You are at the 1992 U.S. Open, a few rows from courtside in Louis Armstrong Stadium, watching a teenage tour de force hit a tennis ball. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. You’ve never heard anything like it, either, the way Monica Seles, a kid from Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, would swing, two-fisted on both sides, and hit impossible angles at an absurd pace, and punctuate every one with a two-tone grunt, a baseline assault and an aural assault all at once.
You were never sure if Monica Seles was hitting a forehand or a backhand, not that it mattered. You were sure you were seeing the greatest sensation in her sport. Monica Seles was 18 years old at that Open, 20 years ago this week. She was about to roll through seven rounds in Flushing Meadows in 14 sets and about seven hours time, winning her second straight Open singles title, the world’s No. 1 player on in the midst of winning seven out of nine Grand Slams, a ball-bashing marvel who announced herself by winning the French Open at age 16, and seemed certain to dominate for years to come.
“I was learning to be a professional – starting to understand the fame and the money and the requests and everything that comes with it, never expecting what would happen six months later,” Monica Seles says.
What happened six months later, of course, is that the sports world changed forever, and so did Monica Seles’ charmed young life. It changed on a changeover on red clay, April 30, 1993, Seles leading 6-4, 4-3 in the second set of a quarterfinal against Magdelena Maleeva in Hamburg, Germany, where a stocky man in jeans and a print shirt leaned over a barrier and plunged a nine-inch boning knife into Seles’ upper back.
The man was named Gunther Parche and he was described as an unemployed lathe operator and fan of Steffi Graf who was upset that Seles had overtaken her in the rankings.
So he did something about it, and Seles, who was seemingly the most delightfully innocent prodigy you would ever meet — a sweet, slightly goofy, unscripted kid who was in complete wonder of the world she was moving in — became the ultimate sporting victim.
It remains the most horrific moment of her life, and her least favorite subject. Seles wrote a remarkably candid book “Getting A Grip” a few years ago, talking in depth about depression and her eating disorder, her battles with weight and the cockeyed, media-driven images of what a woman should look like. She devotes five reluctant pages to the attack on her in Hamburg.
“I don’t think about it,” Seles says. “I try to erase it from my mind. It took some great years out of my life, and (caused) tremendous stress on my life. It happened. And now I’ve moved on, and want to leave it in the past.”
Seles would miss nearly 2½ years because of the assault, and though she won her ninth, and last Grand Slam, in Australia in 1996, and had a memorable 1995 final against Graf at the Open, she was never close to being the same player again. When her father and longtime coach, Karolj, died in 1998, so did the abiding connection she had with the game. Not because he pushed her or pressured her, at all, but because it was a love they shared for almost all of Monica’s life. Seles laughs faintly and says she never cared that much about winning or losing. She had the most fun of all when she was in juniors, when she was just playing.
“As crazy as it sounds, I didn’t even like to keep score. I just loved to go out and hit the ball. I loved to play, loved to hit the ball. That was when it was the most fun.”
Now 38 years old, long since an American citizen who lives on the west coast of Florida, Seles still plays recreationally, and works out on the elliptical, and speaks out as much as possible to help young girls achieve healthy body images, and be comfortable with themselves. She is working with a co-author on a series of young adult books called The Academy, and works with the Laureus Foundation, trying to affect social change through sport.
Seles hasn’t been to the Open for the last three years, but will be back this year, for the final four days. She hopes to connect with her old friends, Mary Joe Fernandez, Iva Majoli and maybe Jennifer Capriati, whom she beat in an epic semifinal in 1991, a 16-year-old vs. a 15-year-old, one of the great Open women’s matches ever.
“Everybody was cheering for Jennifer, because she was the American,” Seles says, laughing.
Two decades after she won her last Open, at the pinnacle of her grunting, ball-bashing powers, Monica Seles says she’s looking forward to being back amid the Flushing Meadows mayhem that always agreed with her. She says she won’t be thinking at all of the innocence, or the Grand Slams, that were lost so soon after she held up her trophy in Queens 20 years ago.
“I’m old enough to know there will still be highs and lows,” Monica Seles says. “It’s just important to keep track of what’s really important and remember that not much else really matters.”