NEW YORK – Monica Seles said if she doesn’t get back on the tennis court by the end of 2006, she may hang up her racket.
Seles, a nine-time Grand Slam winner, attended a Manhattan luncheon in her honor Tuesday at a restaurant owned by actor Robert De Niro. She’s joining the Laureus World Sports Academy, which brings sports and social programs to underprivileged youth around the world.
It may prove to be a transition into another career. Seles never officially retired, but last played a Grand Slam tournament in 2003. A broken bone in the ball of her right foot has hampered her return.
“I’m still training and still trying, but at the same time I’m realistic,” Seles said. “After 2006, if not, then it’s pretty sure. You have to move on.”
Seles, a dominant player known for her loud grunts when hitting the ball, won three Grand Slam tournaments in both 1991 and 1992. Her meteoric rise was interrupted in 1993 when she was stabbed in the back by an obsessed fan of Steffi Graf at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany. Seles was ranked No. 1 at the time.
“I had a very unusual career, to say the least,” she said. “I had some highs and lows. But at the end of the day, I got to do something I loved to do. As a little girl, how I started playing tennis was very simple. That part, I’m proud to say, has never changed. To me, I get a great joy just hitting the ball.”
The 32-year-old put no timeline on a return in 2006.
“My game is not at the level that I personally feel comfortable playing against the girls,” she said. “It’s my foot, it’s giving me not as much time to train, to put in my many hours. The consistency is just not there.”
So what’s her level of play now?
“It’s OK,” she said, laughing. “If it were good, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be training.”
Seles is encouraged by Martina Hingis’ expected return to tennis in January after a three-year retirement because of injuries.
“It’s fantastically exciting,” Seles said. “She’s so young still and she was so good. I’m a big fan of hers. She was a great No. 1 player. She was a chess player out there.”
Seles said she’ll be satisfied with her career if it ends without a return to the court. She’s won 53 singles titles and more than $14 million in prize money.
“If I don’t play ever again professionally, I’m happy,” Seles said. “If I get to play, it’s all a bonus at this stage.”
Edwin Moses, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, is the chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy. He introduced Seles as the 42nd member of the academy, founded in 2000 and based in London.
“Monica is a pleasant find,” Moses said. “She came to Laureus as a supporter two years ago. She’s dedicated and willing to make a difference.”
Laureus is the Latin word for laurel, the symbol of victory in sport.
“My motto is a healthy body, healthy mind,” Seles said. “That’s why the Laureus Foundation fit me perfectly, because they do sports and kids. It’s fitting to what I want to be doing in the future.”
Other academy members include John McEnroe, Seve Ballesteros, Nadia Comaneci, Jack Nicklaus, Ilie Nastase, Boris Becker, Mark Spitz, Michael Jordan, Martina Navratilova, Dan Marino and Katarina Witt.
The Laureus Sports for Good Foundation supports 39 global projects, and members serve as volunteer ambassadors. McEnroe has visited three New York-based programs in the past two years, and hosted a fundraiser at his Manhattan art gallery, executive director John Miottel said.
Paintings of reclining females by DeNiro’s father lined the back room of the restaurant, yet Seles was anything but docile the day before. She tried some jujitsu moves with youngsters in the Laureus “Fight Back” program in the South Bronx on Monday.
“It was amazing to see these 5-foot-2 girls taking 6-foot-4 guys to the floor,” she said.