The gate is open. Monica Seles was out a bit late last night,
shooting pool at a Sarasota pub, so there is no sound coming
from the tennis court yet. But she is there, hurrying because
even at 8 a.m. you can feel the coming blaze of Florida in July.
Her father, Karolj, rolls the clay. Small talk: Hello, nice
place, how long have you been here? "We moved here six months
after the stabbing," Monica says. She is wearing green shorts, a
A high chain-link fence surrounds the court. Scanning it, Monica
tells of how, five months ago, a friend of a neighbor wanted to
meet her. She was hitting one day and, the next thing she knew,
some guy was scaling the fence. Love you, Monica! he yelled.
Come back! He dropped back down, but Monica panicked, raced off
to hide in a storage shed. Her brother, Zoltan, called the
police. The neighbor phoned later, full of apologies. He'd still
like to meet you, she said. "Tell him," Monica said, "to drop me
It is 9 a.m. and 101 degrees. Across the ocean this Thursday,
women are playing the Wimbledon semifinals. Monica isn't
interested. She has already stretched, jogged with Karolj,
served out two baskets of balls. As she rallies with this
morning's hitting partner, Auburn sophomore Davidson Kozlowski,
the slightest hint of that famous grunt works up through her
lungs: Uh-hah! There are no clouds. She feels nothing in her
back. The scar tingles only when rain is coming.
She walks back to the tiny pink boom box beside the fence. It
has been a long time since Monica professed love for Madonna's
music. Now? "I'm graduating to Hendrix," she says. And with that
statement the game ignites, balls bullet back and forth, Monica
double-fisting strokes into impossibly gorgeous angles. She
moves well. When the racket makes contact--Uh-hah!--her lips
disappear just as they did before her career collapsed in a
shocked heap 27 months ago in Hamburg, her teeth flash in a
rough grin unlike any other in women's tennis. The face of
Monica Seles at her ferocious best.
I know what I want, but I just don't know how to go about
gettin' it.... Jimi's icy guitar licks rise into the air. Monica
is hopping from foot to foot, head bobbing with the music. In
less than three hours she has soaked through three shirts.
Karolj strides about shirtless, moving this table, picking up
that ball, always watching; his belly is tanned and marred by a
giant scar--the slashing handiwork of his 1993 bout with stomach
cancer. He hooks a thumb in the waist of his shorts, and before
you know it, you're looking down another man's pants: Another
scar, this one running south. His '93 operation for prostate
"If I die, I die," he says with a shrug. He grins. He glances at
Monica. The point has just ended, and Kozlowski isn't pleased,
and there is the slightest smile on Monica's face--fleeting, yes,
but there sure enough.
"Look!" Karolj yells. "Monica happy practicing! Happy Monica!"
Wishful Karolj. She is different now--a stronger, older, wiser,
taller and, fortunately for the women's tennis tour, more
decisive Monica. Last weekend at the Special Olympics World
Games in New Haven, Conn., Seles, the 21-year-old former No. 1
player in the world, announced that she "plans" and "hopes" to
play in the U.S. Open. But last week at her home Seles wasn't
tentative at all: She is, she says, coming back. She will tune
up at tournaments in either San Diego, Los Angeles or Toronto
after her July 29 exhibition in Atlantic City against Martina
Navratilova, which will give her a chance to get used to a
rustling crowd, abrupt shouts, strange faces. But for the
eight-time Grand Slam winner, New York will mark her true return
to tennis. "If I'm not hurt, I'm going to play," Seles says.
But...happy Monica? With Gunther Parche, the unemployed lathe
operator who stabbed Seles during a changeover in Hamburg to
help Steffi Graf become No. 1, free after two trials? With the
Women's Tennis Association's shortsighted bickering over whether
to offer Seles a co-ranking of No. 1? With the thought that 10
Slam events have passed without her? Before the 1995 Australian,
Seles couldn't see highlights of any Slam without crying,
"because I should be there," she says. There were so many times
when she would be on her practice court, racing and reaching and
unleashing a gorgeous shot--and there was no one to see it.
