The Big Interview: Monica Seles

The former world No 1 finds it hard to live without tennis and is determined to make a comeback in 2006.

By Alison Kervin

Welcome to New York, ma’am. The only place in the world where Christmas is done properly.” It’s holiday season, and there’s not a doorman in this glittering city who is willing to let you pass by without a quick reminder. The place sparkles and shines with the fun and finance of it all — from the glistening snow on crowded streets to the sumptuous array of lights flickering atop buildings and threaded through every tree. Fur coats and designer handbags, sunglasses and diamonds the size of tennis balls.

Among the shoppers out on this crisp morning is Monica Seles, the 32-year-old who, half a lifetime ago, was the greatest female tennis player on the planet.

“Christmas,” she sighs. “I never really did Christmas before. Christmas Day? I mean — what’s that? What’s it all about? I was always flying on Christmas Day. Did you know that Christmas Day is absolutely the best day to fly? It is. No crowded airports and crowded planes. I always flew to Australia. That’s what Christmas was for me — a plane journey to the next tournament.”

She won’t be on a plane this year, and she wasn’t last year. A combination of injuries, loss of form and the simple matter of being stabbed between the shoulder blades by a maniac clutching a steak knife conspired to edge her out of the game she has loved and practised since she was a toddler.

“I guess you could say that mine has not been a conventional career,” is her understated summary. “Little about my career has gone to plan. Little of my life, perhaps.”

Still, there are benefits to life away from the tennis circuit, surely? “Oh, yeah. I can go out to dinner when I want. I can see friends, and I can live, I guess, a normal life. But, gosh how I miss it. I miss being competitive. I miss the whole thing. People think I’ve retired, but I haven’t — not at all. I’m still playing regularly and I’m coming back if I can. Martina (Hingis) is making a comeback and I think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. I’m hoping that 2006 will be my year. I’ve given myself until the end of it to return. If I haven’t done it by then, I’ll retire. I just don’t want to slip away. I want to go with a fight. Does that make sense?” It makes sense, of course. It makes absolute, sparkling, crystal-clear sense that the woman who was robbed of much of her career one cold afternoon in Germany would want to fight for another chance.

“I don’t feel like a victim and I don’t want to be regarded as a victim,” she says. But it’s difficult not to think of her as such, as she sits there, wrapped in her oversized coat, clutching her hot chocolate beneath the tinsel and fairy lights, talking in whispers about the dozen years since her world was turned upside down.

Seles leaves the warmth of the hotel and slides into the back seat of the waiting limousine. “Happy holidays, Steffi,” shouts the doorman as he shuts the car door for her and tugs at his peaked cap. “Sure,” she replies. “Thank you, sir.”

The car winds its way through Spanish Harlem towards our destination — Crotona in south Bronx; a small neighbourhood of poverty and violence. More than 90% of schoolchildren receive free lunches and 90% suffer asthma because of the pollution from the huge trucks that speed through the area.

Seles is heading for the rough side of town to witness an incredible programme called “Fight Back”, in which women and girls are taught ju-jitsu and self-defence to help them cope with the violence they face daily on their streets. She is here as an ambassador of Laureus, the international organisation that seeks to fund sporting projects like this one, where sport is used for the greater good. Seles has just been voted on to the Laureus Academy and is thrilled with the honour.

“Have you seen who they have in that academy?” she asks, wide-eyed. “I couldn’t believe it when I met them all. There are about 40 of the biggest sports stars ever. I met Nadia Comaneci (the Olympic gold-medal gymnast) — she was my hero when I was growing up, and now we’re both on this thing together.”

Seles says she really believes in sport. The way it pulls communities together, helps people have a common goal, gives them pride in themselves, self-esteem and physical skills. “It’s given me the sort of life I could never have expected to have when I was a little girl. I do think sometimes about how different my life would be without sport.”

It would have been incomparable. As a young girl, Seles was set for a life in a two-bedroom flat in a seven-storey apartment block in Novi Sad in what was then Yugoslavia (now Serbia & Montenegro). The family struggled to get by. Her father, Karolj, was a former children’s television presenter turned cartoonist, struggling on poor wages in a rundown economy.

When Seles was five, she insisted on going to watch her brother, Zoltan, play tennis. She says she watched for five minutes and was hooked. She was desperate to have a go herself. When she did, it heralded the biggest love affair of her life. “I just adored it. From the beginning I loved it. Who knows why? It was just everything to me. I couldn’t get enough of it. Tennis, tennis, tennis every day.”

By the time she was six, she was sleeping with her tennis racket at night and pestering her dad to take her down to the car park, where he set up a net and painted cartoon characters on the balls for her to try to hit. “I used to pretend that I was Tom attacking Jerry, who was drawn on the ball.” Karolj sometimes put a toy on the ground. If she could hit it, she could keep it. “I had a good toy collection,” she remembers. “It was all such fun. I was so happy. I look back on that time with such happiness. It was never about being a great tennis player or being ambitious. Dad wasn’t like that. He was ambitious, but it was just about having fun. That’s the key to success, isn’t it? It has to be fun.”

