Women’s tennis changed dramatically 10 years ago, altered forever in the middle of an otherwise ordinary match by a man with a knife.
Monica Seles was resting during a changeover at the Hamburg Open. She had gone through hundreds of them in a career that had taken her to the top of women’s tennis.
This one was not routine.
The 19-year-old winner of six Grand Slam titles in the previous two years was toweling off in a chair, catching her breath for the next game against Magdalena Maleeva. She had been sidelined for more than two months with a viral infection. She would have to pace herself in a match she was leading 6-4, 4-3.
Then, in an instant, Seles felt a sharp pain in her back.
Guenter Parche had made his way through the stands to courtside. With no one stopping him, the German came up behind Seles and plunged a 5-inch knife into her back, just below her left shoulder blade.
Seles screamed and collapsed, her face contorted by shock and pain. Aides rushed to her and she was taken to Hamburg Hospital.
Never mind the personal implications, the life-altering event that was,'' Martina Navratilova said.It changed the course of tennis history. We’ll never know what she might have been, how many more slams she would have won.”
The attack reverberated across sports. Players became more wary of fans, teams and organizers were forced to re-examine security arrangements. The concern was underlined this month at a Chicago White Sox game when a fan ran on the field and tired to tackle an umpire.
Even now, with Wednesday the 10th anniversary of the attack in Germany, Seles thinks the prominent players are vulnerable.
You’re totally accessible,” she said. “There’s no other sport that you’re as accessible as in tennis.”
Seles does not like to talk about that violent day in Germany, but last month at a Florida tournament she was asked about her career.
I really don't dwell in the past,'' she said.Would I change? Yeah, I wish I didn’t get stabbed and played and competed at the highest level for those few years.”
Parche was obsessed with Steffi Graf, who was competing with Seles for the top spot in women’s tennis. By injuring Seles, he reasoned, he would give Graf an edge.
He was right about that.
Navratilova had Chris Evert to create one of the great rivalries in sports. But Graf never really had Seles, who arrived on the scene after Graf swept the four Grand Slam tournaments in 1988.
Seles was the No. 1 player when she was attacked. She had won the Australian, French and U.S. Open titles in each of the previous two years. There had been three straight Australian crowns after Graf had won three in a row there. Seles had won 30 singles titles in just five years, eight of them Grand Slams.
Then Parche struck.
The knife wound healed quickly. The psychological injury took far longer.
Seles was off the court for 27 months. Friends and players tried to help her, Navratilova among them.
We were good enough friends before,'' she said.I wanted to be there for her. I was there to ease her concerns and her fears. I don’t know if I could or if I would want to step on the court after something like that.
“We hit. We talked. We visited. The longer she stayed away, the more I thought she would stay away. I wasn’t sure at first that she would be back. The more she put it off, the harder I thought it would be for her.”
Slowly, Seles regained her confidence.
She had an emotional trauma,'' Navratilova said.Nobody had ever gone through it. This never happened before. She was in uncharted territory. It makes you grow up faster than you want.”
Finally, there was a ballyhooed exhibition against Navratilova in Atlantic City, N.J. Seles was so nervous she double-faulted on the first point but went on to win. Then, in August 1995, she played the Canadian Open in Toronto.
Seles cruised through that U.S. Open warmup, never dropping a set. It was vintage Seles.
Or was it?
Her tennis was topflight. Her frame of mind was not.
There are flashbacks,'' she said.On long points, I start thinking. Then I tell myself, `You can’t do this. You’re in a match. Just go out and play great tennis.’ Reality is still there. I can’t forget that. The reality is it happened. It will always be there.”
Less than a month later, Seles reached the U.S Open final against Graf, losing 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3. She went on to win a fourth Australian title in 1996 but has reached just two other Grand Slam finals since — losing the U.S. Open in 1996 and the French Open in 1998, three weeks after the death of her father.
She has had injuries from shoulder to knee. At 29 she is no longer a dominant player, ranked No. 12. She has never played in Germany again.
When Parche went on trial, she sent a letter to be read to the court.
I only want proper justice,'' she wrote.This attack has tremendously and irreparably damaged my life (and) stopped my tennis career. I was a 19-year-old girl when he stabbed me. He has not been successful in his attempt to kill me, but he has destroyed my life.”
The court was not moved. After spending six months in custody, Parche received a two-year suspended sentence and was freed.
Seles’ sentence was for a lifetime.