Steffi Graf vs Monica Seles: The rivalry which could have reached greater heights

Just when Seles was edging ahead of her 4-year older rival, the fateful stabbing incident happened.

It was the red dirt of Paris on a long afternoon of 6 June, 1992, when one of the best ever Grand Slam finals in women’s tennis history had just been played between the-then World No. 1 and 2, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf respectively, with both vying for their third French Open crown. It was voted the best women’s match of the previous century and the world stared at a long rivalry in the making.

Stefanie Maria Graf aka Steffi Graf emerged as the true successor of the legendary Martina Navratilova in women’s tennis in the late 1980s. Graf took over the No. 1 ranking from Martina in 1987 and went on an unprecedented run of 186 consecutive weeks at the top of WTA rankings, only to be seriously challenged by a Yugoslav teenager with Hungarian origin in Monica Seles three years later, who eventually surpassed her in March 1991 in the rankings table.

Monica hit a purple patch in the second half of 1990 and had a phenomenal run of 2-1/2 years, when she won 7 of the 9 Slams and back-to-back 3 year-ending WTA Tour Finals.

Just when Seles was edging ahead of her 4-year older rival, the fateful stabbing incident happened on April 30, 1993, in Hamburg, Germany. A psychotic Steffi fan named Gunter Parche came out of the spectators’ gallery and stabbed Seles at the back during a changeover on her chair in an ongoing quarter-final match at the Hamburg Women’s Tournament and halted an otherwise fascinating rivalry at its peak.

Monica did make a comeback two years on from the incident and started winning again, but could never recapture the form and consistency from a couple of years back, which had taken her to the No. 1 ranking in WTA. She could never recover that spot and could only win once against Steffi post-1993.

Let us have a close look at the numbers:


STEFFI GRAF                            vs                        MONICA SELES

6 wins                                                                       4 wins

3 Grand Slam encounters won                            3 Grand Slam encounters won

4 Final encounters won                                            4 Final encounters won


STEFFI GRAF                            vs                          MONICA SELES

4 wins                                                                       1 win

3 Grand Slam encounters won                            1 Grand Slam encounter won

2 Final encounters won                                             0 Final encounter won



4 wins 3 wins

3 Grand Slam encounters won 1 Grand Slam encounter won

4 Final encounters won 3 Final encounters won



1989 French Open Clay Semi – Graf 6-3, 3-6, 6-3

1989 Wimbledon Grass R16 – Graf 6-0, 6-1

1989 Brighton International Carpet Final – Graf 7-5, 6-4

1990 German Open Clay Final – Seles 6-4, 6-3

1990 French Open Clay Final – Seles 7-6(8-6), 6-4

1991 US Women’s Hard Court Hard Final – Graf 6-4, 6-3

1991 WTA Hamburg Clay Final – Graf 7-5, 6-7(4-7), 6-3

1992 French Open Clay Final – Seles 6-2, 3-6, 10-8

1992 Wimbledon Grass Final – Graf 6-2, 6-1

1993 Australian Open Hard Final – Seles 4-6, 6-3, 6-2

1995 US Open Hard Final – Graf 7-6(8-6), 0-6, 6-3

1996 US Open Hard Final – Graf 7-5, 6-4

1998 WTA Tour Finals Carpet Quarter – Graf 1-6, 6-4, 6-4

1999 Australian Open Hard Quarter – Seles 7-5, 6-1

1999 French Open Clay Semi – Graf 6-7(2-7), 6-3, 6-4


Hard Court: Graf 3 – Seles 2

Clay Court: Graf 3 – Seles 3

Grass Court: Graf 2 – Seles 0

Carpet Court: Graf 2 – Seles 0

Overall: Graf 10 – Seles 5

The numbers don’t tell the whole story though.

From Monica’s first Grand Slam appearance at the 1989 French Open till that day at Hamburg, she won 8 Slams, compared to Steffi’s 5, and also 3 back-to-back year-end WTA Championship Final tournaments as against just 1 for Graf. 

In 1990, she built a 32-match winning streak, which included her first ever victory over Graf, stunning the-then World No. 1 in a straight-sets final victory on her home turf.

From her 1st victory over Graf at the 1990 German Open final to her stabbing injury, she met Steffi 7 times, winning in 4 of them. This clearly shows that she was starting to get an upper hand over her biggest rival when it was jolted by a dastardly act of an over-obsessed fan.

Comparison with another great rivalry

A few parallels can be drawn of the Graf-Seles rivalry to that of the Federer-Nadal later on among men. Federer, who was the next Mr Consistent after Sampras, held off both Hewitt and the ageing Agassi for the top spot. 

Steffi too held the reins from Martina and Evert, and dominated the likes of Sabatini and the rest to become the World No. 1 as early as in 1987. Both of them were at the top of their games when two teens from Mallorca, Spain, and Novi Sad, former Yugoslavia, respectively emerged as their primary challengers and even surpassed them at one stage.

Both of these teenagers were left handed, didn’t serve and volley, were accurate baseliners, had a persistent game and had two-handed backhands against the single-handed slice backhands used mostly by Roger and Steffi, who were the bigger servers among the pairs.

What could have happened

What happened in case of Roger-Rafa rivalry, with Nadal surpassing Federer and maintaining a more than healthy lead in head-to-heads, could not happen for Monica. One simple reason was that she couldn’t fast recover mentally from the pangs of her trauma and her unfortunate absence from the courts led to a bout of depression and binge-eating disorder.

She still came back strong (made 4 more Slam finals and won the 1996 Australian Open) but not strong enough to dominate like she did before. Her comeback encounter with her fiercest rival in the 1995 US Open final was a close affair though. It was a 3-setter and included a close tie-breaker in the opening set, which Monica lost. Even the last match against Steffi was memorable — the 1999 Roland Garros semi-final, again going to a deciding set.

Steffi went on to rule the women’s circuit for the next few years in the aftermath of that incident, virtually unchallenged from 1993 to 1996, mostly in Seles’s absence and piled up the numbers as they show now. 

Gunter Parche unfortunately got what he had aimed for. His act stopped the Seles juggernaut, thereby correcting the record for his idol, and putting her back on her tracks, removing her fiercest rival temporarily from the scene. He himself miraculously avoided jail on grounds of mental illness. 

It would not be foolish to assume that Graf may have had to share at least half of her accolades with Seles during that ‘uninteresting’ period of women’s tennis after April 1993.

Taking no credit away from Steffi, who rightly prevailed over the rest in the field, she herself must have missed playing Seles and those intense showdowns with her, as competing with somebody as good as her or better would have done wonders to the game as a whole and the world missed out on something which could have attained epic proportions.