From the very first time she recalls swinging at a tennis ball, Monica Seles held her racquet with both hands as if embracing a long-lost family member she never wanted to let go. The hug from the heart for the sport that symbolizes family support remains within her.
She learned to play tennis in a parking lot belting balls bearing the image of the cartoon characters her cartoonist father, Karolj, drew on the felt sphere to make the game fun for her and she grew into one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen.
Seles always said nothing gave her greater joy than the simply striking the ball. Today, Seles’ coronation as a champion for the ages became official as the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced Seles will lead the historic Hall’s Class of 2009, which will be inducted on Saturday, July 11th in Newport, Rhode Island.
The nine-time Grand Slam singles champion and former World No. 1 was elected to the Hall in the Recent Player Category. Joining her in the Master Player category is Andres Gimeno. Gimeno was one of Spain’s most prominent tennis players of the 1960s, who remains Roland Garros’ oldest singles champion, winning the coveted clay court title in 1972. Elected in the Contributor category are: Donald L. Dell, a former US Davis Cup player and an industry pioneer and leader in sports marketing, professional sports management and sports television and founder of ProServ and Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson, inducted posthumously, founder and director of the American Tennis Association (ATA) Junior Development Program, who worked tirelessly for decades assisting young African-American players (most notably Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe) in gaining admittance into previously segregated tournaments.
“I’m so excited and so honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Andres Gimeno, Donald Dell and Dr. Johnson,” Seles told the media in a conference call today. “What a way for me to remember the amazing tennis career I had and hopefully inspire young girls around the world that dreams do come true. When I picked up the racquet for the first time, I could never imagine where that racquet will take you. And for me at age 35 with my tennis career behind me I can’t really put it into words what it means (to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
Singles is a solitary sport, but Seles was never alone on the court – she always felt accompanied by the father and family that introduced her to tennis and nurtured her love for the game.
“I will get very emotional when I talk about him in July because really without him I would have never nurtured my tennis,” Seles said of her dad. “Without my dad’s love for the game and really just making it fun for me… He never made it like it was something I had to do. He just made it fun – that helped me stay in the game so long and to keep my sanity. When you see a player out on center court you just see that person, but there are a lot of people behind them who took them there and in my case it was my family, especially my father.”
The two-handed titan captured nine Grand Slam championships and won 53 singles and six doubles tournaments, collecting $14,891,762 in career prize money in a professional career that began on February 13, 1989. She first became No.1 in the world in March, 1991. She was No.1 for 178 weeks during the next two years – the youngest No.1 ever at the time – until tragedy struck in April, 1993, when she was stabbed in the back during a match in Hamburg, Germany by a madman, Gunter Parche, who emerged from the crowd and plunged the blade into her back just below her left shoulder blade. Parche never served prison time for a vicious attack, while Seles was left to pick up the pieces after a horrific attack that sidelined her for 27 months.
The attack literally cut her career as it approached its apex and while Seles said she tries not to wonder “what if” the stabbing never occurred the attack can still haunt her head.
“I thought of that probably the day after my stabbing; (now) it comes and goes and there are days I don’t think about it,” Seles said. “Obviously now that I’m not playing I don’t think about it. It is one of those things. Unfortunately it really changed the career of mine and definitely Stefanie (Graf’s) career and that was out of my control and it was really up to me to take control and I decided to play. What could have been? Nobody knows. What could have been if I didn’t pick up a tennis racquet at seven? I try not to ask myself those questions because really there are no answers.”
She was not able to play again for more than two years. When she did return, she won even more hearts with her comeback win at the Canadian Open, then reached the U.S. Open final the following month. Remarkably, she then won her ninth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January 1996.
The owner of a 595-122 record, Seles won concluded 1991 and 1992 as World No. 1. In a sustained span of dominance she won eight of the 11 Grand Slam tournaments she entered from 1989 to 1993. Seles was a force in Fed Cup competition posting a 17-2 record, including a 15-2 mark in singles matches. She inspired a legion of top players, including Venus Williams and Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.
In a past interview with Tennis Week, Hall of Famer Jimmy Connors said Seles’ fighting spirit, willingness to play even closer to the lines on pivotal points and her aggressive baseline style made her the player that most reminded him of himself.
“Who reminds me of me? Monica Seles is the player I think who played the game the way I tried to play it.” Connors told Tennis Week in a past interview. “She always played as hard as she could every single match and left it all on the court. I have tremendous respect for Seles.”
