Real estate editor Harold Bubil recently visited tennis legend Monica Seles at her for-sale home in Laurel Oak Country Club for an interview over her favorite drink, classic Coca-Cola. Harold prefers Diet Coke and accepted Monica’s offer of a Coke One. The two Sagittarians then began a free-wheeling one-hour conversation.
Harold: You are a naturalized U.S. citizen, but you were born in Serbia when it was part of Yugoslavia, but to Hungarian parents. Do you consider yourself Hungarian?
Monica: It’s complicated. I’m American. I went to Hungarian school in the former Yugoslavia. I left at 9. We lived in Germany before we moved to the U.S. when I was 13.
Harold: Do you speak Hungarian?
Monica: I speak Hungarian with my family. It is a very difficult language, no one other than Hungarians speak it, and the closest thing is Finnish. So it is really a waste of your brain space. But it comes in handy.
H: I have been to Budapest. It’s a beautiful city. That and Vienna are my favorites.
M: Vienna was a two-hour car ride. We love it! But I won’t drive in Germany, France or Italy. Paris traffic is the worst.
H: Paris is not that bad. Milan? Those people have a death wish.
M: All I remember about family vacations to Italy is my parents arguing and getting lost. He was the driver and she had the map.
I tell my friends to take their kids to see the world. I am so thankful for my dad, from Day One with the junior tournaments. In his job, he used to travel and he would drag us around just to see. It opens so much.
I would travel to junior tournaments every weekend. You hop on the train Friday after school and you play. As a pro, we traveled 11 months of the year. A lot of my competitors were homesick, but I never had issues. You have to be open to being in that country.
H: Now that you are retired from the pro tennis tour, what are you doing now?
M: My goal after I retired was to get more kids into the sport. I started with such humble beginnings. I started on a wall in the apartment building where we lived because as a kid, they would not let me play on a tennis court. Being a girl, sports were not encouraged. So my dad pulled a string between two cars in a parking lot; that is how I played for a year. I want to show kids that you don’t need all the fancy-schmancy-ness that so often people get caught up in.
I am involved with a few other athletes in a charity called Laureus (Laureus World Sports Academy, a unique association of 46 of the greatest living sporting legends. The Academy embraces the principle of using sport to help bring positive social change.) Each of us, we bring the skills and equipment and donate to the kids around the world. I look at how much my life was changed because of tennis â€“ because of a little ball and a racquet.
That is my big passion. I still do a lot of tennis events, and I love it. I have two events in June in Europe, which I really love. I do a lot of corporate clinics and fitness retreats. I used to weigh a lot more (she laughs).
H: You look quite fit.
M: I have maintained this (weight) for 10 years, but the irony is that the last few years of my career, everyone was so worried about what would happen when I retired. There are many components to it.
Part of my career I was very fit. Part of it I was, ahem, very obese. When I retired, I found a balance that is healthy. It is not about how I look, but feeling healthy and making it a lifestyle. Because, essentially, you can go from one diet to another.
I love Coke, but I count in these calories of sugar (into her diet). I try to limit myself to one a day. My trainers were like, ‘You can’t eat this, you can’t eat that.’ Well, what can I eat? Realistically, I can’t last on steamed vegetables and egg whites and protein shakes. I just love to eat. In my job, I go places. If I am in Rome or Paris, I want to eat that food! I am not going to eat egg whites. For me it was finding that balance where I can do that, but also feeling that I am not eating for emotional reasons, but eating because it is an energy (source). It wasn’t food that was making me eat, it was emotions.
H: Athletes must make a dietary adjustment upon retirement. Was this a problem for you?
M: Great question. For me, the main issue was when my foot was on its last few days. As an athlete, you know when it is time to say, ‘OK, I’ve had enough.’ My worry was that I was at a certain weight, which was pretty high. What is going to happen when I don’t play four or five hours a day? When you are training, your body is hungry and you need the fuel for the next day’s recovery. So it is very different.
When I stopped playing (with the foot injury), I was in a boot for six to nine months, so I couldn’t do very many exercises. What I ate was very important, and listening to why I ate. Worrying about the game leads to more cortisol in the body and holding onto the weight.
