At the age of 19, Monica Seles was the best women tennis player in the world. But that same year was the downfall of her career as well.
Monica Seles was born in 1973 in a Hungarian family in Novi Sad, former Yugoslavia. When she was 11, she won the Orange Bowl Tournament in Miami and moved to the US the following year.
At 14, she began to play professional tennis and won a tournament in Houston against Chris Evert in May 1989. At only 16, she was already number 6 of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association).
Starting of Her Remarkable Career
At only 16 and a half, Monica Seles became the youngest winner of the competition and number one on the WTA list! Only a month later, in 1990, Monica defeated Steffi Graf and won Roland Garros in Paris. While Graf was dominating the whole world, Seles dethroned her.
This teenager won nine Grand Slams and 53 titles in a couple of seasons and earned $16 million. From January 1991 till February 1993, Monica reached 33 out of 34 finals. She won 22 of them. She had 159 wins and 12 defeats (92.9% of wins).
Monica Seles ruled the tennis world until one spring day when everything changed before you could say knife.
A Coward Sudden Stab in Her Back
The greatest scandal in the history of tennis happened to her on 30 April 1993. Monica was playing a quarter-final match against Bulgarian Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg.
During drinks break in the second set, Seles leaned forward to have some water when she felt a sudden pain in her back. She turned around and saw a man with a cap sneering at her. Günter Parche, an obsessed fan of Steffi Graf, jabbed a 9-inch-long knife at Monica’s back. It hurt a lot, but she still didn’t understand what was going on. He charged at her again.
It was the beginning of the 1990s, and terrorist attacks weren’t common. At the time, no one thought someone could attack a player on a tennis court. No one saw matches as risky and in need of particular security.
Seles had already received threats before because of politics.
Seles hurt Badly, but lucky Enough, Knife Didn’t touch Her Spine
This weird 38-year-old man wanted to hurt her and make his beloved Steffi Graf number one again. Luckily enough, he missed Seles’s spine and vital organs with the first thrust.
“She was very lucky,” said the tournament doctor, Peter Wind. “Neither the lungs nor the shoulder blades were affected. Monica is still suffering from shock, and will stay overnight for observation.“
And fortunately, Seles had a bodyguard who jumped to stop Parche from stabbing her again and held him tightly by the neck.
Thanks to the referee who said “Time” to mark the end of the break, Monica bent over to sip some more water. If she hadn’t, her wound would have been much more than an inch deep. Her spinal cord, heart, and lungs would have suffered instead. Still, she wasn’t all right.
The audience who had been cheering against Seles was in shock, looking at the young girl bent over at the court, her white tennis shirt covered with a red stain.
Accompanied by her mother and brother, Monica was rushed to the hospital. Steffi Graf dropped by to see her and then hurried back to the tournament. To both girls, tennis was everything they had in life.
The whole experience left Monica shell-shocked:
“I was on top of the world,” she said later in her interview with Fast Company, “and the next moment I’m in the hospital.”
The first few weeks after the attack, she couldn’t even move her hand. Still, she was hoping to continue to play tennis, unaware of the impact the stab would have on her. She recovered from the wound physically in less than a month, but the attack left her shattered for years.
Günter Parche Planned To Finished Monica Career
Before the incident, her assailant had never got out of his small town in East Germany. But that morning, Parche packed a sausage, 3,000 Deutsche marks, and a kitchen knife and nervously went to the train station determined to do it all for Steffi.
He hated Monica for three years, and now a straw broke the camel’s back. If he had to, he’d even stalk Seles to her next stop — Rome.
Parche had grown up without affection. When he was eight, his mother gave him to his unmarried aunt to take care of him. Günter had never experienced love or bonding, never had a friend or sexual experience. After the unification of Germany, he lost his job in the Nordhausen motor factory.
His only guiding light was Steffi Graf. Parche followed her every match on TV. He stuck her magazine photos on his wall with the same attentiveness he used to comb his hair aside onto his bold top. To this strange man, Steffi Graf was precious.
When 16-year-old Monica Seles defeated unbeatable Steffi in the finals of the Berlin tournament, Parche wanted to commit suicide. Later, Seles won again in Roland Garros in 1990 and 1992 and in Australia in 1993. Now Parche’s pain became chronic, and he wanted to hurt Seles so she could never play again. In the end, he did it.
Steffi Graf visited Seles in the hospital in Hamburg that weekend, but the two had minimal contact from then on. The Graf-Seles connection was a far cry from the days when Evert and Navratilova would share a bagel while waiting to play one another in a Grand Slam final.
The Court Proceedings
At court, Parche explained that Steffi had eyes like diamonds and hair like silk. Heaven had sent her to the German nation. A goddess to adore.
Sometimes he would send her notes. Sometimes flowers. Sometimes money. And sometimes, he would write to any journalist who would criticize Graf because of her game. They’d better mind their words about her. He was there to protect her.
The authority witnesses at court decided he was a fanatic with a severe personality disorder.
In the end, Parche got no more than a suspended sentence due to his mental illness.
Disappointment And Depression
Monica’s life never got to be the same as it had been. Parche got what he wanted. He sowed a seed of fear into Monica that flourished like weeds for years. She didn’t feel like a winner anymore.
Apart from her excess weight, other diagnoses kept multiplying as well. Now she was suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorder. At every press conference, journalists kept asking her when she was going to retire or lose weight. Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova took the stage. For the first time in tennis, a player had to be good-looking as well.
In the end, Monica had to retire in 2003 due to her severe injuries. She came back to the court one more time and then finally retired in 2008. She was far from that bold teenage girl who didn’t break when the going got tough.
But she didn’t just give up.
Seles Come Back
In 1995, Seles returned to competitive tennis. The WTA opted to let her ranking remain at co-No. 1, alongside Graf. In Toronto, Seles’ first tournament back, she would win the title without dropping a set.
Next came the US Open, where Seles made a superb run to the final, losing a dramatic three-setter to Graf, 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3. But as well as Seles could play, highlighted by raising her ninth—and ultimately last—major trophy at the 1996 Australian Open, she was never the pretty fearless player she’d been before the stabbing.
Though it’s never easy to determine how a single event might have affected future outcomes, indeed, tennis history would look much different had this tragedy not happened.
Monica Seles Started Differently
As she lost her number one position and her father got sick soon after the injury, Seles had to find meaning outside the tennis court.
When her father died of cancer in 1998, Monica felt cut off from professional sport even more. To heal, she started to write. The change of her mindset was slow and painful, but it worked. As she didn’t live like a supreme tennis player anymore, her stress decreased. There was no more “emotional eating,” as she calls it.
In 2009, Seles published her book Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self, which became The New York Times bestseller. The book depicts her early success on top of the world and how she lost it all in a minute.
Her third book talks about young tennis player Maya whose life is strangely similar to Monica’s. It seems that after nearly three decades, Seles were still processing the event from Hamburg in 1993.
Monica Seles now
In 2009, Seles began a relationship with businessman Tom Golisano whom she married in 2014. Nowadays, they are active in providing help to children in need.
Seles has also done a lot of work within the world of mental health advocacy. In particular, Seles has often spoken about the Binge Eating Disorder she developed in the wake of her stabbing. She has also developed a passion for rescue dogs, having adopted several of them over the years.
In just a few years of her tennis career, Monica Seles became one of the most successful women players of all time. People knew Seles for her enormous psychological strength in the most challenging situations on the court.