She hadn't surfaced at a public event in nearly half a year. But
whatever misgivings she had about appearing in the Arete Awards
show in Chicago seemed to fall away as afternoon rehearsals gave
way to the evening taping. Her visit as a presenter had been a
fiercely guarded secret, so baseball great Hank Aaron was
surprised when she strode onto the soundstage unannounced, and
ESPN reporter Lesley Visser nudged her co-host, Ahmad Rashad, and
whispered, ``That's not Monica Seles, is it?'' Sonya Bell, the
13-year-old blind gymnast whom Seles had come to honor, turned to
Seles later that night and said, ``I know it took a lot of courage
for you to come here.''
Given Seles's reclusiveness since her stabbing in Hamburg,
Germany, two years ago, no detail of her visit had been left to
chance. Her transport from the Chicago airport, her seat at a
corner table facing the rest of the banquet room, the posting of a
bodyguard (one guarding her back), all had been scripted. Seles
entered the hall for the presentation of the awards, which honored
courage in sports, only after the rest of the crowd had been
seated. She was escorted down the aisle during the grand
introductions. She was relaxed, even chatty, and everything went
marvelously -- until Seles and Bell joined the other stars onstage
after the show, and members of the audience began abandoning their
tables, pressing forward for a handshake, a bit of shouted
conversation, perhaps an autograph from one of the celebrities.
``It was a deluge, just a rush of people, and I remember thinking,
We didn't talk about that; we didn't practice that,'' says Bell's
coach, Rhonda Bowen. ``I could see it bothered Monica a lot. She
got a little nervous. She started sweating. Her eyes got a little
wide. She was getting very, very uncomfortable. Her manager
finally said, `It's time to go now.' ''
That was in November. Seles didn't make another public appearance
until last weekend.
If she was pessimistic at all, the thoughts were shoved deep
inside her. Rather than acting like someone afraid of what might
come down in a day or two in a courtroom half a world away, Monica
Seles was acting almost buoyant. She traveled to Williamsburg,
Va., last Friday to attend the opening of a tennis center at
William & Mary that had been funded by a friend. She made the
rounds of banquets and receptions. Then, discarding her past
insistence on practicing in solitude, she even smacked some balls
around on Sunday morning at William & Mary with a university
administrator, apparently unbothered that 10 or 12 people had
paused to watch.
When Monday finally broke and Seles caught a sunrise flight home
to Sarasota, Fla., the day seemed to hold untold promise -- a
chance to put the agony of the last two years behind her. That is,
until Seles telephoned her agent during a layover in Atlanta and
was told that her assailant, Gunter Parche, was again a free man.
Falling into the arms of her mother, Esther, Seles began sobbing
inconsolably. When Seles's throat unclenched enough for her to
talk, her voice was tremulous and thin.
She didn't linger on her obvious shock as she spoke to a reporter
on the phone. By now, even the anger had been wrung out of her,
replaced only by a plaintive question that Seles understandably
asked again and again. ``How can anyone say that it's O.K. to do
what this man did to another human being?'' Seles said into the
phone, crying softly. ``How can they say it's O.K.? I'm a human
How? The basic facts about the attack are undisputed. Parche, an
unemployed German lathe operator, admits that he stalked Seles for
days before stabbing her once in the shoulder, his two hands
wrapped around the handle of a nine-inch boning knife. The attack
occurred on April 30, 1993, during a tournament match at the
Rothenbaum Tennis Club in Hamburg before 7,000 people. Parche
said he assaulted Seles to restore his countrywoman, Steffi Graf,
to the No. 1 world ranking that Seles had wrested away.
Yet when Parche's first trial concluded on Oct. 13, 1993, he
received only a two-year suspended sentence. Judge Elke Bosse said
then that she found Parche's promise to not hurt anyone again
``absolutely believable,'' especially when buttressed by a
court-appointed psychiatrist's opinion that Parche is ``mentally
diminished'' but a low risk to be a repeat offender. After a
19-month wait, a new judge, Gertraut Goring, basically concurred,
adding that Seles's refusal to testify was a determining factor,
even though in testifying Seles would have had to sit with her
back to the courtroom.
Suddenly, instead of the closure she sought, Seles was back where
she was two years ago, trying to explain away the unexplainable
through her terror and her heartbreak. ``How can they have
expected me to go back there and testify?'' Seles said on Monday,
her voice breaking again. ``When I heard I would have to sit in
the courtroom with my back to him, I knew it was the 100 percent
absolute right decision. I mean, the man stabbed me.