In her younger years, Seles revolutionized women’s tennis by playing a bold baseline game and producing power and short angles seldom seen in women’s tennis. The woman who took the ball so early it looked like she was hitting half volleys from the baseline, possessed perhaps the most lethal return of serve in the history of women’s tennis, and a stirring shriek that accompanied her stunning shots.
“The ball is being hit harder and harder, and the girls are much more complete players than they used to be, physically stronger,” Seles told Tennis Week in a past interview. “I think I probably was one of the earliest to start it. I brought in power with two hands from both sides. I was one of a few players that brought on this power game and they’ve taken it to a new level. Then the grunting part, everybody is now doing it. It’s like normal now. Seeing women play such aggressive tennis is really great.”
Though Seles has limited her competitive appearances to World TeamTennis and exhibition matches in recent years, she still plans to pursue her favorite tennis past-time with a passion: hitting. The simple act of hitting the ball over the net over and over again still brings genuine joy to one of the sharpest ball strikers in the sport’s history.
“I had a very unusual career, to say the least,” Seles told Tennis Week. “I had some highs and lows. But at the end of the day, I got to do something I loved to do. As a little girl, how I started playing tennis was very simple. That part, I’m proud to say, has never changed. To me, I get a great joy just hitting the ball.”
Technically, Seles’ trademark two-handed strokes were unconventional. Mentally, she was one of the strongest players to every pick up a racquet, competing with fierce focus.
“You know when you saw Monica Seles at 12 years old, you know I told my friends I thought Monica would be the best player in the world,” Nick Bollettieri, who worked with Seles early in her career, told Tennis Week. “But when you looked at her natural physical ability as a strong athlete able to push the weights and all that, you know she didn’t have that. But what she had was hitting the ball early, great focus and determination and always competed well. And I thought she would be No. 1, but to look at her physically, then you said: ‘Well, you know I don’t think this girl has it to make it physically.’ But mentally, she was just off the charts.”
A stress fracture in her foot forced Seles to step away from the WTA Tour five years ago. She had not played a match since limping out of the French Open in a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Nadia Petrova in May of 2003. It was the first time in her storied career that Seles suffered a first-round loss in a Grand Slam.
Adjusting to life after tennis was not a smooth transition as she slipped into an emotional void. Seles gained nearly 25 pounds at the end of her career and stuggled to lose the weight and find her self-worth and come to terms with her own identity as a person rather than simply live with the label of being a life-long player. When the ball stopped bouncing, the woman capable of digging so deep down on the court had to work on herself and find her inner value away from the game.
“Leaving my home at a very early age on (you’re) giving up something for that yet on the other end getting so many great things: the fame, financial freedom,” Seles said. “There were the tragedies and really at the end of the day it was discovering who Monica is and all the things that happened were outsie of my hands. And during my last three or four years (on the WTA Tour) you could definitely see that in my weight. I look back at pictures and I can tell you I just was not a happy person inside. After I stopped playing tennis I had to give time to Monica and figure out what I wanted and who I was. I had to deal wtih certain things I really didn’t want to. My dad always said ‘Put one step in front of you’ but at the end of the day you realize how fragile life was. My self worth was in tennis, my weight was very high and I wasn’t the happiest person, let’s put it that way.”
That inner journey to self discovery has prompted Seles to write a book, which is scheduled for release this year.
“(The book is about) getting a grip on my body, my mind and myself: my journey from tenis, fame the tragedy, my self-discovery and it will be a lot written toward women about the weight,” Seles said. “I lost a lot of weight since I stopped playing tennis, which is a big irony since in tennis you exercise so much. I work wtih pre-schoolers on fitness; (obesity) is one of my pet peeves because kids today are more sedentary.”
Though she seemed to play with a ruthlessness on court, Seles was the personification of graciousness off court.
“I was a normal person in some extraordinary circumstances,” Seles said. “I became No. 1 as a teenager, I battled rebellion in my own way yet it was on a world stage so if I cut my hair short it was big news. At 19 to get stabbed by Parche on a tennis court definitely was unusual – something that never happened before or since – and totally changed the course of my tennis career. Coming back to tennis at 21 was a big decision and a year later losing my father…it was lot of highs and a lot of lows. One thing that kept me going was I loved the game. Whenever I talk to kids today I tell them ‘You gotta love the game.’ If you don’t love the game, then in the long run it’s just not worth it. That love really kept me through the good times and the bad times. I loved playing tennis at my house in my backyard just as much as I did playing on the center court at the French Open or Wimbledon.”