Some athletes don’t do much after leaving their sport; some go into broadcasting; some immerse themselves entirely into charity. But trying to become the next young-adult fiction sensation is a bit rarer.
Monica Seles, the 39-year-old Serbian-born winner of nine Grand Slam tennis titles and an Olympic bronze medal, has spent the years since her official retirement in 2008 writing, first releasing the 2010 memoir “Getting a Grip.” That book detailed the aftermath of her 1993 stabbing by a Steffi Graf fan as well as her struggles with binge-eating. Her newest tome, “The Academy: Game On,” is a bit lighter, a takeoff on the “Gossip Girl” genre set at a competitive youth tennis academy akin to the one Seles attended in Bradenton, Florida.
Seles describes her fiction as a “fantasy journal,” rewriting a tense and competitive childhood at a tennis-only school into a salacious and fun look at athletes of all stripes (and both genders!) cohabitating in the Florida sun. Calling from a charity event in Miami, Seles talked about her regrets, why her stabbing injury was “unnecessary,” how Serena Williams has changed the game, and figuring out what she’ll spend the rest of her life doing after competitive tennis.
Who approached whom to put this project together? It’s kind of an unusual next step for a tennis player — or for a tell-all memoirist.
I couldn’t agree more. The autobiographies I did are very different, about hard experiences I went through. It was hard to live them again, a really raw feeling. Doing a novel — I’d had this idea three or four years ago, and during rain delays at exhibition games or while traveling by myself, I wrote a lot. It was kind of a fantasy journal. Over the years, I talked with my agent — and I wanted to tell him that I had this great idea, but people always say, “Oh yeah, another great idea, whatever.” It was so unknown to me, and I am so afraid of the unknown. I had lunch with him and said “This could be a great book.” He said, “Really?” I told him I’d done a couple of chapters, told him to see what he thinks, and maybe send it out. It took me a few weeks to get the nerve to send it. Finally, blah blah blah, he saw something in it. The academy is a crazy world and most people don’t get to see it. And I saw it from all sides — I have friends who are now parents sending their kids there. We shopped the book around and I was very excited when publishers showed interest. I was over the moon.
To what degree were you reliving — or re-imagining — your experiences with this book?
I see myself a little bit in the character of Maya, the kid outsider who comes to the academy. It’s a very different world — not much social interaction, you’re thrown into this environment that’s sink or swim. I definitely felt that as a kid when I won a scholarship to an academy. You wake up worried your scholarship will be taken away — the same as it is for Maya. When I was at the camp, I didn’t have such a social life even as Maya. When I was there, it was only tennis. I could never have had the friendship Maya and Cleo had — it was so cutthroat. That’s what I didn’t like about my childhood. In my fantasy world, I wanted to change it and have Maya have another athlete with similar issues she has, but be in a different sport and serve as a sounding board. It’s a totally different environment that’s very competitive and people will use anything against you, because very few people are going to succeed.
Would you advise parents to send their children to an athletic academy — or advise children to go there?
The academy is a very individual choice. Some days, I loved it; some I hated it; some days I was just ambivalent. If you want the sport of your choice to be a career, to live, eat, breathe sport — it’s the right place for you. Nowadays, academies are much bigger places — it’s gone from 70 people when I was there to about 400. It’s a much more luxurious area down there and more thought has been given to the psychology of athletes, and building a person, not just building a champion. I’m very thankful I went — the competitive environment in my sport got me ready for professional tennis which is much more cutthroat.
Has it been challenging for you to enter adult life after the end of your competitive career?
Oh, yeah. I think it’s a very complicated challenge, in a way. It’s an easier challenge because, financially, you don’t have the same challenges as my friends who went to college who are still paying off loans, as they always remind me. If you work from 14 to 32 or so, you get to decide what you like to do and what you’re really good at. The focus is so much on tennis — yes, you did school, but when you turn pro at 15, it’s not the same level of focus.
For me, it’s been trying to learn more about what I like and what I don’t, not being afraid of it. Doing this novel was a personal breakthrough. Talking to my agent was a baby step. It’s at that point when I’m still discovering what I enjoy. And I’ll never be as good at anything else as I am at tennis. You only have so much time to master things. Even though I started out playing tennis, I never imagined I’d have so many career highs and lows.
Given that writing is more challenging for you than tennis, did you get much out of it?
I think it’s a lot of fun. I had my co-writer, James [LaRosa], who has written a lot for the Tennis Channel. Working with someone who’s connected to tennis — there were so many common things, and it was such a fun process writing it. It didn’t feel like a job, like, “Oh no, we have this deadline”; it was a very enjoyable process. Getting involved with the art, the cover, things like that. I wish it was more sexy, but it’s for young adults, and we only want to push it so far.
Do you have any regrets about your career?
I don’t believe in regret. In 1993, what happened, I think it was unnecessary to go through that at 1993. I wish my dad was around for more of my career; he missed that second stage of my career. I was so lucky I got to do a sport I love. When you lose a match, it’s a tough loss and you’re down on yourself. But with the extreme happiness in your day-to-day life, it’s hard to compare to anything, and I struggle with that. When you have that trophy in your hand, all the complaining is worth it. When you’re crying in your hotel room, alone, over one or two close points — you’re able to put it into perspective.
What do you make of the women’s tennis scene these days? The Williams sisters have made it such a power game.
At the last few years of my career, I experienced their power. To me, Serena is still the most powerful player, that hasn’t changed. In the game, besides Serena and [Maria] Sharapova, with all the other players, there’s a lot of inconsistency. That’s good for the sport. Marion Bartoli winning Wimbledon was totally unexpected, and brought fresh blood in. Now we’re looking for the next generation. As a fan, after Serena retires, you wonder, is somebody able to surpass that? What will that player look like? Or will the game stagnate as we wait for the next superstar?
Is the book going to be a series?
I’m definitely doing a second book. How far after that, I obviously have no idea. I hope I have the opportunity to do more. A company bought the TV rights to it, we’ll see if that goes anywhere. It’s something very new, and I’m a kid in a candy store.