Monica Seles is already on court when the woman takes a seat in
the second row and sets the dead man in her lap. The ball hops
with a pock! off the racket of Seles, who is warming up loose
and easy, no grunts. It's a cool, clear Wednesday night in
Carlsbad, Calif. The people with permatans and cell phones are
still ambling in, filling the air with chatter. The woman is
Catherine Trachtenberg. She turns to a stranger and asks for a
knife; when none is forthcoming, she begins poking her fingers
at the small clear plastic bag. The stranger makes a crack and
instantly feels stupid: This is my brother, Trachtenberg says,
and these are his ashes. Finally she tugs the bag open, leans
over and shakes out some of the contents under her chair,
frosting the grass below with a fine gray powder. "Monica was
his favorite player," Trachtenberg says.
Ever since her astonishing run to the French Open final in June,
just three weeks after the death from stomach cancer of her
father and coach, Karolj, Monica has found herself engulfed by a
tide of public affection that's touching and extreme. Every week
brings more mail from people telling how they, too, have lost a
parent, a sister, a child. No one is shy. Every trip to the store
brings a story about how much someone admires her.
Other players root for her to win. "Some guy took away part of
her career, and her dad was taken from her. Anybody can relate to
that," says Lindsay Davenport, ranked second in the world.
"Monica, we love you!" a man shouts during tonight's first set,
but the support Seles is receiving goes beyond love or pity. It's
as if by enduring five years of bizarre, sad, unjust and very
public setbacks, the 24-year-old Seles has become one of the few
millionaire athletes with whom even the cynical can identify. Who
could call her just another spoiled tennis brat? She has won nine
Grand Slam singles titles, but no one has proved more
vulnerable--to a madman's knife in 1993, to clouds of depression,
to life's brutal hits. For anyone who has experienced grief or
loss, for anyone over 20, that is, the sight of Seles in this
summer of mourning, walking between points with downcast
expression, hitting with fury, sets off emotional depth charges.
She knows what we know.
September 6, 1998
Consider her previous 24 hours. On the day before the match in
Carlsbad, Seles had lunch and hit with Shelby Anderson, an
11-year-old girl stricken with Lyme disease. The meeting had been
arranged by The Starlight Children's Foundation, which allows
seriously ill kids to submit three wishes. Seles was at the top
of Shelby's list, and not because of her talent. "One reason
Shelby picked her is that Monica has suffered and come back,"
said Shelby's mother, Juanita. "That's why. She's suffered so
Later that evening Seles was reading magazines in a Barnes &
Noble when a woman approached to say her mother had recently
died of breast cancer. "We both started crying," Seles says.
"Our parents meant so much to us, and we both had such fresh
memories and we hugged, and it was, like, Oh, god! I left
thinking, I don't even know this person. But we shared something
that's so deep, things I sometimes couldn't talk to my mom about."
Though Seles has every reason to be paranoid, few public figures
are as approachable. She has never mastered the celebrity's
thousand-yard stare; she engages whoever stops her, grins, thanks
the person, asks questions. Despite a death threat made during
the 1996 Australian Open, despite her stabbing by a deranged
Steffi Graf fan in '93--and the resulting two years of private
turmoil and high security--Seles refuses to live in a velvet
prison. Some of her closest friendships began as random meetings
in restaurants or clubs. She travels coach as often as first
class, and last year her mother, Esther, was horrified to learn
that, upon arriving in Paris, Monica had accepted a ride from
someone she had met on the plane.
Such openness has its price. Throughout Karolj's illness, doctors
at the hospital kept asking to have their picture taken with
Monica. Last year, when she returned to her hotel room during the
Madrid Open, Seles opened the door to find a stranger waiting
inside with arms full of tennis paraphernalia. She drew the man
out of the room, signed everything he had for her and bolted down
the hall. "At least if something happened, someone would hear
me," she says.
