hurt by that. The judge in the case, Elke Bosse, gave Parche a suspended two-year sentence, based partly on the testimony of a psychiatrist who said Parche had a highly abnormal personality. Since the ruling, Seles has decided not to play in Germany again.
I just never wanted to come back when they never punished the guy, he never spent a day in jail,'' she said.I was really hurt about that. But then I realized I loved the game way too much. I really think my dad (Karolj) helped me to see that you gotta do what you love.”
In her first event back on August 15, 1995, Seles won the 1995 Canadian Open as a wild card. Next, she reached the final of the U.S. Open as a No. 2 seed before losing to Graf 7-6, 0-6, 6-3.
Seles maintained her No. 1 ranking through Nov. 3, 1996. Her best finish since in a Grand Slam was reaching the finals of the French Open in 1998.
The two years she sat out are forever gone and Seles is left to wonder how many Grand Slams she could have won during that time. But horrible as the incident was, Seles has taken something positive from it.
It's a Catch-22, but in long run, it definitely helped me to see that there is life outside of tennis,'' Seles said.In those two years, I could finally spend time with kids my own age and do stuff. If I wanted to go skiing, I didn’t have to worry about breaking a finger or breaking my leg. I stayed out in Vail and Lake Tahoe and, really, I just lived like a normal life. It was so good.
“Since I was probably 8 years old, I’d never spent more than two months at my house, so it was nice.”
Although she has no immediate plans of retirement, Seles allows herself to think what life will be like without the game she has loved since she began playing tennis with her father on a parking lot in Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, an autonomous province in the former Yugoslavia claimed by Serbia.
Oh yeah, I let myself think about it,'' Seles said with a laugh.I’m kind of looking forward to it because it will really be the first time I’ll have a normal life.
`Another part of me is definitely like,What am I going to do?’ because I’ve played tennis for so long and I’ve always been so focused on it.
“I’m just trying to explore a few other things. I feel like a lot of my friends went through this, not at 28, but when they were like 22. I don’t know what I want to do but I think I have a lot of time to figure that out.
“But I don’t think my transition will be too difficult. I just think it will be difficult to find something that I love as much as I love tennis.”