CONSIDER THIS: While there are currently no teenagers inhabiting the WTA Tour's top 10, Monica Seles—a grunting lefty from what was then Yugoslavia with a terminal case of the giggles—had won eight Grand Slam titles and been ranked No. 1 for more than 100 weeks by the time she turned 20. It wasn't just that she was winning relentlessly but how. Clubbing the ball with her two-fisted strokes, hitting so early she often short-hopped her shots, Seles almost seemed to be playing an altogether different sport from the rest of the field, including the great Steffi Graf. Had Seles sustained her trajectory into, say, her mid-20s, she would have been recalled as the best female player ever.
We know, of course, what came next. During a tournament in Hamburg in the spring of 1993, Seles was stabbed in the back by a deranged Graf fan. Sadly, that act did more to change tennis history than any rule change or racket innovation. The wound on Seles's left shoulder blade would eventually heal; her emotional recovery would take much longer. After more than two years away, she returned—her giggles, pointedly, gone—but would win only one more Grand Slam title, the 1996 Australian Open. Graf, meanwhile, would win four more.
In the winter of 2000 I sat with Seles outside a gym in Oklahoma City, where she was playing a small WTA event. The "power era" she single-handedly (double-handedly?) inaugurated was now her nemesis, as heavy hitters such as the Williams sisters were blowing her off the court. Injuries were conspiring against her as well. Seven years after Hamburg the subject of her stabbing was still taboo. "I'm about the present," she said, before finally conceding that she was ready for the Fates to grant her a happy ending.
Yet, transformed from champion to tragedienne, Seles became far more popular than she was while winning all those titles. It became impossible to root against her, at first out of sympathy, then because she revealed herself to be so thoroughly thoughtful, graceful, dignified. When she quietly announced her retirement last week at age 34, she exited as perhaps the most-adored figure in the sport's history. As endings go, one could do worse.
February 25, 2008
41 Points by which Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt last week, the Wildcats' worst loss ever in the SEC.
10 Consecutive intercollegiate men's squash championships won by Trinity College in Hartford (SI, Feb. 11), which finished its 10th straight undefeated season on Sunday.
17 Age of Rachel Flanders, of Bolton, England, who last week became the youngest person to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
195 Days it took Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont, 25, to bike around the world; the feat is awaiting certification by Guinness World Records.
17 Months Annika Sorenstam went without a victory before winning the SBS Open, her 70th LPGA title, on Sunday.
What It Is...
WHEN ASKED by Congress why he didn't remind Roger Clemens that he was speaking the truth during their infamous taped phone call, Brian McNamee said he did. According to McNamee, his response to Clemens—"It is what it is"—meant "the truth is the truth." Some House members were baffled, and rightly so. The tautology can mean many things. Consider:
• Rutgers women's coach C. Vivian Stringer, after a clock error contributed to a loss to Tennessee on Feb. 11: "Those great players didn't deserve this, and neither did my great team. It is what it is." In other words: Next game, I'm bringing my own clock.
• Danica Patrick (left), on her lack of stature, in 2006: "It is what it is. Race car drivers are small in general." In other words: I'd run over my grandmother to be 5'10".
• Patriots coach Bill Belichick (above), after the Super Bowl: "I'm not going to sit here and dwell on anything, good or bad, that happened in the past. It is what it is." In other words: I won't stop stewing until training camp.
• New Mexico offensive tackle Claude Terrell, after the Lobos accepted a bid for the 2004 Emerald Bowl: "It is what it is, and we've just got to make the most of it." In other words: I should have gone to USC.
• Suns forward Shawn Marion, on an offensive hot streak in 2004: "I didn't know we were scoring that much, but it is what it is, and we do what we do." In other words: Damn, we're good.
• Reggie Miller, on the '04 Pistons-Pacers brawl: "Obviously you never want to see something like that happen, but it is what it is." In other words: Hey, it's Ron Artest.
• Kobe Bryant, on his feud with Shaquille O'Neal, in '05: "I just moved on. It is what it is." In other words: I hate that guy.