``There was the way he did it, the way he planned it, the idea
that he put the knife in my back, pulled it out and was going to
do it again. I can still see the hate in his face that I saw when
I turned around. And they say he doesn't have to go to jail at
all? ``I don't understand,'' she sobbed, her voice trailing
off until it was no more than a murmur. ``I'm just . . . so . . .
Before Monday's verdict, Seles's two-year absence from tennis had
been blamed on her grievances about the way the court in Hamburg
and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) treated her immediately
after the attack. The last time Seles granted extended interviews,
15 months ago, she spoke poignantly of being a talent derailed at
19. But the most forbidding obstacle to her return to tennis has
always been the spectral possibility that Parche, or someone like
him, would surface again -- outside a store, through a window,
across an airplane aisle, in a restaurant booth next to hers.
That's the macabre fear Seles lives with. That's the unshakable
anxiety that rears up unexpectedly and overtakes her. Everything
will be fine for long stretches; Seles's tennis workouts and her
determination to get back on tour may even peak. Then something --
perhaps just sitting in a darkened movie theater -- triggers a
fresh rush of uneasiness. ``Then she's thinking of the stabbing,''
says her father, Karolj Seles, ``and she goes to pieces again.''
But in the days before Parche's retrial began on March 21, there
had been a palpable stirring in Seles's camp, and some guarded
optimism that she might be preparing to return to the tour.
Pressed for concrete evidence, though, associates, friends and
tennis officials spoke only of ``gut feelings'' and ``signs.''
One reason for the optimism was a flurry of conciliatory gestures
by Seles. For Parche's retrial, Seles submitted a six-paragraph
letter citing ``two years of hell'' he had caused her; she had not
testified or submitted a statement for his first trial. She also
permitted her Nevada sports psychologist, Jerry Russel May, to
detail how he has treated her for posttraumatic stress disorder
since July 1993. May, who has had more than 120 sessions with
Seles, told the court that Seles has flashbacks to the attack and
that she has talked of feeling ``like a bird in a cage.''
On the eve of the second trial, Karolj granted interviews for the
first time since his daughter's stabbing. In addition to softening
his family's hard stance against the WTA, he startled U.S. Tennis
Association officials with a declaration that Monica, a
naturalized U.S. citizen since March of last year, dreams of
playing for the U.S. in the 1995 Fed Cup and in the 1996 Atlanta
``That's great,'' says WTA chief executive officer Anne Person
Worcester. ``But I had absolutely no idea. None.''
No one did, and Seles remained out of sight until last weekend.
Even tennis officials who would be involved in her return to the
tour say it was hard to tell whether groundwork was really being
laid for her comeback, or whether the Seleses were only trying to
affect the outcome of the Parche trial by briefly opening a portal
into their lives. When Fed Cup captain Billie Jean King spoke with
Seles, she said she was left with the feeling that Seles still
loves tennis. ``But she doesn't know if she'll ever be able to get
over the fear and come back again,'' King said.
Clearly Seles had reason to fear Parche in the wait for the
retrial. While the appeal was pending, Parche was free with no
probation restrictions -- meaning no supervision and no
court-ordered psychiatric care. And once Parche returned to his
home in Gorsbach in the former East Germany, his obsession with
Graf showed little sign of abating.
Parche continues to send Graf letters; on her birthday he sends
her money, suggesting she buy herself a necklace or have her
mother purchase a bouquet of 24 roses. In court testimony two
weeks ago, Parche, 40, admitted to having sent a threatening
letter to German track star Heike Drechsler, but he added, ``I'm
not nearly as fanatical as I used to be.''
Seles is hardly the only tennis star who ever received death
threats. Chris Evert once played a final in Toronto with two
policemen dressed as ball kids. For Seles, though, the death
threats often had a distinctly political cant, not surprising
given the ethnic wars in her homeland, the former Yugoslavia.
Seles and her family, who have lived in Florida since 1986, are
ethnic Hungarians, but they are often mistaken for Serbs because
they come from Novi Sad, a Serb-controlled village near Bosnia.
Still, a former business associate who has known the Seles family
for nearly 10 years, insists, ``They've long been suspicious of
everyone. And that predated the war in Bosnia.''
The businessman says Monica used to ask if her commercial flights
could be stopped on the runway so she could alight into a waiting
van and bypass the terminal. ``She always thought someone was out
to get her,'' the businessman says.
