It is bad enough to be a young woman struggling with your weight. Now imagine the eyes of the world on you as you do it. And oh, yes, the whole time they’re watching, you’re wearing a short white skirt that barely covers your bum.
Yugoslavian-born tennis phenomenon Monica Seles won eight Grand Slam titles before she turned 20, but what sticks in her mind about that time are the insults heaped on her by the press. “‘Big as Blimp,’ ‘Fatso,’” she reels them off from her home in Florida, where she now lives, having officially retired from the game last year. “I was ranked number three in the world, but all they would say about me was that I needed to lose weight and stop grunting.” In interviews Seles came off as a giggly teenager without a care, but on the inside she was hurting. “I’d like to tell you it didn’t bother me, but it did.”
Athlete memoirs tend to follow a certain arc: Junior is born to loving parents who recognize his extraordinary talent, make superhuman sacrifices, then watch as he works hard to become a champion (with some awesome endorsement contracts thrown in). As she writes in her often fearless and sometimes funny new autobiography, Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self, Monica Seles’s journey was not so different. Born to middle-class parents in post-Tito Yugoslavia, a wintry, soccer-mad country where tennis is an afterthought, Seles developed a passion for the game when she was six years old. Without the money to pay club fees, Seles’s father, a political cartoonist, improvised by fashioning a net from string tied to the cars in the parking lot of the family’s apartment building. This, he explained to his daughter, is our court. And this is how you hold a racket. (Years later, professional coaches would try to undo Seles’s unconventional two-handed forehand but eventually gave up. It may have looked odd, but it worked.)
When she was only twelve years old, legendary coach Nick Bollettieri spotted Seles at a tournament in Miami and promptly offered her a scholarship to his tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida. Moving to America was a shock on many levels. Seles had to save two weeks to afford a Häagen-Dazs ice cream while other students were being given things like BMW convertibles for their sixteenth birthdays. More important, none of the other girls wanted to play against her. At the time, she assumed it was because she wasn’t cool enough, but now she understands that they simply didn’t like losing. Even the boys would storm off the court in frustration when she refused to hit the ball to them during routine rallies. “If I was going to be out there,” she says, “I figured I may as well hit the ball like I meant it.”
With her trademark intensity and innate talent, Seles quickly became a force to be reckoned with, but she also began to discover the harsh truth all professional tennis players must eventually learn: Tennis may look glamorous to an outsider, but it’s a hard and lonely life. Today’s friend might be tomorrow’s competitor. If you want to be number one, tennis has to come first.
Looking back, Seles sees the seeds of her eventual eating disorder in that harsh reality. “I was taken out of the classroom when I was fourteen; I couldn’t make friends. In tennis, you travel eleven months out of the year. It’s like a roller coaster going, going, going. All those things got to me. I couldn’t cope.” To the public, Seles was an extraordinarily focused athlete with an iron will to win. The reality was far different. “I was always nervous,” she says. “I love to play tennis, but I hate that somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.” (Though if somebody had to lose, better her opponent, as evidenced by her then number-one ranking in the world.)
Teenage angst, however, was nothing compared with what happened to Seles on April 30, 1993, during an otherwise ordinary match against Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, Germany. On a changeover between sets, Seles paused for a drink of water. As she leaned over to bring the cup to her lips, she felt a sudden stabbing pain in her shoulder. She looked up to see a face filled with hatred and a nine-inch-long knife dripping with her blood. Her attacker, an obsessed Steffi Graf fan, had decided to eliminate his idol’s biggest competition. Millimeters to the left and he would have been permanently successful.
As Seles lay in a hospital, completely immobile, waiting to hear if she would ever be able to play tennis again, the top players of the world met to vote on whether to freeze her ranking during her recovery. Not a single player voted yes. As her attacker wished, Graf ascended to number one, taking all Seles’s paid endorsement contracts with her. “That,” she says, “is when I realized tennis really is just a business. Until then, a part of me thought we were playing the game because it was fun.”
It took more than two years before Seles set foot on a professional tennis court again. When she did, the sniping about her body reached a crescendo. Depressed by her father’s cancer diagnosis and panicked by her 25-pound weight gain, Seles hired a raft of personal trainers and nutritionists to travel the world with her. Despite their carefully planned menus of protein shakes and broiled chicken breasts, her weight ballooned to 177 pounds. She bought every diet book on the market, but Seles soon learned what millions of others already know: Diets don’t work, no matter how much discipline you may have in other arenas. “I was focused; that’s the irony,” she says. “As soon as I was told I couldn’t eat a cookie, I began to obsess on having a cookie.”
The math was inexorable. She might be burning 4,000 to 5,000 calories in her grueling daily workouts, but she was eating 5,000 to 6,000 calories during late-night binges on junk food like chocolate-covered pretzels. Bathing suits became instruments of torture. Boyfriends who mentioned her weight were summarily dumped.
Her (mostly) male trainers simply did not understand. To them, food was fuel. You ate it to perform well. Indeed, most of the other women on the tour couldn’t understand, either. “Their weight,” she says, “never varied by more than three or four pounds.” But to Seles, food was solace, especially after her beloved father died of the cancer he’d been battling for more than five years. “Looking back,” she says, “I can see I wasn’t dealing with the things that were bothering me. Other people relax by drinking or smoking. I would eat. Then I would think everything would be better if I could just lose 20 pounds.”
It didn’t help that women’s tennis at that time was being transformed into a beauty contest, thanks to a Russian hottie named Anna Kournikova. “When I started playing,” Seles recalls, “players didn’t even wear makeup.” Suddenly, a player’s looks were as important as her game. Today, Seles sometimes plays doubles with Kournikova and is still amazed by the Russian’s effect on men—“When Anna plays, all my male friends call me to see if they can get tickets.”
At 35, Seles herself is no slouch in the looks department. Every woman has an age that suits her best; for Monica, that age seems to be now. With the end of her career looming, she finally shed the weight once and (hopefully) for all. At five feet ten, she’s a svelte size 4, with a much healthier attitude toward food. “I don’t use food to cope with a problem. I know that eating fifteen cookies won’t solve it.” She has also adopted a decidedly relaxed workout schedule—she walks as much as she can and takes an exercise class twice a week. Her once-problematic “poodle” hair has been tamed by regular straightening—“If I have a regret in life, it’s that I wasn’t born with naturally straight hair.”
Despite everything, Seles is grateful for her life in tennis. “OK, I didn’t get to go to the prom,” she says, “but I did get to meet Nelson Mandela.” Her only real regret is that she didn’t get the overeating under control sooner. “It occupied so much of my brain! I wish I could get those years back.” In her post-tennis career, which includes a show for SIRIUS XM Radio, Seles travels the country talking to women’s groups and corporations. It was among real people that she heard firsthand how many women have struggled, like her, with the same issues. “They all wanted to know how I did it, which is why I wrote the book,” she says. “It’s not about dieting. It has to come from within.”
“Net Worth” has been edited for Vogue.com; the complete story appears in the April 2009 issue of Vogue.