Monica Seles puts home on market, and reflects on tennis career

She’s not leaving. But she is in the process of selling.

2014 Monica at home

Tennis Hall of Fame member Monica Seles, one of the greatest athletes ever to call Sarasota home, is downsizing from her 5,800-square-foot house in Laurel Oak to something a bit smaller and easier to maintain in the Sarasota area.

The classically inspired house, on two and a half lots in Laurel Oak Country Club, is listed at $1.85 million through Joel Schemmel of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty.

“The house is just too big for me now,” said Seles.

Laurel Oak, on the other hand, has provided the high-profile athlete with the security she craves.

“The privacy is amazing here,” said Seles. “The security. It is a great country club.” She loves to walk or bike its roads, which are named after notable golf-course designers such as Donald Ross and Dick Wilson.

You couldn’t say she grew up there, but she became a woman there, an open and genuine lady who long ago learned to survive the public’s prying eyes and the unkind comments of a voracious tennis media.

And the knife of a backstabbing lunatic.

Born in the Serbian portion of the former Yugoslavia to Hungarian parents, Seles dominated women’s tennis in the early 1990s as few other athletes have, winning eight Grand Slams singles championships from 1990-93. She holds the record as the youngest person, 16, to have won the French Open women’s singles title, in 1990. For the next three years she was the player to beat in women’s tennis. From 1991 to early 1993 she won 55 of 56 matches in Grand Slam events.

As a budding star in the mid-1980s, she moved to Bradenton to train under Nick Bollettieri, living in a condo at his tennis academy, now IMG, before moving to The Meadows in Sarasota.

This summer, Bollettieri, 82, will join her in the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. “It is long overdue,” she said of the selection of her former coach. At 17, she bought her 1.7-acre parcel in Laurel Oak.

Seles’ home, built in 1993, is unique in Laurel Oak and unusual for a country club house in that it has a tennis court – lighted, no less. Country clubs normally insist that residents play on the club’s courts, not their own, but when a Grand Slam winner wants to move in, you make allowances.

Seles built the house with two courts, but she removed the clay court several years ago and replaced it with St. Augustine grass. That part of the estate has a fenced basketball court and a small building with exercise equipment.

Casa Seles also is walled and gated for extra security, not that your average nutcase could get past the security guard, a sharp New Zealander, at Laurel Oak’s Bee Ridge Road entrance.

“Very few country clubs would allow a private tennis court inside, and a wall,” she said. “Being in the public eye, you are always put on show. It is so nice to come home and practice, let my dogs out, and have that feeling of privacy.”

Seles, 40, deemed all this security necessary largely because of her infamous encounter with a deranged tennis fan at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, in late April 1993. Said to be devoted to rival Steffi Graf of Germany, the middle-aged man, also German, walked to the edge of the court during a break in a match Seles was playing against Magdalena Maleeva. He thrust a 9-inch knife 1.5 inches into her back, just missing her spine.

She recovered from the wound fairly quickly, but the emotional shock took her away from the game for two years and she never fully recovered her previous stature. She did win another major championship, the 1996 Australian Open, her ninth. She stepped away from regular tournament play in 2003 and officially retired in 2008.

The story is retold here only because it influences Seles’ life even now, although she insists it does not define who she is.

“I am still a human being.”

As difficult as the attack was to overcome, it is but one of the hurdles Seles described in her 2008 book “Getting A Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self.” An eating disorder, the premature derailment of her career by the stabbing attack and recurrent foot injuries, and the death of her father from stomach cancer played a role in sending her into a brutal depression.

“My dad’s cancer was the biggest blow,” she said. “You think of your dad as 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 I 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. 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. You have to take care of yourself; no one else will.”

When she emerged on the other side, a stronger and confident woman, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim described her as “perhaps the most adored figure in the sport’s history.”

The home of Monica Seles is neat as a pin. “I love architecture, as a fan,” she says, especially classical design, and her house drips with it.

Making the point, four large Ionic columns create a portico between the house and the pool deck. The three double-height arches frame Palladian windows and French doors.

The furnishings are sparse – she simply is not into a lot of stuff. “I was always minimalistic, and I travel a lot,” she said. “I have to be organized.”

She updated the 1993 house in 2009. The color scheme is now two tones of beige, the darker at the base of the walls, beneath chair rails with wainscoting.

There is no big trophy case, although there is plenty of room for one. The house is lightly decorated with impressionist paintings collected by her father, Karolj Seles, who was an art lover and professional cartoonist. They are dear to her heart.

Her exercise cottage, which her father used as an art studio, has two wooden tennis racquets on display. In the closet, Seles has stashed the tools of her trade – the expensive Yonex racquets with which she made her living.

A few steps away is the hard court where she has played plenty of friendly tennis games with such notables as former Casey Key resident Martina Navratilova, the Czech-born legend who won 18 Grand Slam titles in singles and dozens more in doubles and mixed doubles. Imagine the talent on the court when they played.

But their tennis games were more causal rallies than actual kept-score matches. Monica did not want them to become competitive. She calls it “hitting with my friends. I love to hit the ball.”

She sometimes auctions off tennis lessons for charity, and when the winning bidders are women or girls, they tend to just hit the ball back and forth with the champion.

“But when it is a man, he usually wants to play a match and keep score,” she said. “If they paid this for the charity, it’s all good. ‘Whatever you want, sir.’ “

Once she finds a buyer, Seles says she will be happy to “camp out” at the Laurel Oak home of a family member while seeking a new home in Sarasota.

“Sarasota is a great place. It is very low-key. The people are nice, they don’t have any attitude. I always love Sarasota. For me it is a great tennis community here.”

“But I am old enough to know that you never know where life is going to take you.”

She also likes the convenience to Interstate 75 and the proximity of the Tampa airport, which she needs for her international business travel.

“My goal after I retired was to get more kids into the sport,” she said. “I started with such humble beginnings. I started hitting against the wall of 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.”

Seles is a prominent member of the charitable Laureus World Sports Academy; its 46 “living sporting legends” use sports 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 — because of a little ball and a racquet. That is my big passion.”

She still plays in charity tennis events, “which I really love. I do a lot of corporate clinics and fitness retreats.”

Seles is fit and trim, and has been for 10 years, but her weight was an issue during her career, to the point that friends and family were greatly concerned. The tennis press, on the other hand, made unkind comments. “It is disheartening to read that you are ‘chunky cheese.'”

“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, but you are going to be doing this,” she said, making an up-and-down motion with her hand.

She said she wants to inspire women to take better charge of their lives and find the body weight that is good for them.

“It is not for everybody to be a size 4, or a size 12. You have to find what is right for you. Every body is different.”