Looking Back at a Legend…Monica Seles

Weeks at No.1: 178…5th on all-time list
Year-End No.1 Finishes: 2… 1991, 1992
Tour Singles Titles: 53…9th on all-time list
Grand Slam Singles Titles: 9…8th on all-time list
Career Match Win-Loss: 595-122 (.83)

Tennis didn’t know what hit it when Monica Seles burst onto the scene as a 14-year-old prodigy in 1988. One minute Steffi Graf was mopping up the Golden Slam; the next, the sport had a noisy new phenom on its hands. All matchstick limbs and frizzy bangs, her double-fisted-off-both-sides groundstrokes were unusual enough. But most noticeable – and offensive to traditional ears – was the otherworldly shriek emitted by the lefthander when she hit the ball.

Seles’ rise to the top was meteoric: she won the fifth Tour event she ever played, beating Chris Evert in the final at the Virginia Slims of Houston in the spring of 1989, and by the time she was 18 had already won seven major singles titles and captured the No.1 ranking. No player has gone so far, so fast – nor seemed to have so much fun doing it.

As well as being an athlete in his younger days, Seles’ father, Karolj, was a professional cartoonist. To make sure his daughter enjoyed their coaching sessions he used to draw faces on tennis balls for Monica to swat away. This helped instill in Monica a love of the game that was infectious; her rambling, giggly speeches charmed fans while reminding everyone of her youth.

On court, of course, Seles was ruthlessly efficient. Concentration written all over her pixie features, she tackled each ball with relish, striking it earlier than any other player to produce unprecedented ferocity off both wings. In this way, she made the return of serve a weapon, her unorthodox grip producing the most acute angles. It didn’t matter that her volleying was limited, as she was almost always the one dictating the play.

That Seles’ innocence, and some of her capabilities, were stolen perhaps before she had even reached her prime is one of sport’s great tragedies. On a changeover during a match in Hamburg in April 1993, Seles was stabbed in the back, below her left shoulder blade, by a fanatical supporter of Graf who wanted to see the German star back at No.1.

The physical injury could have been much worse – the knife narrowly missed her spine – and Seles admits she probably could have returned to the Tour later the same year. Harder to heal was the psychological impact on her sense of security and, having grown up on the Tour, her identity. What’s more, as Seles lay in hospital her father, who had always been the main steward of her game, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. And so she was gone from the circuit for 28 long months, until the summer of 2005.

Girl, Interrupted

Though she was never quite the same – how could she be – Seles now recognizes the pointlessness of wondering what might have been. “Monica is never one to dwell on what-ifs,” said Betsy Nagelsen McCormack, a long-time friend and mentor, at Seles’ induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009. Indeed, the Seles resume deserves unemotional evaluation, because it is still one of the most impressive in the history of the sport.

Seles was barely a teenager when her family moved from Yugoslavia to Florida, where she trained at the Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy. She played her first professional tournament in 1988, at the age of 14. She finished her first full year on Tour, 1989, ranked No. 6, highlights including the win over Evert in Houston and a semifinal run at the French Open, where she pushed Graf to three sets.

Twelve months later, and still aged just 16 years 6 months, Seles faced Graf in the final of the 1990 French Open. After fending off four set points in the opener she prevailed in straight sets, 76(6) 64, becoming the event’s youngest champion. Later that year she beat Gabriela Sabatini in the first five-set final women’s tennis had seen since 1901, and ended the season at No.2.

Without question Seles was the queen of women’s tennis in 1991 (finishing with a 74-6 match record) and 1992 (70-5). Having begun 1991 by beating Jana Novotna to win the Australian Open for the first time, she usurped Graf as No.1 in March, achieving what was at the time another ‘youngest’ record (since outdone by Martina Hingis). Later that year she won her second French Open – by now sporting a cropped blonde hairdo not unlike the singer Madonna’s – and first US Open, finishing the year by beating Martina Navratilova in four sets at the Tour Championships.

In 1992 Seles again won three of the four majors, only Wimbledon eluding her. There, she defeated Navratilova in the semis but was clobbered by Graf in the final, 62 61. During the tournament several players had officially complained about Seles’ grunting, and the media had whipped the issue into a frenzy. Seles, who to that point had only lost one match all year, was curiously subdued in the final.

In any case, by the time she edged Graf for a third consecutive Australian Open trophy in January 1993, Seles had won seven of the last eight Slams she’d contested, and eight of 14 she’d ever played.

A Woman of Substance

At first when Seles – by now a US citizen – returned to tennis in 1995 it seemed she might just be able to pick up where she left off. There was a collective sigh of relief when the 21-year-old won her comeback event at Toronto (the first of 21 Tour titles she’d win in this second phase of her career) and marched to the final at the US Open, falling to Graf in three sets. She even won a fourth Australian Open title the following January, beating Anke Huber in the final.

“When I decided to come back, I had to realize [the stabbing] was out of my control,” Seles later said. “It was up to me to take control. That’s when I decided to play again and return to the sport I loved. I didn’t want it to be taken away.”

The big wins had become harder to close out, however. Seles reached a further two Grand Slam finals, falling to Graf at Flushing Meadows in 1996 and, just three weeks after the death of her beloved father, to Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario at the French Open. Capturing the overwhelming public mood of sentiment for Seles, the Spaniard even apologized to her victim during the trophy ceremony.

Indeed, while Seles remained a force for nine seasons post-stabbing – finishing in the Top 10 each year until 2002, helping the US to three Fed Cup triumphs, winning bronze at the Sydney Olympics – she was never quite as consistent, never quite as unshakably confident, never quite as single-minded. Her feet and ankles hurting, she stopped playing following a first round loss to Nadia Petrova at the 2003 French Open, but only later did it really become clear how hard those years had been.

Seles, who could only bring herself to officially retire in 2008, has spoken and written movingly about her struggle with depression and the eating disorder that came with it. Without bitterness she has admitted to feeling let down by the tennis world’s initial response to her predicament (she was eventually given co-No.1 status with Graf, but at first her ranking was allowed to slide) and of the German judicial system’s handling of the matter (though he eventually stood trial, psychological reports kept Guenther Parche out of prison).

It is also clear Seles can see the value of her difficult journey. The tennis trophies have been replaced by humanitarian awards; she is a Goodwill Ambassador Facilitator to United Nations efforts to fight malnutrition, and an Ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, promoting the positive influence sport can play in addressing society’s problems. Even if they don’t know everything she has been through, when Seles talks to women’s groups or youngsters, they listen.

Gracious in victory and defeat, Seles dazzled with her fearless play, but even that pales next to the courage she has shown off court. Still, this sometimes insecure all-time great can be confident of one thing: When she was admitted to the Hall of Fame, she certainly didn’t need the sympathy vote.