The scene that was played out at the genteel, tree-lined Rothenbaum Tennis Club in Hamburg, Germany, last week may have looked like pure Hitchcock—a knife looming over a vulnerable young woman—but it was no movie: A deranged German tennis fan, obsessed with the idea of returning the No. 1 ranking to countrywoman Steffi Graf, stabbed top-ranked Monica Seles in the back during the quarterfinals of the Citizen Cup tennis tournament. Although the 19-year-old Seles was not seriously injured, there was nothing superficial about the wound inflicted on her psyche.
This is an article from the May 10, 1993 issue
Last Friday evening, during a changeover in Seles's match against 18-year-old Magdalena Maleeva of Bulgaria, the assailant stabbed Seles with a nine-inch, curved, serrated boning knife, striking her just below the left shoulder blade. Seles's attacker was later identified as Günter Parche, 38, an unemployed lathe operator from G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ársbach, Thuringia, in eastern Germany. Parche has lived with his aunt, Irma Pieckardt, for 22 years. "He was always a quiet, reticent child," Pieckardt told a reporter. "His best friend was the TV set."
Parche was charged with attempted murder after he told Hamburg authorities that he had stabbed Seles because he "could not bear" the fact that she held the No. 1 ranking. He said he did not mean to kill Seles but only to injure her, so that the 23-year-old Graf, Seles's chief rival, could recover the No. 1 ranking Seles took from her two years ago.
Seles suffered a puncture wound half an inch deep and a slightly torn muscle just to the left of her spinal cord, according to tournament physicians. She was hospitalized and in seclusion at Hamburg's Eppendorf University Hospital for two nights before returning to the U.S. on Sunday night. Seles's recovery is expected to take at least four weeks, and she will most likely miss the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament beginning May 24, in which she was scheduled to defend the championship she won the past three years. No one could predict what long-term emotional effects the attack might have on Seles, who had become fearful and even reclusive during the past two years after receiving death threats from Croats because of her Serbian origins.
Athletes have been used as pawns by politicians, abused by mobs and taken hostage and slain by terrorists. But rarely, if ever, has an athlete of Seles's stature been so savagely attacked purely for reasons related to sport. That is what made last week's incident all the more unnerving. Who can guard against such behavior? It provided an emphatic reminder of the origin of the word fan, which comes from fanatic. "This hurt me, too," said Graf. "It hurts me to know that it happened in Germany, that this guy is German and that apparently he's a fan of mine."
Seles was described by the handful of people who had seen her after the attack as suffering from emotional shock. Although Seles could have been released from the hospital after one night, she chose to spend one more in her private room on the ninth and uppermost floor, with Hamburg police patrolling the halls. On Saturday morning she received a visit from Graf, with whom she had an emotional meeting, though they exchanged few words. "I would say she is very, very depressed," said Graf. Although Graf went on to reach the Citizen Cup final, she was clearly drained. She lost 6-3, 6-3 to Spain's Arantxa Sànchez Vicario on Sunday.
Had the attack been politically motivated, perhaps it would have been easier to fathom. But a spokesman for the Hamburg police, Dankmar Lund, said that Parche appeared confused, if not insane, when questioned, and that the authorities had no reason to doubt the explanation he save for the assault. Parche told authorities he had contemplated the attack for some time and saw his opportunity when Seles took a wild card into the tournament. He told police he stalked Seles as she progressed through the draw.
"We've had threats to Monica before, and to other players as well," said Gerard Smith, executive director of the Women's Tennis Association. "But this is bizarre. You can't imagine someone who would take a sport to such an absurd level."
Seles has always been wary of a physical attack. Although she is an ethnic Hungarian, Seles may well be the world's most famous Serb. Born in Novi Sad, a town in a section of the former Yugoslavia claimed by Serbs, she moved to Bradenton, Fla., when she was 12 to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. She now lives in Sarasota and is considering becoming a U.S. citizen. Over the past two years Seles has tried to distance herself from the conflict in her homeland. "I am an individual," she has said. "I play for Monica." Nevertheless, about 150 Serbs demonstrated in protest of the attack outside the Rothenbaum club on Saturday morning.
Because of the death threats, which included a bomb scare at Wimbledon last year, Seles is exceedingly cautious when traveling the circuit, using an assumed name at hotels, making multiple plane reservations and sometimes wearing a wig and remaining secretive about her practice schedule. Hamburg was Seles's first tournament after a long absence because of a viral infection. She said she had been bedridden during much of the 63-day hiatus, but early last week Seles was cheerful and seemed glad to be back. At the same time, she defended her furtiveness.
"I like to stay where I can just be with my family and not worry about other people, about autographs and things," she said. "Tennis is just a role. A doctor or a lawyer wouldn't let you watch him work, so why should I let people watch me practice?"
It's small comfort to Seles that the tournament security Parche eluded was regarded as better than average by WTA officials. The 10,300-seat stadium is intimate, with only a waist-high railing separating the players from a narrow aisle running along the front of the grandstand. Tournament director Günter Sanders and police officials described security measures that included a guard from a German firm, Bekos, posted in the grandstand just behind each player.