That's what Seles missed: hitting a winner and hearing them all
scream, thousands of people she didn't know. She made them
scream. And the noise coursed back to her, flew down her arms,
into her hands; she felt such powerful chills firing through her
hands at those moments that only by gripping the racket tightly
could she calm them enough to get through the point.
For two years and three months, that was gone, along with her
champion's will. During that time Seles became something else,
became someone who went to sleep fearing sleep because he would
find her there, too, behind the high white walls of her Sarasota
home, behind the locked door. Sometimes her dreams were vivid
replays of the attack: She would see Parche's leering face,
lunging down with the knife once and trying again. She'd wake
shivering after vague visions of a tennis court and a crowd, and
the crowd shouting in fear. She couldn't get the sound of her
own voice, howling as the knife came down, out of her mind. "My
scream is what stayed with me a long time," Seles says.
"It was eating me alive. I'd go out on the court, I could be
playing great tennis, and it would all start coming back. I'd
say, I can't do this. I pretty much moved to daylight sleeping
times. I couldn't sleep at night. I saw shadows in every corner."
Seles was 19 at the time of the attack, a winner in seven of the
previous eight Grand Slams she had entered. Never has such a
dominant athlete been derailed in so bizarre a fashion. After
Parche stabbed her with the nine-inch boning knife, Seles sat on
the Hamburg court gasping as he was taken away. She had seen the
blood, and now strangers who couldn't speak English were forcing
her to sit up when all she wanted was to lie back and get some
air. Finally Zoltan pushed his way through and took her hand,
Zoltan told her everything would be fine. After long, mystifying
hours at the hospital, Monica began to calm down. Then the door
opened and a woman walked in. "I just want to show you the
evidence," the woman from the police said. And she opened her
hand, and there was the knife.
"It had a greenish handle," Seles says, and she opens her hands
nine inches apart, the edges of her fingers describing the curve
of the knife in the air. "Very long and sharp. The policewoman
said, 'It's a boning kitchen knife.' [Parche] said when he was
living with his aunt, he would cut sausages with it...and this
lady from my agent's office was translating the German, and she
said the word sausages. And he's cutting my back...." Her voice
trails off, then rolls back again, stronger.
"And then they bring in my bloody shirt," Seles says, teeth
gritted very like the moment when her racket hits the ball.
"That's when I lost it. I said, 'What is this?' And it hit me
Her body came back first. It was the easiest part to rebuild.
After basic rehabilitation at the Steadman-Hawkins clinic in
Vail, Colo., Seles began hitting tennis balls. By Oct. 14,
1993--the day Parche received a two-year suspended sentence
after his first trial--she was working out under the guidance of
Bobby Kersee and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and harder than she ever
had. She tried to pretend the stabbing never happened--"It was a
dream, and nobody won the French in '93 or Wimbledon in '94."
Word began circulating of a comeback. She thought of playing the
'94 Australian, or returning the next month. Why not? She had
seemed to bear up well during Karolj's December operation for
stomach cancer. She felt good.
Then came the Christmas holidays of 1993, her first break since
beginning rehab. Suddenly, Seles had time to think. Suddenly,
life was, she says, "darkness everywhere."
"I had been practicing so much," Seles says. "I was practicing
and rehabilitating, and I didn't have time to sit down and say,
'Am I O.K. or not?' Then I had this time, and all these memories
started coming back. What happened April 30? All these fears
came back, and it just went into this tailspin, spinning and
spinning and the ball was getting bigger and bigger so that I
couldn't sleep at all. I would be up all night in my room, just
sitting. In the dark or light, I didn't feel comfortable leaving
the house. Total depression. I was just reliving that moment.
And the knife...."
Even now it isn't easy for Seles to look in a mirror and see the
half-inch-long scar stitched just a centimeter from her spine.
But in the winter of l993-94, looking at it was torture. She
wandered from room to room, didn't smile. Her mood would rocket
up and suddenly down; she would be at dinner, and someone would
smile and tell her how much she was missed. "I would have to go
into the bathroom and cry and say, 'Why am I not playing?' Then
I come back and everybody sees me teary-eyed: Poor Monica. I
didn't know how to deal with it."
