By Bonnie D. Ford
Tennis had never seen anyone quite like Monica Seles when she charged onto the scene 20 years ago. Part beguiling kitten, part snarling she-lynx, Seles was sweet-tempered off the court and fiercely businesslike on it. With eight Grand Slam titles to her name at age 19, there was little doubt she would wind up in the International Tennis Hall of Fame someday.
Then came the 1993 stabbing incident during a changeover in Hamburg, Germany, that literally cleaved her career into two acts, and the terrible aftershock of watching her father and original coach waste away with stomach cancer. Seles walked onto center court for the 1998 French Open championship match a few weeks after his death wearing black, his ring on a chain around her neck, looking resolute but humbled, her once cherubic expression shaded with grown-up sorrow. “I don’t think you are the one who deserved to lose today,” opponent Arantxa Sanchez Vicario said afterward.
But Seles did not win that day. Her odyssey from the country then known as Yugoslavia, via Nick Bollettieri’s Florida tennis academy, to the top of the game — at a time when teen phenoms were still allowed to take that rocket ride — is a storybook tale. The flip side of her journey is a very human and imperfect one.
Seles played for nine seasons after returning from the stabbing, but she absorbed other, more subtle losses out of public view, losses of control and identity. She battled depression that manifested itself in an eating disorder, painfully documented in a recent book, and said last spring that she had lived, traveled, loved and competed for years in a persistent “fog.” She faded from the scene after a foot injury forced her offstage and never came back for an encore, shunning closure for almost five full years. Seles had long self-medicated with food, but as she slowly shed physical and psychological weight, she had little appetite to be feted.
Now Seles, 35, has re-emerged, looking and sounding more like the sunny girl with the lilting voice we fell for all those years ago. With her formal retirement announcement in February 2008, someday has finally arrived and Seles is set to be inducted in Newport, R.I., on Saturday. Hall of Famer and close friend Betsy Nagelsen McCormack will introduce her. It completes a circle: Seles helped induct Nagelsen McCormack’s late husband, IMG founder Mark McCormack, last year.
No one — including Seles herself — can take measure of her accomplishments without wondering what might have been. Yet while this celebration of her career might have a wistful undertone, it’s also an affirmation of survival, self-knowledge and personal growth — qualities that can come hard to the most driven athletes.
“I have a lot of respect for Monica,” said Chris Evert, whom Seles beat to win her first professional title at age 15. “What a great competitor. I marveled at how happy she seemed on and off the court, I marveled at the great relationship she had with her dad. And then with the stabbing and her father’s death, her life turned upside-down.
“She’s come out of it with a lot of dignity, learned some hard lessons, but has had a lot of grace throughout all these episodes. She could have won 10 more Grand Slam events. I think she got robbed, she got shortchanged in the tennis department, but it helped her personally. She grew up and found herself and became a better person because of it.”
Billie Jean King knew Seles as an enthusiastic Fed Cup participant who was part of three championship teams, a naturalized American citizen (in 1994) who took enormous pleasure in competing for her adopted country when King captained the team, and later as a World Team Tennis player.
“The power,” King said almost reverently of her first impression of Seles, whose two-fisted shots off both sides were effective but not easily emulated. “She used to do this thing where she’d stand close to a wall, and start hitting the ball really hard, switching sides between shots. Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! It was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Ask her to do it for you sometime.”
In a recent conference call with reporters, Andre Agassi — whose wife, Steffi Graf, was Seles’ most formidable peer before the stabbing cruelly aborted what figured to be a top-shelf rivalry — reflected on Seles’ dual legacy.
“I grew up with Monica,” Agassi said. “I’ve known her since she was probably 10 years old at the [Bollettieri] academy. I always marveled at her game. I marveled more at her discipline and fighting spirit. Watching her grow up and becoming one of the best ever is a great journey to go on, from my perspective.
“Really, I think we would have seen much greater things had she not had to endure what she went through in Hamburg on the court. As a result of that, I think all players are left with that aftermath. We are all aware of the exposures out there. I think security across the world [is] tending to those possibilities more, and in a sense she’s made us better and she’s added to all of us in our own little way.
“I know the game pretty darned well, and I would argue that she would be one of the best of all time had she continued on the path she was. She was disciplined enough and she was focused enough and she certainly had enough shots to leave that kind of mark.”
The violent act that altered Seles’ trajectory had many unforeseen consequences. One of the more positive ripples was the seemingly unlikely friendship she forged with an African-American man nearly 50 years her senior, who will be beaming from the audience in Newport.
Former New York City mayor David Dinkins, a tennis devotee who still plays several times a week at age 81, wrote Seles a letter following the stabbing, and later sought her out at a charity event. He became a familiar, vocal presence at Seles’ U.S. Open matches. The two continue to keep in touch and dine together when schedules allow. “Monica is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” said Dinkins, who teaches part-time at Columbia University. “If you’re a tennis fan, you have to love Monica.”
Yet Seles didn’t win election to the Hall of Fame on a sympathy vote. Although she won just one more Grand Slam event after her comeback — the 1996 Australian Open — her credentials speak for themselves: nine Slam titles, 44 other tournament wins, twice ranked No. 1 at year’s end. It’s absolutely fine to feel compassion for her, as long as that never slides into pity. Seles recognizes the privileges that came with her talent and fame. She considers herself fortunate, not cursed.
“It’s a great way to cap a fantastic career,” Seles said of the upcoming ceremony. “More importantly, I’m just lucky I got to do something I love to do, and I’m hoping in my second life, as I call it, I can find something that I’m as passionate about as I was about tennis. It’s really that simple for me.”
This familiar American ritual of enshrining athletes in a brick-and-mortar pantheon is usually grounded in stats first and character second. It’s true that Seles’ induction has a deeper context, but that’s not simply because she was wounded. It’s because she showed the world how lengthy, difficult and ultimately gratifying the process of healing can be.