Even before her face became well known, Seles traveled in wigs.
She often booked duplicate plane reservations, lest anyone try to
tail her. Even the Seles family home in Sarasota, bought years
before the stabbing, is a monument to caution. The sprawling white
stucco house sits at the end of a road inside a quiet development
protected by a gatehouse. It backs onto an idyllic golf course.
However, it is the only home in the complex surrounded by a
10-foot-tall stucco wall, with a driveway and sidewalk sealed off
by two sets of ornate electronic iron gates. Signs outside the
massive wall read, NO TRESPASSING, BEWARE OF DOG and PRIVATE
``It's a little paranoid,'' says John Korff, a tennis promoter who
used to deal with the Seleses regularly. ``But a lot of it is the
background the family came from.''
Karolj was a teenager during World War II. His overriding memory
of those years in Yugoslavia is of ``all the people who were
deported.'' During the interview he granted SI on the eve of
Parche's retrial, Seles pushed tears from his eyes twice: once
while describing Monica's state of mind and once as he retold what
his father, Jakab, went through as a conscientious objector during
World War I.
When Jakab Seles refused, because of his religious beliefs, to
take up a gun and fight, some militiamen blindfolded him, stuck
him in a foxhole and fired some shots into the air, thinking he
would be terrorized into picking up a nearby gun to save himself.
They were only half right. ``My father did not pick up the gun,''
Karolj said, ``but for many years after that, [the terror] stayed
with him in his head.''
Smiling sadly, Seles added, ``In 60 years of life, you learn life
is like this. Ups and downs. Things happen. But you must fight.
And you must forgive.''
But explain yourself to outsiders? Be indiscriminate about whom
you trust? No. The Seleses have long insisted the price of their
friendship is silence. Their IMG agents, tennis officials and
other players know that breaching the understanding can cost them
what little access they get. On tour the family was as close to a
self-contained unit as you can get. Karolj coached Monica. Her
older brother, Zoltan, was her hitting partner. Her mother was a
frequent travel companion. And Monica handled most of the
logistics. By age 16 -- the year she won her first Grand Slam
title, the '90 French Open -- Monica was the family's lone
breadwinner. She was fluent in English, booked her own practice
courts and even had the gumption to question WTA officials about
the taxes withheld from her tournament checks.
When she left the game at 19 she was the absolute best. She had
amassed 32 singles titles in only four years, won seven of the
previous eight Grand Slam events that she played and made the
finals in 32 of her last 33 tournaments. Other players had more
athleticism. What separated Seles was her unbreakable will. And
this: ``No one really knew her,'' says Martina Navratilova.
Though Seles's 23-month absence is the longest of her career, it's
not the first time she has slipped out of sight. In 1993 she
missed 63 days with an unspecified viral infection, and in 1991,
shortly after becoming No. 1, she went incommunicado and skipped
venerable Wimbledon. In the firestorm that ensued, the frothing
British tabloids suggested everything from the possibility that
Seles was pregnant (or a ``Wimble-mum'') to the notion that she
was romancing Donald Trump. When Stephanie Tolleson, Seles's
agent, finally tracked her down, she implored Seles, ``Say
something. At least let me tell them all you're not pregnant.''
Seles shot back, ``How do you know I'm not?''
Even in the best of times, Seles is a bundle of contradictions.
She can be charming yet coy, good-hearted but peevish,
publicity-loving and abruptly inaccessible. She cultivated an
image as a glamorous enigma. Yet she often becomes hurt or angry
when, inevitably, she's misunderstood. She insists on near-total
control while reserving her right to act unpredictably.
In addition to Seles's talent, tennis misses her flamboyance and
her sense of the absurd. For her debut on Court Central at the
French Open in 1989, she flipped roses to the crowd. For a while
she changed hair colors like other people change socks, trying to
decide whether to go blonder (``You know, the Swedish goddess
look,'' she said) or shave her pate like rock star Sinead O'Connor
-- ``until somebody reminded me my head would get pretty
sunburned,'' Seles cracked.
Among the thoughts that now make Karolj cry is, ``Monica was a
girl who was laughing all the time, having fun,'' he says. ``All
that is now gone.'' Until last weekend Monica had made only three
public appearances since being stabbed -- at a charity exhibition
and press conference before the '93 U.S. Open, at a charity event
in Monaco last summer and at the Arete Awards.
