That Seles Spirit

Though her career was derailed by assault and injuries, Monica Seles still loves tennis and has goals


The vision never fades. It’s that way when a lunatic suddenly emerges from a crowd to destroy his victim, offering shock value at its most severe instant. Always, even years later, you picture the trauma as if it occurred yesterday.

The disheartening truth is that we will never realize how magnificent Monica Seles could have been with a tennis racket clutched in her two-handed grip, amazing when you consider how truly unconquerable she was.

But perhaps because of that terrible day during a WTA Tour event in Hamburg in 1993 – when a German lathe operator and deranged Steffi Graf fan named Guenter Parche stabbed Seles between the shoulder blades – we have witnessed something far more valuable than her legend.

It’s called her spirit.

Are you sitting down? She’s 30. Three-oh. All grown up and sophisticated and as delightful as ever. The world blinked, and gone was that 17-year old phenom whose desire to crush every ball was just a tad more vigorous than the grunting that accompanied each groundstroke. She was marvelous. The best.

Seles was one of the first to relentlessly whack away no matter the match or its importance. She hit with as much force trying to save a decisive point in a Wimbledon final as she did in daily practice sessions. She was steadfast in her mission and dominant in her craft, winning eight Grand Slam events before the stabbing.

She has captured one since.

“It was a very special feeling what I had going in the early 1990s,” says Seles. “Kind of like a storybook . . . I had that focus. It just came naturally to me. I was always in the moment, just me and the ball.”

She didn’t compete for more than two years after Parche’s blade inflicted its physical and mental wounds, and for some time now Seles has either been tired or hurt. She hasn’t played competitively in nearly a year and recently delayed her return again by pulling out of next week’s French Open, still trying to overcome a lingering foot injury. Her body, unquestionably, has begun to rebel.

She wants to play one more year and depart on her own terms. She deserves that much.

Seles has also recently begun raising awareness about migraines, a condition that has affected her for nearly 15 years. For so long, she believed the acute pain that caused her to withdraw from tournaments and delay practice drills and choose a dark room over dinner with friends was simply a result of tension or stress. It’s a common misconception about an ailment that annually touches 28 million Americans, half of whom are misdiagnosed.

“A lot of people with migraines are in denial,” says Dr. Susan Hutchinson of the Women’s Medical Group of Irvine. “They think it’s just a bad headache. People think it’s all in your (imagination), but this is a very real physiological condition that can be quite debilitating and affect one’s quality of life.

“There is a stigma attached to migraines. People think if they just work harder in certain areas, they’ll overcome them. But look at Monica – a world-class athlete in great shape. She still has them.”

Typical of Seles, she is approaching the subject as she might an overhead smash on match point. With great intensity. Her stop in San Diego a few weeks ago was one of several on a multicity tour promoting the campaign “Acing Migraine Pain.” She is passionate to educate and aid others who might stand in the sunlight and feel as though their head will soon explode.

Bitterness never really consumed Seles as you might imagine. It was her father and coach, Karolj, who often reminded her of life’s blessings before he died in 1998 from colon cancer. His message: If that knife had plunged a half-millimeter to the left, she would be paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Seles thinks about this often.

“Sure, the stabbing sent my career in a different direction,” she says. “But the game is still part of me. You know the time will come when you are on the court wishing you were somewhere else. The game is so competitive, so cutthroat. For so many players, it’s life and death. I know my time is close, but I want to see if I can eke out a little more. Hopefully, my body will agree.

“I know it’s weird, but I still love to practice. I still love the feeling of working hard and sweating and trying to hit those cones on the court. I can’t tell you why. I don’t know why myself.”

It really is a much different game now. The athletes are bigger, stronger, faster. Martina Navratilova introduced fitness to the women’s game and Graf speed and Seles throttling a ball early on its rise. But it’s about extreme power now, a direct result of the Williams sisters.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t still envision a 17-year old phenom back in 1991, trading mighty strokes with Jennifer Capriati in a U.S Open semifinal.

It was an epic match. It was classic Seles.

It’s one vision I hope never fades.