Need further proof that time, while it might not fly, at least runs a 4.4 40? It was 20 years ago that Monica Seles, all arms and legs and larynx, made her debut on the WTA tour. She was 15, and within two years she wasn't just winning Grand Slam singles titles—she was also dominating the field, including her purported rival, Steffi Graf. Blasting the ball with two hands off both sides, generating angles and levels of intensity never seen in women's tennis, she won tournaments as a matter of ritual. ¬∂ Seles's game didn't draw high marks for style, even when she wasn't punctuating her shots with keening shrieks. But damn, it was effective. "I look at videos, and I'm like, Wow, I was really good," Seles, 35, says with a laugh, as if describing a different person. "I was one-dimensional, but I had this focus"—here she crunches her face—"this drive!" During one stretch, from January 1991 to January '93, she won seven of the eight Grand Slam tournaments she entered. She was on track to become the most accomplished player ever to grip a racket.
This is an article from the July 13, 2009 issue
Then, of course, came the great twist in the narrative. In the spring of 1993, at a French Open tune-up event in Hamburg, Germany, Seles sat down in a courtside chair during a changeover. As she rested, G√ºnter Parche, a deranged fan who later claimed he was acting to preserve Graf's dominance, plunged a nine-inch serrated boning knife into Seles's left shoulder. It was one of the most horrifying moments in sports history: a top athlete in her prime viciously attacked during competition. Sadly, one of tennis's enduring images is that of a shocked and agonizing Seles collapsing on the court after the stabbing.
This mad act would change the sport irrevocably. Seles would miss two years of tournaments. Graf, who already had 11 major singles titles, would win six more in Seles's absence, cementing her legacy—just as her violent admirer had intended.
While Seles's injury healed after a few months, the wound to her psyche was more serious. After a period of "darkness" (her word) she returned to tennis in the summer of 1995. But she was a shard of her old self, "not even close" to the same player, she admits. She had once cut the ribbon for the power era in women's tennis; now bigger, stronger players, starting with the Williams sisters, simply overpowered her. And fate kept harassing Seles. Her father and coach, Karolj—one of the relatively few universally well-regarded tennis parents—was stricken by stomach cancer and died in '98. Meanwhile, Parche never spent a day in prison. (He received a two-year suspended sentence for causing grievous bodily harm and underwent mandatory psychiatric treatment.) Seles's legal costs, including a failed lawsuit against the German tennis federation for inadequate security, exceeded $1 million.
Ultimately, though, what sabotaged Seles's comeback was addiction. Not to drugs or alcohol or gambling, but to food. "With all the things that happened, eating became my therapy," she says. She would eat early and snack late. Sometimes she would dine out ("Name me any city in the world," she says, "and I'll tell you the best Italian restaurant"), and sometimes she would stay in and gorge on junk food (pretzels stuffed with peanut butter were a favorite). "It wasn't the food, it was the emotion," she says. "I always loved to eat, but eventually eating overtook my life. I could control a tennis match. This I couldn't control at all."
Her weight gain occasioned cruel remarks. The notoriously rude Chilean player Marcelo Ríos—he of the zero Grand Slam titles—was once stuck behind Seles in a players' cafeteria line and reportedly instructed her to move her "fat butt." But the more subtle references stung just as much. Journalists' and commentators' critiques of her "conditioning" were thinly veiled references to her weight. As for personal acquaintances, Seles tells the story of the time a boyfriend once wrapped his arm around her waist and, just loud enough for his friends to hear, sniffed, "Whoa, honey, you better watch it. You're getting a little too pleasantly plump around there."
"Oh, really?" she said, smacking his considerable gut. "Have you looked in the mirror lately?"
"Whatever," he responded. "You're a chick. It's different."
She broke up with him that night.
Even 35 pounds overweight, at 174, Seles hovered around the top 10 on talent alone. "Remember when Andre [Agassi] dropped to Number 141 and it was a wake-up call? I never really had that," she says. So she kept playing, seldom losing early in tournaments but seldom winning the big prizes. Meanwhile, she spent a small fortune on diet books. She hired fitness gurus. At one point she even retained track coach Bob Kersee to help with her training. None of it worked.