If she occasionally feels like a bird in a cage, she's not a
complete shut-in. Friends say Seles has been skiing in Vail,
frequenting the beach near her Florida home and haunting shopping
malls. Last summer she attended some World Cup soccer games. She
has also tried hiking, fly-fishing and camping.
Seles rarely answers the telephone when she's home, but she has
become an inveterate fax sender and letter writer. When Pam
Shriver, president of the WTA at the time, offhandedly told
reporters in January 1994 that she'd had a recent telephone
conversation with Seles, Seles fired off a fax to Shriver and sent
copies to four or five other tennis officials. Seles's gripe?
``She felt I had betrayed our conversation,'' Shriver says,
``because I said she was considering playing Australia.''
By then Seles had said as much herself in an interview in late
December '93. Shortly before that, the president of Tennis
Australia, Geoff Pollard, suggested that Seles might play in the
Australian Open, which is held in mid-January. Fila was
convinced. It spent $3.5 million on a new line of Seles
Then figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee on Jan.
6 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Seles released a statement later the
same day saying she wouldn't play Australia after all. Seles's
publicist now insists the timing of her announcement was
coincidence. (Others agree, saying Seles's never-explained reason
for not playing was her father's diagnosis of treatable prostate
cancer.) Either way, a shaken Seles did phone a friend after the
Kerrigan attack and say, ``It happened again.''
Beyond her fears of another assault, Seles has never given the
other reasons that keep her out of tennis. An associate says Seles
has struggled with ``depression, the fear of starting over -- the
question of, `If I do come back, how will I do?' ''
Seles also remains confounded by the idea that anyone would want
to assault her. ``She constantly asks herself if she did something
wrong to deserve the attack,'' her psychologist testified at
Parche's retrial. The pain of the assault was intensified a week
after the incident when the tour's top 25 players, pressured into
a quick vote by then WTA executive director Gerry Smith, decided
not to freeze Seles's No. 1 ranking.
Apparently, as Seles saw it, Parche's lunatic aim of elevating
Graf back to No. 1 was achieved with an assist from the WTA. Then
the perceived betrayals continued: Parche was given no jail time,
and the companies with which Seles had endorsement contracts began
to desert her because of her inactivity.
Seles has been accused of staying out of action to cash in a fat
insurance policy, to facilitate a jump from Fila to Nike and to
improve her position in her soon-to-be-filed civil suit against
the German Tennis Federation. Her settlement demands regarding the
Hamburg incident are likely to start at more than $10 million,
according to her lawyer Wilhelm Danelzik. Fila is suing Seles for
breach of contract and fraud. The lawsuit alleges that Seles
misled the company three times about supposed comeback attempts
when, in fact, she is ``retired.''
Women's tennis has to hope Seles isn't gone for good. When she
overtook Graf in 1991 to become the youngest No. 1 ever, it seemed
their rivalry would replace the excitement Navratilova and Evert
generated in the '80s. Now, without Seles, women's tennis is in a
sort of limbo. The WTA has suffered a series of other hits:
Navratilova's retirement; Graf's back ailments; Mary Pierce's
struggles with her abusive father, Jim; and Jennifer Capriati's
spiral into drug rehab. The players who have been No. 1 since she
left -- Graf and Aranxta Sanchez Vicario -- are stuck facing
questions about where they would be if Monica were still playing.
As Graf's agent, Phil de Picciotto, says, ``This feels just like
when Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger walked away [so young].
There's this whole new lost generation -- Jennifer, Monica -- that
should still be playing, and they aren't.''
Seles may have been mercurial long before Parche lifted his knife,
but her lingering fears are hardly delusional. If anything, the
stabbing seems to have left her hyperlucid. It stripped her of the
comforting but ultimately baseless presumptions that the rest of
us use to get through everyday life -- beliefs as simple as
trusting that the deliveryman knocking at your front door intends
you no harm.
A knife blade shoved in your back in full view of 7,000 people is
pretty convincing evidence that there are no guarantees. That's
the chilling reality many victims of violent crimes can't shake.
That's why even an innocuous event -- the approach of those
well-wishers at the Arete Awards -- is enough to bring Seles's old
fears welling back up.
As Seles thought about Monday's verdict, which left Parche a free
man, she did not flatly rule out a comeback. ``I've been working
so hard at everything, working so hard to put this all behind
me,'' she said. ``And I still want to put this all behind me. I'm
going to continue to do the best I can do.''
For now, that will be enough.