Tours still feeling the effect of Seles stabbing 15 years later

It was just another changeover at just another tournament.

Monica Seles and Magdalena Maleeva walked to their chairs with Seles leading 4-3 in the second set of their Citizen Cup quarterfinal in Hamburg 15 years ago Wednesday, something they’d done hundreds of times previously.

Then Gunter Parche, an unemployed lathe operator, altered the course of tennis history and irreparably damaged Seles’ career by plunging a knife into her back, just below the left shoulder blade. Seles staggered to the net, officials rushing toward her, before collapsing to the clay.

“I had no idea what was going on,” Maleeva recalled this week. She was 18 at the time, a year younger than Seles. “I just saw her falling to the ground, and I was scared. I didn’t see any blood. If I would have seen blood, I would have been very, very scared. It was a terrible feeling for Monica because something unjust happened to her.”

The tournament continued with Seles in hospital, and Maleeva lost to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario the following day.

“When I look back, I was very surprised that we all went on the court the next day and played our matches as if nothing happened,” said Maleeva, the youngest of three tennis-playing sisters and a former world No. 4. “I would have thought we should have all stopped playing. I think this would have been the better thing to do.”

Seles’ wound eventually healed, although the youthful exuberance was gone. Having won seven of eight Grand Slams she entered from 1991-93, she took two years off and claimed only one more major. Parche, a Steffi Graf fan who wanted her to reclaim the top ranking, received a two-year suspended sentence.

Seles, hampered by foot injuries, retired in February.

“Like 9/11 changed the world, the Monica Seles incident changed tennis,” said Micky Lawler, a member of the WTA Tour’s board of directors and managing director of tennis at Octagon. “Once everyone had the opportunity to step back and take a breath, things had to happen. Tournaments had to expect much stricter and a higher standard of security. There was an overhaul on the way security was done.”

In the immediate aftermath, among other actions taken, security officers hovered behind the chair umpire, and pros, male and female, faced the ump at changeovers.

Fast forward to 2008, and the improvements continue.

At the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, the unofficial fifth Grand Slam that drew a tournament-record 297,011 fans in March and April and houses singles fields of 96, a six-foot barrier separates the stands and court. Security watches the players during breaks, and all four corners of the court feature staffers or monitors.

Between 300 and 400 people are used for security, with the number not changing much in recent years, said tournament director Adam Barrett. The composition is different. All have picture identification.

“People you’re hiring to do the jobs have to be better trained than ever before,” Barrett said. “They have to know about security, so while we still have similar numbers of bodyguards or escorts, these people need to be better trained and need a higher level to work these important security positions.”

Coordinating simple autograph sessions or getting a player from one location to another requires ample planning. Then there’s trying to balance player safety with fan accessibility.

Getting on a player guest list is hard work.

“The player guest list has always been there,” Barrett said. “Now at the Sony Ericsson Open, only the player can put someone on their list in person. If they have to do it by phone for whatever reason, it has to be that player and we have to be pretty well-assured that that player is the one on the phone.”

In February, the WTA Tour announced that background checks would become standard practice for people wanting access to secure player locations at events. In the last year, several men’s players admitted they were asked to throw matches, an issue that gained prominence after the Nikolay Davydenko saga. Online betting company Betfair reported unusual wagering patterns in an encounter involving Davydenko and underdog Martin Vassallo Arguello at the Orange Prokom Open in Poland last summer. Most of the money was on Vassallo Arguello, and Davydenko retired in the third set. The ATP is still investigating the circumstances around the match.

“Five years ago we didn’t have a person within the tour responsible for player security in all forms and that the players could go to confidentially,” said Larry Scott, the WTA Tour’s chairman and CEO. “We didn’t have a task force.”

The fans have to be protected, too.

Major sporting events and venues suddenly became possible targets post-9/11, so an unattended bag or briefcase raises suspicions. (Bag checks are routine, for instance, at Wimbledon.)

“Are there more left behind than before? No,” said Barrett. “Higher focus? Absolutely.”

While tournaments are essentially responsible for their own security, the WTA Tour uses the services of Control Risks, an independent firm that allows companies to manage strategic and operational risks. They monitor places where tourneys take place and give the tour in-depth analysis when needed, Scott said.

No matter what’s implemented, it still can’t guarantee that scenarios such as the Seles stabbing won’t happen again.

“When someone is so crazy, I don’t know if anything can stop them,” Maleeva said.