By late 2003 Seles was suffering from a chronic injury to her right foot—perhaps caused at least partially by her weight. In fits and starts she rehabbed for years, but she never made it back onto the court. The career that had once blazed with so much promise was officially laid to rest in '08. Inasmuch as Seles's retirement announcement made any news, it was because it came accompanied by reports that she would be appearing on Dancing with the Stars. She was the first celebrity voted off the show that season.
Still, for all the unfortunate subplots, the Monica Seles story is, finally, a happy one. When she was recast as the ultimate underdog she became far more popular than she had been when she was acquiring trophies in bulk. She, in turn, opened up. And the more fans got to know her, the more they liked her. Here was the rare athlete who was not just down-to-earth but also thoroughly aware of life beyond the rectangles of a tennis court. She shopped where fans shopped, read what they read; she, too, snuck seconds on dessert, fretted over finances and knew loss and failure. "I think people related to her so much, they almost came to see a little of themselves in her," says Lindsay Davenport, the former world No. 1 and one of Seles's good friends. (That's another of Seles's virtues: She ignored the prevailing social code of the women's circuit and cultivated friendships with her colleagues.)
Seles also finally got control of her weight. The moment of reckoning came when she turned 30 in 2003, doddering in tennis years, and was made to wear a boot on her injured foot. "I'm thinking, If I'm heavy when I worked out five or six hours a day, what's going to happen now when I can't move and don't have my coach and trainer around?" she recalls. "I just had to get of out this rut."
She did so without dieting, much less popping weight-loss pills or spending her waking hours on a treadmill. For the last five years she's maintained a healthy weight for her 5'10" frame—140 pounds or so, if you must know—and claims to be appreciably happier. Her secret? As she put it in her recent book, Getting a Grip, "You just have to figure out what's eating you ... and deal with it." Once she did, food was simply food, not a means of escape or form of therapy. "It's not, Don't eat that cookie," she says. "It's, Eat one cookie. The other one? Save it for tomorrow. It will still be there."
If writing such a bracingly candid book was cathartic, so was the publicity tour. "I'm not crazy about crowds, but it hasn't been so bad," she says as she nurses a latte in a busy New York City Starbucks. "Also, rehashing the stabbing for the 500th time—you know, I realize, sadly, people know me for that, and it's part of my life."
Seles still plays tennis but purely for fun. She's taken to hitting forehands with only one hand on the racket—the equivalent of Roger Clemens throwing sidearm. She doesn't keep score and wouldn't care if she lost or won. Where does she channel all that intensity she once released on the tennis court? "I don't," she says flatly. "Look, tennis was great. It gave me wonderful opportunities, and I loved to play. But that part of my life is over. I've noticed that some athletes have such a hard time retiring. I don't get that." The thought hangs in the air, and then, Seles being Seles, she quickly adds, "That's just me. Whatever works for other people, more power to you." This summer she'll be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Seles spends most of her time nourishing her passions. She served an internship in an architecture firm. She's been taking photography courses. She and a friend have been designing jewelry. She hangs out with her four dogs and a gaggle of friends who are indifferent to her tennis career. "As an athlete you have a choice to be as [socially] open or closed as you want," she says. "I made a choice to be open."
She's also taken an interest in women's causes, particularly through the Laureus Foundation. "The more you travel, the more you realize that in a lot of cultures, women are treated unequally," she says. "My dad got heat, even from his own family, about having a daughter who played sports. I wasn't allowed on official courts [in her native Yugoslavia]; I played on practice courts and the parking lot. Now [Serbia] has two top women players [Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic]. Even if girls don't make it to a professional level, it's important to introduce them to sports." Then, predictably, she adds, "But I don't want to get too political."
We hear it all the time: People who endure horrifying events express a curious indebtedness to them later in life. The trauma strengthens their character or otherwise helps make them who they are. So, to what extent does Seles credit her tragedies for making her the person she is today? She thinks about it and then demurs.
"It's been a journey, and it took a while, but I'm here and I'm happy," she says finally. "What if we leave it at that?"
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