But tonight at the Toshiba Tennis Classic, the intense devotion
that only Seles seems to inspire has reached a surreal pinnacle.
After Seles takes the first-set tiebreaker from Sandrine Testud
with a screeching backhand winner, Trachtenberg, a nurse who has
driven two hours from Los Angeles, screams "Mon-I-CA!" so that
everyone in the place can hear. Every once in a while she lifts
the half-empty bag to her lips and kisses it. Her brother John
Alexander was in a wheelchair, paralyzed as the result of a
motorcycle accident, she explains, and he died of a heart attack
in January at age 43. He met Seles once, in the early 1990s at a
tournament in Manhattan Beach, and something about her touched
him. "Monica didn't care that he couldn't walk," Trachtenberg
says. "She treated him like a normal person."
Seles falls behind 1-5 in the second set. Trachtenberg goes
silent. Then, as the match turns and Seles battles to go ahead
6-5, Trachtenberg revives and shouts to her, "Monica, Mon-I-CA!
Jonathan's here." Seles sets to serve match point, and
Trachtenberg murmurs into the bag, "Please, please."
Service winner. The crowd erupts. Trachtenberg holds the bag high
over her head and yells to the black sky, "Jonathan! She did it!"
The house in Carlsbad is spacious and perfect, country-club chic,
sunlight crashing through the windows. Seles sits in the corner
of a couch. She has been waiting all day. It's 3 p.m., and she
has practiced, rested, talked to agents, friends, kept track of
the tournament--and still four hours remain until her match
against Testud. The air is still, too quiet. "It's so boring,"
she says. "It's deadly. I'm just sitting here wasting time."
For two days she has been fighting lingering jet lag and
migraines so crushing that the ball sometimes blurs or doubles
as she readies to hit, but Seles is used to all that. What hurts
now is time and the memories that flood in to fill it. Wherever
she goes, whatever tournament or city or airport, it's a place
she went with Karolj. He was everything to her: parent, best
friend, architect of her game. Every act reminds her of his
Being home is worse. People called her decision to play the
French Open courageous, but it grew from fear: Seles felt
smothered by the quiet confines of the house she shares with her
mother in Sarasota, Fla. After returning from Wimbledon, she
still couldn't bear to enter certain rooms because her father's
presence was too strong. Her new coach, Gavin Hopper, tried for
days to coax her onto the family court; when Seles finally
ventured out, she hit for just a few minutes and then demanded
that they stop. "I would give anything to bring him back," she
Karolj never bullied Monica to practice, but if she picked up a
racket, he demanded full concentration, perfect strokes. People
marvel at the strength of her return, but the origin of that
power is no mystery. "He would serve 500 to 600 balls to me daily
without saying a word," Monica says. "When I ask my hitting
partners to hit 200, the next day none of them can. My father,
until he was 62, would stand there and serve. Every day, six days
a week. He loved the game so much. He loved it more than I do."
That's what made the 17 months leading to Karolj's death even
more difficult. Since she learned, on New Year's Eve 1996, that
his stomach cancer had begun to metastasize, Monica found herself
torn between playing tournaments because it made him happy and
feeling guilty for being away. She also knew that if she took too
much time off, her ranking would drop and she would likely lose
some of her endorsement contracts. She was miserable. She gained
weight, and her vaunted mental toughness cracked: '97 passed in a
parade of horrible losses and blown leads.
It all came to an awful head this past May in Rome. Monica had
left Florida thinking her dad had rallied somewhat, but the night
before her third-round match against Testud she called home, and
no one answered. Karolj had gone to the hospital. She lost the
match, and by the time she arrived in Florida, he was barely
conscious. She never had a chance to say goodbye. He was 64.
"I regret I went. Those are a few more weeks I should've spent
home," Monica says. "The worst was flying home by myself. I'm
thinking, I'm all alone. The only thought that helped me was that
I was born alone, I live alone, and I'm going to die alone. I
knew my mom was there waiting, but I knew my dad wasn't going to
be there, and I realized that I had no support in my life
anymore, someone to take care of me."