Her father never let the intricacies of the scoring system distract from the joy of the sport. When she was eight, she won the European under-12 championships without knowing the first thing about how to score. “I just turned to dad and he told me when I’d won a game,” she says.

Was that all it took to build a champion? A love of it? “I think it pretty much was. People think I must have been so talented at an early age, but I don’t know — was it talent or hard work? Who knows? I know that I wouldn’t have put the hard work in if it hadn’t been fun. The thing with a sport like tennis is that you have to train really hard every day, all year round. It makes it easier if you’re enjoying it. It makes it easier if there’s nice weather to train in, too, and great facilities.

“Tennis has to become everything to you if you’re going to make it to the top. You have to live it. It’s hard in a country like yours. You will never have great tennis champions from England because of the cold and dark, but most of all because people only care about the sport for two weeks a year, and then they’re on to something else. There’s just not a great love of the sport there. People seem to just love whatever’s in the news. When Wimbledon ’s on, you can’t get a court. Once it’s finished, no one wants to know. You have to want to play it all day, every day to get to the top.”

By the time Seles was 11, she was being taken very seriously on the tennis circuit. She won the Orange Bowl in Miami and was persuaded to move to Florida to play full-time at a tennis academy. She made the move in 1986 and still lives in the state, in Sarasota, on the west coast.

Seles was a no-nonsense player. She had a punishing two-fisted shot and strong return of serve. That every hit was accompanied by a loud grunt only served to emphasise their brutality. Years later, Martina Navratilova told her: “We were afraid of you, you know. You were this little girl who hit the ball hard.” Seles was one of the first power players in the women’s game and the victories came thick and fast.

Her first grand slam title was won at Roland Garros in 1990, aged 16, where she beat the world No 1, Steffi Graf, to become the youngest ever French Open champion. The victory kicked off a hugely successful period for Seles as she won 22 titles and reached 33 finals out of the 34 tournaments she played in between the beginning of 1991 and the beginning of 1993. Her fame had reached such proportions that she once took refuge in the apartment of Donald Trump to escape the pressure of media attention.

Pressure? She looks back on that period now and shrugs. “It all seemed so hard to cope with — all the attention back then. It was new and I was young. I felt so much pressure on me. When I look back, though, I didn’t know what pressure was, really. Did I?” Yet she did. While she played her way into the record books — visiting the most beautiful countries in the world — civil war raged in her home country, as Yugoslavia was torn apart. She was accused by Goran Ivanisevic, a Croat, of not doing enough for her native country.

“She does not seem to care about her country,” he raged. “She lives in the United States but does not know what flag to play under.” He attacked her for living in her plush Florida home while her former friends were being killed on the Bosnian front line. “Yeah, that was tough,” she says. “I look at the young players on the tennis circuit now and think, ‘Wow, I was dealing with life and death at that stage in my career’. The tennis was the easy part.”

The journey to the Bronx takes about 40 minutes from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Seles has spent most of it looking through the window. She says she used to have an apartment in New York and knows the city well from her many visits to play tennis here. “But I don’t know this part of it,” she admits, pointing out across the industrial landscape we are flashing past, towards a series of tall, tatty-looking buildings in the distance. “Gosh, do people live in there? ” she asks.

I suggest that they do. “They don’t look very nice,” she says, looking genuinely moved. “How awful for them.”

IT’S EARLY afternoon in south Bronx and Seles is in trouble. She is approached by a tough-looking, unshaven man dressed in a tight black T-shirt that does nothing to disguise his bulging muscles. He sports a black bandana pulled tightly across his head and he is staring straight at her. She’s not quite sure where to look, so she stares back but cannot match the intensity of his steely gaze.

Suddenly he grabs her hair and pulls it forcefully. She is dragged along for a few seconds, then she lifts her hands to his, twists his hands until his shoulders slump to one side, then throws him backwards until he lands in a heap on the floor. Seles steps away and smiles to herself. Her “attacker” jumps up and shakes her hand. Applause rings out around the community centre.

“Self defence ju-jitsu style,” says the compere. “Monica Seles, we salute you.”

It’s hard not to consider the short journey Seles has taken on this day — from the island of dreams to this complicated place in which women fear for themselves every time they venture out — as a giant metaphor for her life.

When she won her first Grand Slam tournament, she announced to the media that she would buy a Lamborghini with the winnings. She sashayed into the press conference afterwards resplendent in a little black miniskirt — eschewing the traditional attire of sweaty tracksuit and trainers. She was the darling of the tennis world, a little frightening, a little distant and ferocious with a racket in her hand, but the new star of the court, all the same.

Then, at the height of her career, the unthinkable happened. She was sitting between games during a quarter-final match in Hamburg in 1993 when a deranged 38-year-old called Gunther Parche ran from the crowd and stabbed her in the back.

A piercing scream rang through the Rothenbaum stadium and Monica Seles would never be quite the same again. She was rushed to hospital so that the physical impact of the attack could be treated, but the long-term effects are still with her. She left competitive tennis for more than two years. When she returned, her weight had ballooned, she was suffering depression, headaches and had recurring nightmares.

The whole incident was made far worse for her because Parche walked free after being given a two-year suspended sentence.