It was getting a grip on myself. You have to stop the cycle. You are 30 years old. Forget looks. End of the day, tennis is a business, so there is pressure to look a certain way. That is part of it. In my case, I had to separate that side and say I am just doing this for Monica. I am not doing this so I can look like some of the attractive tennis players so I don’t miss out on endorsements, or so I can fit into a bridesmaid’s dress, I am doing this for me. The time away from the tour, for the first time in my life, I could focus on myself and not being on that rollercoaster. It really helped me. I am proud I found a lifestyle where I don’t feel deprived. I don’t like protein shakes. Some people could make that sacrifice; I could not.
It does not happen overnight. It takes time. End of day, I have to take care of myself; no one else will.
H: Let’s talk about your mission in life now — youth and wellness.
M: Tennis has given me all of this (she motions to her surroundings). I was lucky as a kid to find something I liked to do, and I had two great parents that encouraged me, but never pushed me.
The weight issue, I was lucky to find a balance after eight tough, tough years. Tough from myself, my coaches and from the press. I would be lying to you to say it is not disheartening to read an article that says you are chunky cheese. That was the reality, but it is hard, especially for women.
H: The female players now tend to be glamorous in addition to being good athletes. How was it when you played?
M: It was moving toward that. And now the players are fitter and fitter and fitter. Serena (Williams) has done a tremendous job bringing the fitness of the sport to a higher level.
H: In your book, you discuss dealing with depression? What caused it?
M: Three big factors. The first was my stabbing (the knife attack by a fan during a match in 1993). Everything changed in my life overnight.
My dad’s cancer was the biggest blow. You think of your dad being bulletproof. While he was battling that, I was battling my own eating addiction. He couldn’t eat, and I would eat for 10 of us. The combination of that put me into brutal depression, and on top of that I gained a lot of weight, and it started affecting my job and started to get a lot of rough comments from people. When I took a break from my stabbing; I was 19. There was a heavy, heavy four or five years there (in the late 1990s). It was pretty foggy.
One thing that helped was getting back on the court and being on a schedule. I needed a schedule. There was one injury after another. My own depression, how I dealt with it was to not depend on anyone else. I wanted the tools to take care of it myself.
H: How did you handle your eventual decision to retire from the game?
M: I had a bad foot injury at the same time. The writing was on the wall, but you don’t want to admit it. I took trip to Costa Rica to stay in an eco-lodge. Being by myself in a positive environment helped me inside to get the tools to take charge of a few parts of my life. For the first time, I said, “I am not going to give myself a plan, a schedule, a goal. All my life, everything was about a goal. Winning this tournament, reaching that weight. I was tired of goals and tired of people telling me what to do. Just leave me alone.
For me, it was just tuning out and accepting how I was. When there was a day I was down, I accepted it. “Monica, this is how you feel. Embrace it.” If it happened for more than two days, I forced myself to go out, and that is how I fell in love with walking. I love to walk. It is the best therapy in my life. In that, I was open to my own thoughts, mile after mile. That was a therapy with my own brain — take time to myself with no particular purpose.
(Depression) is an everyday battle, an everyday thing. Each moment, I made that decision. But what will happen tomorrow, I have no idea. I don’t want that pressure on myself. The whole world has expectations. I only care about my expectations.
H: How do you feel about tennis now?
M: Every generation had its heyday. Mine is passed. I had my share; now it is someone else’s time. Now I just like to go out there, have a good workout, and enjoy hitting. I love hitting. You feel it. And when you are finished, you miss that.
Tennis, what is nice about it, is you can go to any part of the world and you can find another person to play with. I have met so many friends, I can go to any country or city and because of tennis, I will know someone. I know where the locals eat, I know where the locals hang out. It is just wonderful to me. Tennis is a great sport, a lifetime sport. Maybe 1 percent of the kids who go to IMG will become professionals. But college educations, and the contacts you make. What a great life tennis can give you.
Tennis, even if you are 20th in the world, you are doing pretty well. If you are cute, you are doing really well. You travel the world â€“ you don’t see much, because you are working â€“ but for ladies, it is a good sport, and socially, too.