The attack on Seles took place during a lull in the action. The Seles-Maleeva match was the last quarterfinal of the day, it was nearing 7 p.m., and most spectators had simply looked away from the players during the changeover. Seles had won the first set 6-4 and was leading 4-3 in the second after overcoming a 0-3 deficit. The guards later told police they had been occupied with keeping autograph seekers and children away from the players. One guard said he saw Parche approach, but few people actually saw him strike.
Parche, a stocky, balding man wearing a plaid shirt and jeans and carrying a green plastic bag, sidled down the aisle and paused behind Seles. Suddenly he raised the knife, grasping it with both hands. A spectator screamed, which seemed to alert Seles, who twisted and leaned slightly forward in her chair. The knife struck her back at an angle.
Seles shrieked and leaped from her chair, and then stood with a hand clasped to her neck, an expression of abject confusion on her face. Attempting to aid Seles, an unidentified man leaped over the barricade and onto the court and grabbed her by the shoulders. Seles, beginning to sob, collapsed against him, and he lowered her to the ground, where she was quickly surrounded by frantic officials, including chair umpire Stefan Voss, WTA tour director Lisa Grattan and trainer Madeleine Van Zoelen, and Seles's brother, Zoltan. In the meantime two guards subdued Parche and dragged him from the stadium in a headlock and half nelson, breaking his left arm in the process. The knife lay on the court next to Seles's chair, with blood visible on the blade.
Those nearest to Seles initially had no idea what had happened. The 10th-ranked Maleeva was oblivious to the approach of Parche until she heard Seles scream. Maleeva wandered to a corner of the court, dazed, and stayed there during the long Minutes it took for a stretcher to arrive. "I feel guilty I didn't go to her," Maleeva said, "but I was so shocked I didn't know what to do."
Grattan saw Parche approach Seles. At first she thought he had tried to choke her, and then she saw Seles grab at her back. Grattan reached Seles as she sank to the ground. Grattan saw her "bleeding profusely," as she later described it, and attempted to stanch the blood with a towel. "Am I hurt? Am I bleeding?" Seles asked Grattan. "You have a small cut," Grattan calmly replied.
A moment later Van Zoelen arrived with her medical kit, and a panicked Zoltan Seles also arrived on the court. He was the only member of Monica's family to attend the match; her mother, Esther, was not feeling well, and her father, Karolj, had stayed at the hotel to care for her. Zoltan took Monica's hand, shook her legs and said, "Keep moving, keep moving."
Monica felt faint but was not disoriented, according to Grattan and Van Zoelen. She became silent once Zoltan arrived. "She was stunned," Van Zoelen said. "She was like the rest of us, saying things like, 'It's impossible. How can this be?' " Finally Seles was put on a stretcher and, sitting upright, was wheeled out of the stadium, sobbing.
At week's end WTA officials had decided that Seles's withdrawal would not cost her computer-ranking points, which means the No. 1 spot will remain firmly in her grasp. But will Seles, who on Sunday night flew to Vail, Colo., and checked into the Steadman Hawkins Clinic for treatment, be motivated to play again? "That's a good question," said Grattan. "I would imagine the physical wound, will be the shorter recovery period."
How could Seles sit down for a changeover anytime soon without wincing? "I think the real damage is to the psyche," said Martina Navratilova.
The attack did result in some immediate changes in security. For the semifinals on Saturday, the players' chairs were moved closer to the court, with a guard posted just behind each of them, facing the crowd. Smith said the WTA would hire a security consultant to suggest new guidelines for protecting players, both on and off the court. Possible measures range from posting guards on court to erecting a Plexiglas barrier between the players and the fans. But as Smith said, "How can you provide 100 percent protection? You can't."
After an attack like the one on Seles, every celebrity athlete suddenly seems more vulnerable. NBA benches seem nakedly open to crowds in arenas, golfers seem starkly unprotected on putting greens. A new precedent has been set. "Someone has broken through an invisible barrier," said the WTA's Smith. "It's not just a threat. Something actually happened that changes everything. Things are not the same today as they were yesterday."
In the aftermath tennis players recalled numerous incidents of frightening contact with too-fervent fans. Anke Huber, a 19-year-old German player, has been followed for approximately six months by an obsessive fan who has tried to give her gifts. Early last week Huber's coach, Boris Breskvar, found the man sitting outside Huber's hotel room and called security to have him removed.
Perhaps no one on the tour has had more brushes with ardent fans than Graf, who has been in the glare of the spotlight since she turned pro at 13. Four years ago one such fan followed her to a practice court near her home in Brühl and slashed his wrists in front of her. Recently, at her second home, in Boca Raton, Fla., a fan was found guilty of trespassing after repeatedly trying to sneak past the gates of the private development where she lives.
Once the shiest of players, Graf has become almost defiant in her insistence on moving around unhindered. On the day after the attack on Seles, she insisted that players should not allow one terrifying fan to alter their behavior. "I'm not afraid," Graf said. "Tennis players have more or less been put on a stage. I think we need to be even closer to the people who watch us. You can't live with fear." During Sunday's final she insisted that the security guards stationed on court return to their normal positions in the stands.
Graf, who may become No. 1 again if Seles's absence is prolonged, urged Seles to return to play as quickly as possible. She's a very strong-minded person," said Graf. "When she is physically ready, she should get back to the court immediately. This is something we all live with. It's the price we have to pay."