‘Joy of writing’ helps Monica Seles move on from past trauma

(CNN) — She spent her teenage years ruling the tennis world, and now Monica Seles is hoping her world of tennis can rule today’s teenagers.

From becoming the youngest grand slam champion to having her career shattered by a traumatic stabbing attack, then battling related weight problems before losing her father and coach to cancer, the 39-year-old has plenty of life experience to draw on for her latest project.

“I am old enough now to know that life throws different curveballs and it’s about how you handle them,” she told CNN’s World Sport.

“I try to handle them as best I can.”

Long retired from the top level, the former world No. 1 has followed up her autobiography by co-authoring a fictional book on life at a tennis academy.

The main character of “The Academy: Game On” gained her entry to an elite tennis school by virtue of a scholarship, just as the eventual winner of nine grand slams did herself as a 12-year-old.

Five years of training at Nick Bollettieri’s famous academy in Florida turned the slender young Seles into the 1990 French Open champion at the tender age of 16 years and six months, and at 17 she became the youngest No. 1.

Those records have since been broken by Martina Hingis but the fact remains that Seles — who then represented Yugoslavia but who has since taken American citizenship — was a prodigy whose equal the world had never seen before.

Still the youngest winner at Roland Garros, she added the Australian and U.S. Open titles to her CV in 1991 — and is now in no doubt as to what drove her to the top.

“I had an absolutely great time co-writing the book (with James LaRosa),” Seles said.

“The main character, Maya, had a way to get into the academies, which is the same way I did — on a scholarship. And as I always said in the book, there are two ways to get into an academy — money or talent — but at the end of the day talent always wins.”

There can be no doubt that her ability, coupled with a fierce mental dedication, propelled Seles to the very top but her career was tragically derailed in circumstances that were unimaginable until they actually happened.

A little over 20 years ago — on April 30, 1993 — Seles was playing a routine match in Hamburg when a deranged fan leaped over the advertising hoardings and plunged a knife into her back as she sat on her chair during a changeover.

It soon emerged that the German assailant, one Gunter Parche, was a devoted fan of former world No. 1 Steffi Graf who carried out the attack in a bid to return his compatriot to the top of the rankings — which did come to pass, but clearly for the very worst of reasons.

The knife sunk one and a half inches into Seles’ upper left back, and though the wounds took a few months to heal the psychological impact left far deeper scars — as the former teenage prodigy readily admits.

It would be over two years before Seles returned to the tour but with her father Karoly, who was also her coach, suffering from a cancer that would eventually take his life in 1998, the youngster’s weight ballooned as she sought solace for her troubles in binge eating.

She was never the same player again — and her 2009 autobiography “Getting a Grip” gives a fascinating into the knock-on effects of Pache’s attack.

“According to a psychiatric evaluation … he stated that I was not ‘pretty. Women shouldn’t be as thin as a bone,’ ” she wrote after her retirement, which came five years after her last official tour match.

“I wonder now just how much his words haunted my recovery. An integral part of my rehab revolved around cardio sessions. But I started finding excuses for avoiding the treadmill.

“Darkness had descended into my head. No matter how many ways I analyzed my situation, I couldn’t find a bright side.

“Food became the only way to silence my demons. I’d walk into the kitchen, grab a bag of crisps and a bowl of chocolate ice cream, then head to the couch and eat in front of the television.

“I still don’t know why my anguish found solace in food. Maybe I was subconsciously reacting to Parche’s angry comment that ‘women shouldn’t be as thin as a bone.’ If I padded myself with extra weight, I’d be protected from being hurt again.”

Returning to the sport in August 1995, Seles would go on to win another grand slam — the Australian Open in 1996 — but even that glory was tainted.

Having gone from a size eight to 18, her ballooning weight prompted such self-consciousness that she wanted to be out of the limelight as soon as possible, spending the awards ceremony in Melbourne “thinking about getting off the court and hiding in my tracksuit.”

It was to be Seles’ last major title and the eating disorder sparked by Parche’s savage attack continued to plague her until she played her last competitive match in 2003, as the girl who once had the world at her fingertips slipped into the shadows.

“To be thrown into the limelight at the age of 16, being No. 1 in the world and yet struggling to be a teenager is not an easy thing,” she told CNN.

“Then at 19, to get stabbed and have my career stopped for two and a half years, decide to come back and then lose my coach/best friend/dad, I’ve had a lot of lows and highs — but at the end of the day that is what life is about.

“And it’s just really about living in the present.”

Which is what Seles has been doing, having appeared in the popular “Dancing with the Stars” TV program in 2008 and now hoping to continue her career as a novelist with sequels planned to follow the publication of “The Academy: Game On.”

Fittingly, given the subject matter of her book, her writing began on the tennis circuit as she sought an escape from the monotony of endless traveling to tournaments.

“On the downtime during rain delays and traveling, I wrote a lot,” she said. “In tennis, everything is about hitting that yellow ball and being really focused on it — but writing ‘Game On’ was just so much fun as I got to use my imagination.

“To finally see it come alive has been a great joy for me.”