“It wasn’t just the stabbing, it was the fact that my innocence was lost that day,” she says. “I always believed in the justice system until then. Not now.”

Parche had attacked her because he was a fan of Graf and longed to see his heroine restored to her position as world No 1. He had his wish. Seles lay in a hospital bed, he walked free and Graf re-established herself as the leading player on the women’s Tour, regaining the No 1 ranking after the attack. Graf was able to do this because of the decision reached by most of Seles’s peers not to maintain her No 1 ranking during her convalescence. Gabriela Sabatini was the only player not to back the decision.

It’s perhaps unwise to make judgments, but one is left, at best, slightly surprised that Graf did not feel honour-bound to back Seles, given the extraordinary circumstances of the attack.

“People do ask that,” says Seles. “But I don’t know. What Gabriela did was very touching. It showed me what a special person she is. Steffi and I are fine, though. There’s no animosity between us and I wish her the best. I did realise more than ever, after the stabbing, that tennis is a business — a tough business. The other players are just waiting to take away your No 1 spot in any way they can. All those people that I toured the world with — I got on with them fine, but I suppose only two of them would really count as friends. Tennis is so competitive. I guess that’s the way it has to be.”

Graf visited Seles in hospital two days after the attack, but declared that she could not stay long because she was still playing in the tournament. Her attitude was considered callous and insensitive. “She just didn’t realise what I was going through. I’m the only person in sport this has happened to,” Seles explains. “Steffi had no idea of the impact it would have. It affected both our careers, but it really affected my life.”

Seles has never returned to Hamburg. In the week after the attack, while she was recovering from her injuries, she received yet more bad news — her father and coach, Karolj, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had surgery in the summer of 1993 and had another operation for stomach cancer in December that year. He died in 1998. “I miss my dad and I know that I always will. It’s like I lost two people — my coach and my dad,” Seles says. “Every day something happens or someone says something to remind me of him. The hardest thing for me is the realisation that I will never be able to talk to him again.”

She says she finds it hard when she comes off the court now. She looks straight for him to tell her how it went and to talk the match over with him.

“I think about when I was a little girl, and he was telling me the scores. Gosh. Life was so much less complicated when I was a child. My happiest time was between the ages of six and 10. I would love to have stayed at that age for ever.”

Seles says she misses her father because he was always so bright and optimistic. “Not like me,” she adds. “I have this terrible dark side to my personality, which playing tennis keeps at bay. One of the reasons why I got so depressed after the stabbing was that I stopped playing tennis. I’m not very good when I’m not playing tennis. The dark side tends to try and take over. I become more and more unhappy, I eat too much, worry too much and get generally very miserable. In truth, most of the time, I’m not a terribly happy person, I guess. I can be happy, but mostly I’m not. It’s just the way I am. I’m working on it. Playing tennis helps.”

Seles made her comeback to the sport in August 1995 at the Canadian Open, storming to the final and a 6-0 6-1 win over Amanda Coetzer. It was an amazing achievement for the woman who had felt so depressed that she couldn’t pick up a tennis racket for two years. A guard stood close by while she played. She always has a guard at her matches since the stabbing.

The only remaining physical effects of the stabbing are the migraines that haunt her. She says she has found medication to control them, but they haven’t disappeared entirely. “They’re not like normal headaches — it’s this pain that makes you think your head will explode. I had to go to bed for days sometimes, just to escape them. There were times when I was tempted to quit a match because of them, but I never did. I always go through somehow.”

After her trip to the Bronx, it’s back into town so that Seles can attend a Laureus dinner in her honour that evening. Ed Moses, former 400m hurdles world record-holder and Olympic champion, will be there. “Lovely man,” she says. “A really lovely man.” As well as John McEnroe and her new buddy, Comaneci. “I’m so pleased she’s coming. We’re going to have such a laugh. I wonder what I should wear? Hey, did I tell you about the kids programme I’m working on?” Suddenly, she’s upbeat again, talking about the future. The dark moment has passed and she is buzzing with excitement about her new project — a programme for children aged from three to seven. She wants to teach them about health and fitness using the same techniques employed so effectively by her late father.

“The programme I’m working on is called healthy bodies/ healthy minds. It launches in February and it’s for after-school clubs in the US to teach young kids about nutrition and exercise in a fun way — with cartoon characters and music. There’ll be a fun website and all sorts of stuff. I really want to make it interesting. I’ve done loads of research and I think bright colours, music and funny characters are the keys to getting kids attention.”

Her phone bleeps while she’s chatting. It’s Comaneci. She has a cold and can’t come tonight after all. “Oh no,” Seles screeches. “Oh what a shame. Poor thing. I was really looking forward to seeing her. Poor Nadia. Poor little Nadia. She’s not well. Now, there’s a woman who had a tough, tough career.”

Seles looks off into the distance for a while and notices the lights of Manhattan sparkling ahead of us as we move slowly back into the city.

“There’s not much that I’d change about my career,” she says.

Really? “Okay, maybe there’s tons of stuff I’d change,” she admits with a smile.

“But I tell you, there’s a ton of stuff that I’d not change at all. I kind of think this year’s gonna be good for me.”