Karolj didn't leave Monica completely alone. Last spring he told
her to seek another coach and recommended Hopper. Even while he
was sick, Karolj had taken notes as he watched Monica's matches
on TV, including her Wimbledon loss last year to Testud after
holding a 5-2 third-set lead. While preparing for a fourth-round
rematch against--who else?--Testud there this year, Monica called
Esther. "She was always there when Dad and I talked, and she
writes down everything," Monica says. "I said, 'What was his
opinion last year when I lost, what did he think I should have
changed?'" This time she beat Testud, 6-3, 6-2.
In Karolj's last weeks he hammered Monica with a message. Since
her comeback in 1995, she has shown only glimpses of the player
she once was. Distractions--court cases against her attacker,
Guenter Parche; his release; her injuries--had left her
rudderless. Said Karolj, "You have such talent, you worked so
hard as a child, and you're giving it away. If you don't want to
give to it fully, to practice and be dedicated like you were,
then you're making a mockery of when you were Number 1. Move on."
It's 3:45. Her mother isn't back. Neither is her hitting
partner. She loves being alone, craves solitude as plants crave
light. But it's an enemy, too, a time when Monica finds herself
thinking, What's going to hit me next? She thinks of her father.
She thinks of her mother dying someday. "Life is so dark," she
says. People tell her to snap out of it, "and I cannot snap out
of it," she says. Like Karolj, who seemed so lighthearted yet
carried memories of watching his own father, an ethnic
Hungarian, tortured by the Communist regime in Yugoslavia,
Monica's psyche bears a blackness that can envelop her like fog.
Once, she tried to keep that hidden.
"I was definitely a pleaser. Even until last year I always wanted
everybody to like me," she says. "Then I realized: Just be who
you are. You don't have to make everybody else happy if you're
really not happy. I realized with my dad, when he was dying, that
everything is so much a facade. The only time you're true to
yourself is when you die. You have no pretensions. I don't want
to wait until I'm dying to be like that."
She wants another 10 years. She wants to be like Chris Evert and
play until age 34, and she's willing to pay the price: She knows
she has to get fit, add a one-handed slice, come to the net more.
She knows she needs to be three steps faster to keep up with the
kids. But the real question is, How will Seles fill the void? She
has friends on tour but no one who can relate to the demands of
her talent and fame. The one person who could understand her--the
way only Martina Navratilova could understand Evert--is Graf. But
with one swipe Parche severed their rivalry and left the two
bonded only by a guilt and fear that they both want desperately
"We have a history, but we've never been close at all," Graf
says. "I'm trying to be open to people. I'm really trying. But
with her, there's been too much between us--too much happening,
too much said--that has been difficult for me to understand. It
has been years, and we really haven't had any contact since. I
was just hoping that time will--well, it will never be gone--but
somehow make it easier to live with."
For solace Monica has mostly her mother and friends such as IMG
boss Mark H. McCormack and his wife, Betsy Nagelsen, and the
crowds who come to see her. She has mixed feelings about her fans
these days. When she walks into a restaurant, it feels "like I'm
being X-rayed." People ask the most personal questions, but in
the end, she says, "it helps. I know I'm not by myself."
Never. On her first day in Carlsbad, after losing a doubles
match, Seles wades into a swarm of people at courtside to sign
autographs. Quickly, the pack threatens to wheel out of control,
men and kids shoving, Seles's bodyguard yelling, "Back off the
court!" in a voice edged with panic. Seles keeps scribbling. Pow!
A balloon pops: Her body recoils, her face jerks. She grits her
teeth and keeps signing: paper, balls, programs. Nothing to do
now but push ahead.
At last Seles realized, "You don't have to make everybody else
happy if you're not happy."
"He loved the game so much," Seles says of her father."He loved
it more than I do."