My Toughest Opponent Was Always My Weight

Monica Seles won’t attend Wimbledon next week. She may watch a few games on television but when it comes to tennis the former world No 1 can take it or leave it. The days of being a professional sportswoman are over, killed in part by the stabbing she endured at the hands of a fan of her rival Steffi Graf in 1993 and a 10-year battle with her weight.

It is 31 years since a five-year-old Monica spent afternoons hitting balls with her father Karolj in a car park in her home town of Novi Sad in the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia). It sounds like a tough childhood but it was she who had the drive, not her father.

“I’m so thankful dad encouraged it because in those days girls weren’t allowed to play in clubs. I didn’t see a court until aged eight. I was ambitious and I loved to play.”

By the age of 16 Monica had become the youngest ever French Open champion and a year later she was ranked world No 1. Then in January 1993 she defeated Steffi Graf in the final of the Australian Open. Three months later during a match in Hamburg, Germany, Günter Parche, an obsessed fan of Steffi’s, stabbed Monica in the back with a boning knife during a break between games. He later said it was to help Steffi regain the No 1 spot.

After the attack 17 top players were asked to vote on whether or not to freeze Monica’s ranking while she recuperated. Each one, aside from Argentinian Gabriela Sabatini who abstained, voted no.

“At that moment I learned tennis was a business,” says Monica, now 36. “Everybody wanted that top position. The stabbing changed the course of my career as I was away for two‑and‑a‑half years. Then I learned my father had cancer. It was one blow after another.”

For years Monica had lived as a nomad travelling to tournaments so being told to do nothing but rest at home in her newly adopted Florida was difficult. She started to eat bags of crisps, bowls of ice-cream, Pop-tarts and pretzels.

“I still don’t know why my anguish found solace in food that summer,” she writes in her autobiography Getting A Grip. When her assailant received just two years’ probation she became overwhelmed with sadness and frustration and took comfort in junk food. Less than a year later and almost three stone heavier Monica was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“In the beginning I had counselling but when I started having food issues I thought it had to be sorted out by a trainer. I’d look at these trainers and think if this guy is in such great shape he can probably get me in great shape too. It would have helped if someone had understood how connected my emotions were to my binge-eating.

“When I started playing tennis the issue was not just how you played but also how you looked. Food helped me deal with the stress that came with that. Eating made me feel better for a short period.”

The Monica Seles who returned in 1995 was greeted with a different response. “I used to have a great body and now every article started with the word ‘heavyset’. They’d say: ‘If only she lost the weight she would be so much better.'”

Wimbledon with its all-white dress code didn’t help. “You can’t hide a thing. I was carrying all this extra weight, especially in 1997 when I had a terrible year with my father’s illness. I still had to play otherwise my ranking would drop and my sponsors fall off.”

Her father died the next year and Wimbledon would be the only Grand Slam to elude her. As tennis pressures piled up and comments about her weight upset her, Monica looked for a quick fix. “My mentality was to go on another diet. It was one thing after another – the cayenne pepper diet, eating protein only or just fruit.”

Seven-hour workouts would be followed by 5,000-calorie binges and she would gorge secretly in her car. “I couldn’t control my eating. I battled with my weight for almost 10 years and it was the toughest opponent I ever faced.”

Despite her issues Monica clawed her way back into the top 10. Then in spring 2003 a stress fracture on her right foot flared up repeatedly until ­ a bone shattered. She never played competitively again. “I paid for the weight as the injury ended my career and ­ I truly believe it happened because I was heavier.”

When Monica said farewell to tennis she also waved goodbye to her nutritionist, her coach and her trainer. She stopped planning meals, stopped the crazy diets and no longer fixated on her weight. Instead she walked her dogs and tried yoga. She still ate bread, pasta and chocolate but in smaller amounts.

Slowly the weight dropped off and Monica lost 1st 7lb in a year. She was down to her ideal weight of 9st 10lb by 2007. “I’m between a size 8 and 10. I don’t step on the scales. I used to think the world would end if I was 2lb overweight but I stay between those sizes and I feel great. I can look at a Vogue cover and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a size zero body?’ but I’m 5ft 10in so I’d have to starve myself. I’m happy as I am.”

Now Monica spends her time doing charity work and giving motivational talks to women, many with weight problems. Her only exercise is walking for 45 minutes four or five days a week although sometimes she plays tennis for fun. “I’m still trying to discover another passion like tennis. I’m keen for adventures.”