Monica Seles knew that everything had changed when Johnny Carson turned up at the victory party to celebrate her winning the French Open 30 years ago.
At 16 she had just become the youngest Grand Slam champion in history. The world, including the legendary chat show host, wanted to know her name. The venue was Paris’s splendid Hotel de Crillon, and among all the adults who surrounded her was American TV royalty.
‘Mr McCormack (Mark, founder of management giants IMG) threw a beautiful party for me that night. Johnny Carson was there and it stands out, as I always liked his show,’ says Seles. ‘I remember him telling me, “Monica, your life will never be the same”. And I thought “Woah, that’s a big statement”.’
This time 30 years ago, Seles was on a 36-match winning streak which was, on June 9, to include defeating Steffi Graf to win the final at Roland Garros. It was a lot to take in for a girl who had grown up learning tennis with her father over a makeshift net in a car park in Novi Sad, a city in the former Yugoslavia that is now in Serbia.
On the night of victory she recalls going out to take some air on the Crillon’s stately balcony that overlooks the Place de la Concorde. If she felt slight trepidation amid the joy that was understandable enough, because becoming a teenage superstar was no pathway to an easy life. It seldom is.
In a rare interview, Seles looks back on the maelstrom of a crazy month that saw her sweep the whole clay court season of 1990.
These days she uses the wisdom and experience accumulated from an extraordinary life to mentor female athletes and other young women. She admires Coco Gauff and praises her recent decision to go public about the stresses and anxieties that have accompanied her rise to stardom.
Now 46 and living in Florida, Seles feels the atmosphere is more healthy for a teenage phenomenon than when she or Jennifer Capriati — who she beat in a famous semi-final that year in Paris — were struggling to navigate it all.
‘We were two young kids under extraordinary pressure trying to figure it out and with not many people to talk to,’ she tells Sportsmail.
For all of that duo’s eventual tribulations, this was a golden era for women’s tennis. There was the ageing great Martina Navratilova, the calm steel of the brilliant Graf, who had a glamorous semi-rival in Gabriela Sabatini. Arantxa Sanchez was the plucky challenger and Capriati was staggeringly good for a 14-year-old.
And then up came the giggling, grunting Seles. On the advice of her cartoonist father Karolj she had used the green clay courts of Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida to perfect the art of taking the ball on the rise, early, to hit with incredible power and accuracy.
Her winning streak had begun at the Miami Open in March that year and suddenly she began to look unstoppable on Europe’s brown dirt. She also did it without having a formal coach, having split with Bollettieri, and was essentially travelling with just her parents.
‘I’d beaten Martina in the Rome final and then Steffi in front of her home crowd in Berlin,’ she recalls. ‘It was the best I had ever played. By the time I got to Paris I worried I had peaked too early.
‘I was really nervous going into the tournament with all the expectations and the truth is I didn’t play my best there. The weather wasn’t very good that year, the balls were heavy and I just gritted it out over the fortnight.’
Nonetheless, the excitement was at fever pitch when a semi-final materialised against Capriati — two players with an aggregate age of 30. Women’s tennis seemed like the new rock ’n roll and all the great and the good of Paris wanted to be there.
‘I remember there wasn’t an empty seat in the stadium, looking round and seeing all the big guns and celebrities,’ she says. ‘It was huge pressure and we both felt it. The match was a slugfest but there was thought behind it. I knew what patterns of strokes I had to hit, which patterns would get me into trouble.
‘The thing about me and Jennifer was that whenever we played each other we gave it our all. Even if it was in an exhibition match it always seemed to be a three-setter that went three hours.’
Her 6-2, 6-2 victory was far closer than the scoreline suggested, putting her through to meet the imperious Graf. The turning point in the rain-interrupted final was the first- set tiebreak, when the German let slip a 6-2 lead, including a double fault on one of the set points.
Seles was to win 7-6, 6-4, amid tumultuous scenes.
‘She was the favourite, I was the young one,’ she says. ‘It felt like every single point made a difference, a bit like in those big Nadal-Djokovic matches you see now.
‘I was just relieved when it was over, I knew then it had all been worth it. Even if I didn’t win again I had done it and nobody was going to ask me, “When are you going to break through?” It was awesome. The pressure of those two weeks, waking up with a feeling in your stomach. I slept well a few nights after that.’
In the press conference afterwards — such occasions were always punctuated by her cheerful rat-a-tat giggle — she speculated that she might buy a Lamborghini.
‘I had a big mouth. I would have loved a Lamborghini but actually I never even got a fancy car, that wasn’t my personality. That was something I got from my dad, it’s one of the things I loved about him.’
There then followed her period of dominance which saw her win two more Roland Garros titles, three Australian and two US Opens. Only defeat by Graf in the Wimbledon final of 1992 stopped her from clinching the calendar Slam that year.
It all came to a shuddering halt in early May of 1993 when, aged 19, she was attacked and stabbed by a deranged fan of Graf while playing in Germany. The problems recovering were compounded by the deteriorating health of her beloved father, the genial Karolj, who succumbed to cancer five years later.
Even before those terrible events she was struggling, as she now reflects. ‘I didn’t really know what was coming, I was going out in the street and everyone is suddenly saying, “That’s the girl”. You are 16 and it’s happening 24 hours a day.
‘At 17 I didn’t have many friends. In the tennis world nobody really talked to each other. Outside of tennis, how would you stay in touch? There wasn’t the internet, you just had a hotel phone. Socially I really struggled.
‘I was a girl growing up, my body was changing, I had teenage emotions, rebellion, happiness, depression. Most people have pressure anyway at 15 or 16 years old.’
Through sheer will and talent, Seles got back to a point where she won the Australian Open in 1996 and made the final of Roland Garros two years later. By then a long-term eating disorder had set in that involved late-night food binges, a response to the turmoil of the previous years.
‘My mum and dad did their best but I know how tough it was not to have someone to talk to. I thought, “If I ever get through this as a sane person, I will be there to talk”.’
It is through the memory of this that she was so pleased that 16-year-old Gauff, who soared to fame at last summer’s Wimbledon, recently told the Behind The Racquet blog that she, too, had found it difficult to cope at times.
‘I was very happy when Coco spoke about it — and at her age, too. It’s a very important topic. It was terrific when she came out and said that, because the pressure on these kids is tremendous.
‘I mentor young tennis players and other athletes and people who don’t play sports. I speak openly about the eating disorder that I had.
‘But it’s good for them to hear that their current superstar has felt it. They say to me, “You felt pressure too, Monica?” But maybe you are a bit of a dinosaur to them. So when it’s somebody of their generation who says it, that’s very important. You used to feel that if you spoke you would lose that edge as a competitor and I don’t think it is viewed that way any more.
‘This will build a healthier individual and that will be the case especially after they retire. They won’t be so one-dimensional.
‘The atmosphere is healthier these days, you’re on your own less. Players travel with much bigger entourages. Often with me, it was just my dad who travelled and a coach or a hitting partner.
‘You don’t have to suffer in the silence that I did. I had an inner struggle for so long.’
For all her trials Seles says she still remembers ‘the good times’ very fondly, saying: ‘I wish they had gone slower but that’s what happens.’
She remains fascinated by how the game and what surrounds it has developed. Married to wealthy American businessman Tom Golisano, she still visits tournaments, albeit sporadically. She has not been to Paris since 2011.
‘I tell the people I work with that perseverance, determination and work are hard to beat. I’m still very interested in what is going on and what the trends are. A big thing now is that people’s attention spans are shorter. Tennis will need to adapt.
‘Social media makes things more complicated for young players.But it’s definitely better to be a kid now.’