By Mic Huber
Monica Seles will always cherish the bronze medal she won but that prestigious memento is only part of her Olympic experience.
The medal she earned in the 2000 Olympics hardly compares with the memories she gathered by simply being able to take part in the Games and hanging out with the other competitors.
“It was just so awesome to talk to them,” Seles said about being able to interact with many of the top athletes in the world. “I absolutely had a blast. I met a lot of other athletes from different countries and was able to talk to them about the type of training they had gone through.”
Seles has accomplished just about everything possible in tennis. She has won nine Grand Slam singles titles and 53 singles titles overall.
She has been ranked No. 1 in the world and earned almost $15 million in prize money.
She has won about every award possible in tennis, including the inaugural Sanex Hero of the Year Award in 2000. That award was the result of voting on the Women’s Tennis Association’s official website by fans of more than 90 countries, many of who were inspired by Seles’ comeback from a stabbing by a crazed fan in 1993.
The Sarasota resident has modeled, written a book, and is a partner in the All-Star Café sports restaurant chain.
Yet, for all she has done, taking part in the Olympics remains at the top of her list of accomplishments. It holds a special meaning for the player who was born in Yugoslavia, moved to Bradenton as a child and officially became a U.S. citizen in 1994.
“I would have to say that playing in the Olympics, for me, was one of the highlights of my career,” she said. “There is no feeling like it.
“In tennis, you are always playing as an individual. In the Olympics, you are playing for your country and you have teammates there watching your match.”
Seles actually has played in a pair of Olympics. She took part in the Atlanta games in 1996 as the No. 1 seed and was shut out of the medals when she was upset by Jana Novotna in a match Seles has called “one of my tougher losses in my career.”
She went to Sydney, Australia, in 2000 and won the bronze, losing to eventual gold medal winner Venus Williams in the semifinals before coming back to beat Jelena Dokic in the bronze-medal playoff match.
The medal was a bonus. The experience was what was most important. In an age in which professional athletes are often jaded, Seles has always appreciated her opportunity to share special experiences.
“For me, just walking in the opening ceremonies and staying in the Olympic village was what was so wonderful,” Seles said. “It is really one of the few times in an athlete’s life that you are around other athletes who have gone through similar training regimens and lifestyles that you have undergone.”
One evening, Seles was walking back to her accommodations in the village after eating dinner when she was stopped by a large American athlete.
“He just comes up to me and says, ‘Hi. How are you? I am a big fan of yours,’ ” Seles recalled. “Then he starts telling me that he was so worried about a big wrestling match he had the next day against someone who had never lost in his career.
“I just said, ‘Omigosh.’ “
The athlete was Rulon Gardner, who the next day pulled one of the greatest upsets in the Games by beating Alexander Karelin, a Russian who had not lost a match in 13 years.
“Two days later, everybody knows (Gardner),” Seles said. “There were so many cool experiences. It is great for tennis that it is in the Olympics.”
Tennis has been Seles’ life ever since, as a small child, her father began hitting tennis balls to her in a parking lot. Her father, Karolj, would draw cartoon characters on the tennis balls and Seles quickly showed the focus and talent that would take her to the top of the sport.
Seles made her professional debut in 1988, at the age of 14 years, three months. She won her first Grand Slam event by 1990, becoming the youngest French Open champion at the age of 16 years, six months.
By 1991, Seles was ranked No. 1 in the world and that year, she won three Grand Slam titles (French, Australian and U.S. Open). She won the same three again in 1992 and was the runner-up at Wimbledon and again was ranked No. 1 in the world.
Seles was still No. 1, and coming off another Australian Open victory, when she was stabbed during a changeover at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, by Guenther Parche, a German who wished to see Steffi Graf back at No. 1.
Seles returned in 1995 to get to the final of the U.S. Open and won her last Grand Slam title the following January in Australia.
Last season, Seles was sidelined most of the year with a stress fracture in her left foot. She has yet to play a tour event this year but began playing competitively again recently in World TeamTennis matches.
Seles won’t be playing in this year’s Summer Games in Athens, but she remains committed to Olympics. For years, Seles has been active in working with Special Olympics athletes.