Monica Seles: Tennis Star’s Off-Court Battle With Depression, Food Addiction

Nine-time grand slam champion Monica Seles once ruled women’s tennis.

The famous tennis player spiraled into depression after being stabbed.

At 16, Seles became the youngest woman ever to win the French Open and in a two-year stretch, she won seven out of nine grand slam tennis championships. Many thought she was destined to be the best women’s tennis player in history.

But her career came to a screeching halt on April 30, 1993, when she was stabbed by a deranged fan during a break in a match in Germany . Now, Seles has chronicled her long journey back in her new memoir, “Getting A Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self.”

“I was just sitting down and leaning forward, and that’s when I suddenly just like… I felt a sharp pain in my back,” she said. “And I… I looked back and… and I saw a person, you know, having his hand and a knife, and then, ‘Oh my, this guy put a knife in my back.'”

The German, a fan of Seles’ chief rival, Steffi Graf, wound up being sentenced to two years on probation.

Seles Stripped From No. 1 Ranking

It would take longer than that for a traumatized Seles to return to tennis. While she was recuperating at her home in Florida, fellow players voted to strip her of the No. 1 ranking. That shifted millions in endorsement dollars from Seles’ pockets to theirs. Seles was disappointed in her fellow players’ decision.

“Tennis is a business. So, you know, it’s cutthroat as anything, because you’re playing in the world stage and anything can go.”

Chris Evert remembers when Seles lost her ranking. “She was on the top of the world, and then she was in the gutter after that.”

Family Illness, Food Addiction and Depression

What Seles has never spoken about before is what happened during those years after the stabbing.

Shortly after the attack, and the subsequent loss of her ranking, her beloved father was diagnosed with cancer. The emotional stress from all of these events took their toll, sending Seles into a tailspin of depression and a corresponding addiction to food. In her new book, she candidly describes that struggle with food.

“I ate pasta, burgers, potato chips, late night runs to Taco Bell; I’d lose myself in the cookie and cracker aisle. I’d load up with Oreos, Pop-Tarts, pretzels and barbecue potato chips,” she wrote.

Despite the 40 pounds she had gained, Seles tried to mount a comeback two-and-a-half years after the stabbing. At Seles’ first match after her long absence, the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

“The amount of support that I felt that first-round match when I walked out there was just amazing,” she said.

Through sheer will, she battled back to the top five in the rankings, all the while trying to hide food binges from her coaches and even from her family. She says she’d sneak off and gorge herself in cities around the world.

“Food was my friend,” she said.

She desperately tried to hide her weight in loose-fitting clothes. But fans and the press took notice. British newspapers chided her about “oversized servings” and said she looked like a “sumo wrestler” and a “hag with a frying pan.”

She said the criticism about her looks was hard to take.

“I just realized the time I was away from the sport, a new generation was coming up. And the generation was taller, much stronger, much more powerful, and obviously a lot more attractive,” she said. “It wasn’t enough to play good anymore, you had to look good, too.”

It was then that she realized she needed help to deal with the emotions she had been running from.

“For me, it was obviously dealing with my father’s death, my stabbing, my own identity,” she said.

Playing an Aggressive Game

Women tennis players these days, like Serena and Venus Williams are known for their power game. But when Seles first hit the court, there was no one like her.

At just 9 years old she won the junior Yugoslavian championship. When she crossed the Atlantic, Evert was one of the first to fall.

“She beat me when she was 15,” Evert said. “I remember playing her and it went three sets and she just was so aggressive, taking everything early and grunting and I’d never seen a player like that. I’d never seen anybody play like that in my life.”

“I think I was the first female power player. I played a very aggressive game,” Seles said.

She hit the ball harder and faster and louder than anyone before her. Frustrated rivals even stopped some matches to complain about her infamous grunts. Seles says she was ridiculed in the press for her noises on the court.

“It’s hard when you open up the papers in England and you’re on the front page, and they have a grunt-o-meter, and say ‘Seles Screams’ or some not so nice headlines about my grunt,” she said.

Regardless of the ridicule, at 17, Seles became the youngest top-ranked woman ever — an honor that brought millions in endorsements.

Working Off the Extra Pounds

She told “20/20” it took extensive therapy to finally address the pain she’d tried to smother with food, and she learned she needed to find an identity beyond tennis and to simply have some fun. So she traveled, went skydiving and swam in a shark cage.

She even went into rigorous training of another sort — preparing for a shot on ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars.” Seles may have been the first eliminated that season but even she thought she looked good.

Over the years, she says, the extra pounds have slowly disappeared. “It was definitely not easy,” she said. “And it was baby steps.”

Seles has been able to keep her weight steady for two years. Her time now is filled with extensive charity work for causes involving needy youngsters and abandoned pets.

She quietly retired from tennis in 2008. One sportswriter said she left as one of the most adored figures in the game’s history. And Seles says despite everything she’s been through, she’s happy with her life.

“The ‘what ifs,’ they are there. But I think the difficult years made me who I am today,” she said. “And I think I’m a much happier person than I used to be.”