WASHINGTON — Speaking before congressional leaders and other dignitaries to accept an award, Monica Seles was so nervous her voice cracked.
A few minutes later, in casual conservation, she settled down enough to talk about her 1993 stabbing.
Seles was the No. 1 player in the world when she was stabbed in Hamburg, Germany.
Seles’ ability to overcome adversity and return to the elite of her sport earned her the annual Flo Hyman Award, presented Wednesday on National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
“In a single moment, the script changed forever,” Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said in presenting the award. “She rewrote her own script.”
Seles is the 15th recipient of the honor, named after the Olympic volleyball player who died suddenly from a ruptured aorta in 1986. Seles joins Chris Evert, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova as the fourth tennis player honored.
“It’s very special,” Seles said. “I’m very fortunate to be playing a sport I love and make a fantastic living at it.”
Rep. Ted Stevens, R-Ala., referred to as the “Father of Title IX,” received a special award for his contribution to women’s sports. Title IX is a 1972 a federal law designed to equalize money spent on men’s and women’s sports.
Stevens used the opportunity Wednesday to make a case for a bill he’s sponsoring that would require schools to provide each student at least one hour of physical education class per day.
Seles, one of four women tennis players to earn more than $10 million in prize money, was fortunate to play in one of the few women’s sports that received widespread attention over the past few decades. However, she said she still plays under a glass ceiling.
“Definitely,” she said. “There’s still quite a difference in terms of our regular tour prize money and at the Grand Slams, too. The only Grand Slam that provides equal prize money is the U.S. Open. You train the same amount of hours, there’s no difference.”
Seles was the No. 1 player in the world when she was stabbed during a changeover at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany. She stayed away from the WTA Tour for more than two years, but returned to become the tour’s comeback player of the year in 1995. She’s currently ranked 13th in the world.
“I think I’ve put it behind me, but it’s always going to be brought up,” Seles said. “And I think in life there are going to be more times that I’m going to have to go through adversity. You have to move on. It’s such a gift to be here every single day.”
Seles, 26, acknowledged she is a more content person now than when she was a giggling teen-ager ruling her sport.
“I was 16, 17, 18 at that time, and I was 19 when I got stabbed,” Seles said. “So a lot of life experiences change and a lot of your outlook on life. I still want to strive to be the best that I can be. As long I love to play, I think I will.”
Seles is recovering from a stress fracture of her right foot, but will return to the circuit in the State Farm Championships at Scottsdale, Ariz., later this month. It’s unlikely she will ever be the dominant No. 1 again, especially with the wave of new, younger and stronger players such as Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Amelie Mauresmo on the rise.
“All the women are getting stronger, and that’s the future of women’s tennis,” Seles said. “I think as a player, you have to make those adjustments. All of us can be to a certain point strong. There’s so much genetics and just nature that come into force.
“I just started lifting weights. I need to do that more. You can hopefully stay feminine and still be strong.”