By CHUCK CULPEPPER
I might be an oddball, but when gauging sports history, I try to minimize the significance of knife-wielding lunatics.
That’s why I long have believed the stabbing of Monica Seles during a changeover in Germany 20 years ago Tuesday defies categorization, so the conversation about the history of women’s tennis has to be different from the conversation about any other sport.
Had Seles’ soaring career met with 27-month hiatus and a permanent dip from dominance because of a knee injury, the conversation could bemoan the bad luck but sigh that it’s part of the game. Instead, this entire sport veered on a freakish act of violence, and that puts us …
That puts everybody kind of fumbling around to assess, or not assessing at all given the grimness. Already the Seles name seems generally absent from discussions of the all-time top tier. I wish I could rectify that.
As of April 30, 1993, in Hamburg, a 19-year-old Seles from the bygone Yugoslavia reigned as a runaway No. 1. She had turned up in the late 1980s as a charmingly giggly teen — “She’s Doris Day,” the great tennis figure Ted Tinling once told the great tennis figure Bud Collins — churning toward the dominant Steffi Graf, four years her senior.
In a 1989 French Open semifinal, a 15-year-old Seles won a set against Graf, pretty darned near a feat at that time. In the 1990 French Open final, a 16-year-old Seles stood in there in her first Grand Slam final against a great Graf who had reached — astonishingly — her 13th straight Grand Slam final, winning nine of the previous 12. Seles also stood behind 6-2 in a first-set tiebreaker.
In one of the most astounding things I ever saw on TV, Seles hoarded the next six points.
Her father in the stands gestured as if to say, You’re kidding me.
His daughter personified athletic fearlessness.
Of course, by April 1993, Seles had hoarded seven of the previous nine Grand Slam titles for a personal total of eight as a burgeoning object in the rear-view mirror of Graf’s then-total of 11. The generation had produced somebody who could render the mighty Graf secondary. Graf’s decided No. 2 ranking enraged the unhinged man who stabbed Seles from behind, from the base of the stands, in a turn of life still half-impossible to believe.
A public figure stabbed from behind while at work carries understandable psychological ramifications. (A college basketball coach once told me the story kept him awake sometimes and made him want to alter his penchant for bantering with fans, just in case.) By the time Seles returned in 1995, she might have won six or seven or eight of the 10 Grand Slams she missed, but Graf’s then-17 Grand Slam titles must have seemed among the world’s vast pile of trivialities. Seles still could play on a level just about out of this world, reaching four more Slam finals and winning one (as a whole horde of people would love to do), but she always seemed bereft of that sense of the game’s utmost cruciality.
At rarefied levels, that will cost you.
The man who stabbed Seles robbed viewers of years of potential Seles-Graf donnybrooks. He might have robbed Graf even more — of the chance to marshal herself to regain reign, which she may well have done. And he left us with this singular sports-history puzzle. Asked once at Wimbledon if she ever thought about “what was lost in those 27 months,” Seles replied that she thought about what was lost “that one day.” She has worked like mad to foist the event off herself and hurl it definitively into her past — thus her reluctance to discuss it at this juncture — and you have to respect that.
So in the conversation, here’s my part: My assessments of sports history trade on all the usual factors such as talent, guts, teamwork, number of trophies, ways of winning the trophies, luck, injuries and accidental tragedy. I do not accept violence as a method for telling me who was greater than whom. When violence does intervene, my only recourse comes with reassessing the relevant numbers.
I find Graf’s 22 Grand Slam titles inflated, and I find it curious that you don’t get a lot of awestruck references to that numeral 22, and I wonder if it’s because people do feel a wince or an asterisk in there somewhere. I find Seles’ nine titles understated. I see them not necessarily as equals but as sharers of a historical rung. With somebody as great as Graf, a generation can muster only one — or few — people who can summon a similar level. That person, in Graf’s case, happened to meet with unnatural removal, but also with pointed removal. In a bid to prevent such vileness from winning out, I seek to take the usual conversation and lend it the unusualness it warrants.
For me, the top 10 players of the Open era are — in alphabetical order — Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Graf, Justine Henin, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Seles, Serena Williams and Venus Williams. That’s easy; they all won seven or more Grand Slams, so that simply uses numbers. But the tiptop shelf has the double-digit Open-era crowd: Court, Evert, Graf, King, Navratilova and Serena Williams — and then Seles. And the top players of the last 25 years are Graf (with 22 Slams), Serena Williams (with 15 Slams) — and Seles.
That’s because I know her nine was bigger than nine, I know the wretched reason it stopped at nine, and I don’t accept as merit — or even as accidental fate — the wretched reason it stopped at nine.