In February 1994 Karolj and Zoltan sat Monica down and insisted
she get help. She began seeing Nevada sports psychologist Jerry
Russel May, who treated her for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sometimes Seles would talk to May daily by phone. Sometimes she
would fly to Reno. She spoke to other victims, of rape, of
stabbing. She remembered details of the incident: At his trial
Parche spoke of seeing her at the hotel. "He was thinking of
giving me flowers and, I guess, cutting my hands off," Seles
says. "But he felt that would've been too risky." She asked
herself again and again what she had done to deserve Gunther
Parche. She was sure that somehow, some way, it had to be her
"Why was it me?" Seles says. "I didn't think at age 19 I would
have to deal with this: I was playing, and suddenly I wasn't
playing, and it changed my daily life. And all these emotions I
didn't know I could feel. How do I want to live my life? You
have to decide: If you live till 90 living this way, do you
really want to live? Why do I have to face these questions? This
is supposed to be fun, and here I am thinking about
life-or-death issues. This guy stabbed me, he's out there, he
can come to any tennis tournament, any place. And he's still
obsessed. What will it take for him not to do it again?"
It took seven months for Seles to begin piecing together a life
outside of tennis. Betsy Nagelsen, tennis commentator and wife
of IMG founder Mark McCormack, would stir Seles from the couch,
make her jet-ski and water-ski and keep moving. She read books
by Faye Resnick and Pope John Paul II. She began taking French
lessons. A lefty, like rock hero Hendrix, she took up the
guitar, a sleek Fender Stratocaster. She would go to a Sarasota
bookstore and sit, alone, for hours, thumbing through art books.
She took up pool.
Last November, Seles made her first public appearance in six
months, in Chicago, at the Arete Awards, which honored courage
in sports. The video clips she saw of the girl she came to
honor, a 13-year-old blind gymnast named Sonya Bell, left Seles
shaken; here was someone with a disability she will never lose,
and there she is leaping, somersaulting on a balance beam,
trusting herself in total darkness. Flying from Chicago to
Seattle to see friends, it hit Seles: Monica, look at what she
has been given and what she has done. You have a chance to go on
with your life.
During her 10-day stint in Seattle, Seles came one night upon a
Vietnam veteran begging on the street, a gray dog by his side.
It was raining. The dog had the cup in his mouth. Seles tried to
pet it, but the dog shied away, whimpering. "His spirit was
gone," she says. "And I thought of how my spirit had been broken
down." She couldn't get the picture of the man and the dog out
of her mind. "I see these other people who have no place to go,
no family, nobody. It changed my thought: You don't have it that
bad. It was good to talk to this person who had been in Vietnam,
who never got over it. I have the chance to get over it."
By January, Seles thought she was ready. May had urged her to
look at a tape of the attack--which she had steadfastly refused
to do--because it would help put the incident behind her. Some
old friends were visiting her in Sarasota over the holidays, and
everyone was talking about the case. They decided to watch the
assault, and suddenly there on the screen it was, Hamburg again,
Monica sitting during the changeover, toweling off. "When I sat
down, I said no big deal, I can watch this," Seles says. But her
heart began racing, and she broke out in a sweat, and Parche was
leaning, jabbing. Seles bolted off the couch and out of the
room. Her stomach heaved and her mouth gaped, and there, doubled
over, Seles knew: Some wounds don't mend. Ever.
Karolj is sitting on the screened deck near the pool. A pot
boils on the outdoor stove. This house, this yard with its big
trampoline and basketball court and two tennis courts and a
garage with three bright cars--all of this is nothing. The last
2-1/2 years have brought cancer and injustice and pain. But if he
has learned anything in his 62 years, it's that life is like
that old Mario Lanza line he loves: After the storm comes the
sun. "I told Monica, very important, my philosophy: Forget,"
Karolj says. "If tomorrow I die, your father? Forget."
But, of course, forgetting is impossible. Seles has grown more
than an inch, to 5'10-1/2" since she last played, and though she
feels she must lose 10 more pounds to get to her prime playing
weight, she seems thinner somehow, stretched, as if her center
of gravity has shifted since her days of terrier ferocity. She
still giggles at odd moments, thrills at meeting someone famous.
But despite everything else, she has, in her absence, become an
adult. When she goes out now, she'll wear baggy clothes, thick
glasses, let down her hair. "I've learned how to go unnoticed,"
Yet Seles still delights in being discovered, maintaining the
instinct for publicity that has kept her bobbing into view
during the Grand Slams she didn't play. There was absolutely no
need for her to announce her comeback on the day of one of the
best women's finals in Wimbledon history, but there she was at
her press conference in New Haven shortly after last Saturday's
epic Graf-Arantxa Sanchez Vicario duel. There was no need for
her to announce her exhibition with Navratilova during the
French Open, but word conveniently leaked during the first week
of the Paris tournament. While denying that she's trying to
upstage the Slams, Seles admits it. "That one was timed by
Caesars and those guys to get the most publicity," she says of
the decision to announce the July 29 exhibition during the
Such flakiness in a great talent, of course, makes Seles
compelling in a way that Sanchez Vicario will never be. "She's a
drama queen," says Chris Evert. But the drama also leaves plenty
of room for people to suspect your motives. Seles's sponsor,
Fila, sued her last December for breach of contract and fraud
(the latter charges, Seles says, have since been thrown out),
saying that Seles misled the company about three supposed
comeback attempts. Seles denies this, as well as rumors that she
stayed away from the tour to collect a fat insurance check.
"Some people felt, Monica is faking it, but why would I fake it?
There's no logic," Seles says. "I love to play tennis, and for
the past 2-1/2 years, I have lost all my income. I've not
received anything from the endorsements, and I've never had an
insurance policy. Someone said, 'Monica orchestrated this.' Why
wouldn't I play? It doesn't make sense."
Seles knows there are people who don't understand her
skittishness so long after the fact, but her story is simple:
She once had a place where she could exercise a gift appreciated
by the world. Consider how that must make a 17-year-old feel. "I
was so in control on a tennis court," she says. "If I wanted the
ball to go here, it would go here 80 percent of the time. I lost
all the control I felt I had. And the life I felt I had.
"Everything I thought would be O.K. in this world was turning
against me. And nobody could tell me it would be O.K., because
there is no guarantee. The one place I felt safe was a tennis
court--and that was taken away from me. That's the place where
I'd have no worries, whatever was going on in my private life or
in my school. I felt comfortable. And now, this is the place I
feel least safe."
Seles is in a restaurant. She is speaking of the moment, calling
him Mr. Parche, and so far her eyes and voice have been steady.
"To me what was bad was that he used a knife," Seles says. She
picks up a salt shaker. Now she is getting louder.
"If he would've hit me, or...but why did he put something in
me as sharp"--she raps the shaker on the tablecloth twice, a few
grains tumbling out--"as a knife, take it out--and want to do it
again? This person, you don't even know if he's evil or angel:
It doesn't matter. And from the back...."
She stops. Then she puts the shaker down.
No one, Seles included, knows what to expect when she finally
returns to competition. She hasn't played a set that mattered
since Hamburg. How long before she regains her form? "Maybe
tomorrow," Karolj says. "Maybe never."
There has never been room for false optimism in the Seles camp.
Even before the stabbing, Seles's giggly patter and seeming
frivolousness masked an insecurity that could only be seen in
competition. By 17, she was ranked No. 1 and was fully expecting
the world to turn on her. "I didn't know who I was as a person;
I was going through all these changes, a really weird period,"
Seles says. "I thought, If I don't win this match they're going
to hate me. I'm bad."
She is driving her truck now, crossing on a bridge over
brilliant blue-green Florida waters. It is a perfect day. She is
asked if she knows who she is today. "I think I know," Seles
says. "But I know that in 10 years--if I make it to 10
years--I'll say what did I know at that point?"
If I make it? What kind of talk is that from a rich and gifted
21-year-old whose latest word springs instantly to CNN? "You
never know," Seles says sharply. "I've got to the point where I
live every day of my life like it's my last. Anything can
happen. You never know."