Memories of Monica Seles' stabbing and how it changed a career
The word "anniversary" does not fit the occasion. It's an all-encompassing word, covering events of every conceivable nature, but it doesn't mesh well with cowardice or hate. Let's just say it's been 20 years since Monica Seles had her career maimed and dismantled on a court in Hamburg, Germany, and then try to remember her historic effect on women's tennis.
It's a topic that doesn't get nearly enough play.
When a deeply disturbed German man named Gunter Parche approached the court during a changeover, grabbed a nine-inch boning knife with two hands and stabbed Seles in the back -- April 30, 1993 (startling video here) -- his mission was horrifyingly complete: Steffi Graf, the object of his obsession, eventually regained the No. 1 ranking from Seles, then just 19 and sensationally on the rise.
The wretched man didn't realize that Graf's career would, in fact, be tainted -- or that Graf would be appalled at the notion of Seles vanishing from tennis in such a manner. He ruined everything for everybody, with the possible exception of himself. Over the course of two trials, Parche was deemed to be so deranged as to be incapable of reason and no longer a threat to anyone. He never served a moment of jail time.
What's lost, in the pile of emotional residue, is Seles' place in the pantheon. The statistical evidence is quite impressive: winning seven out of eight majors as a teenager, finishing with nine overall (more than Evonne Goolagong, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis or Venus Williams), becoming the youngest player ever to win the French Open and to earn the year-end No. 1 ranking.
It's just that the numbers look rather paltry against, say, Margaret Court's 24 titles, Graf's 22, or Martina Navratilova's decades of ground-breaking athleticism. Seles' name rarely surfaces in discussions about the all-time greats, and that's a terrible shame, for she had as much on-court impact as any player in history.
Today's game is all about maturity, complete physical development and the experience required to win big matches under stressful conditions. Teenagers rarely exert much influence at the highest level. Seles came from a different era, when 16-year-old prodigies were almost commonplace, but she was different. Quite simply, she generated more power than anyone had ever seen.
Court was the first to advance power tennis in the modern era, with her imposing wingspan and formidable serve. Billie Jean King came to represent the power of women, period, and then came Navratilova, playing a style of tennis delightfully reminiscent of Jack Kramer, Rod Laver and other masters of the serve-and-volley game.
When Graf came along, she unleashed a forehand more awe-inspiring than any that had come before. She reached the final of 13 consecutive majors at one point (1987-90), winning nine, and it appeared there wasn't a damned thing anyone could do about it.
Behold, then, the Seles family: ethnic Hungarians from Novi Sad, a town in the section of the former Yugoslavia claimed by Serbs. Monica had no entourage or outside coach, only her brother and hitting partner, Zoltan, and her parents, Esther and Karolj, a cartoonist and film director by trade. He was the mastermind behind Seles' career, refreshingly down-to-earth and intent on producing a true original.
The two-handed backhand had long been mastered by Chris Evert, spawning many thousands of disciples and changing the women's game forever, but Seles went two-handed from both wings. The sizzling pace and acute angles of her shots were revolutionary, and she was always on the attack. Fans will forever be curious if Evert, who retired in 1989, could have played Graf straight-up in her prime. It's certainly a possibility, but no guarantee. Seles left no doubt.
Graf won her first three matches against Seles, including a 6-0, 6-1 rout at Wimbledon when Seles was just 15. But Seles broke through by defeating Graf in the 1990 Berlin final. Then came her life-changing victory in the 1990 French Open final, 7-6, 6-4. Two years later, in an even more dramatic match, Seles scored a 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 victory in the final at Roland Garros. The two would meet in only two other major finals -- Graf winning the '92 Wimbledon, Seles the '93 Australian Open -- before the fateful stabbing.
Aside from being compelling and spectacularly competitive, this rivalry had the crucial element of contrast: Graf with her elegant sliced backhand, leaping forehand and fleet court coverage; Seles relentlessly whacking away with little regard for touch or variety. Why should she bother? She had everyone fleeing for the corners, off-balance and short of reply.
The lithe, nimble Graf struck observers as someone who could train for the 800 meters and win Olympic gold. Seles in her prime, wrote Sally Jenkins in Sports Illustrated, was rather "pear-shaped" and "does not appear to be fit. Her strokes are awkward, and nothing about her movement is graceful. Standing next to the supremely fit Navratilova, she resembles a couch potato."
It must be noted, with regret, that Seles struck tennis balls not merely in a fury, but with vocal accompaniment. Venus Williams recalled watching Seles and coming up with her own on-court shrieks, and she was hardly alone. What Venus got most out of the experience, though, was the sight of raw, unbridled power laying waste to the best players in the world. The Williams sisters established standards of baseline artillery that would affect many generations to come, but before they hit the scene, there was Seles, taking balls on the rise and crushing them with mind-blowing dexterity.
The difference between Seles' game and her off-court persona was remarkable and downright hilarious. Catch any snapshot of her two-handed stroke on impact; the countenance is one of a cold-hearted finisher, prepared to win at any cost. In press conferences -- remember, this was a teenage girl raised by level-headed, good-hearted parents -- she had a constant case of the giggles, as if every single thing struck her funny. I distinctly recall glancing at seasoned, world-weary tennis writers completely disarmed during her early appearances the U.S. Open.
Still, "nobody really knew her," in Navratilova's words, and there were those who claimed that Seles' forever-cheerful nature was a mask for insecurity. She and her family were suspicious of outsiders, to the point where she wore wigs, traveled under assumed names, booked practice courts in secret and lived behind electronic iron gates. After Hamburg, that insecurity evolved into outright paranoia.
She was away from tennis for 27 months, 10 Grand Slam events taking place without her. Graf won six of those majors, gaining well-earned satisfaction but with a measure of regret. At the mention of Parche, she told reporters the incident "hurt me, too. It hurts me to know that it happened in Germany, that this guy is German and that apparently he's a fan of mine."
There was a 19-month wait between trials, during which Parche was free to live his life with no probation restrictions. And when he came up for a second trial, promising never to hurt anyone again, the judge found his words "absolutely believable." As the madman roamed free, the tormented Seles was left to ponder the preposterous injustice of it all, often finding herself retreating into darkness and sobbing uncontrollably.
"There was the way he did it, the way he planned it, the idea that he put the knife in my back, pulled it out and was going to do it again," she told SI's Johnette Howard in 1995. "I can still see the hate in his face that I saw when I turned around. And they say he doesn't have to go to jail at all?"
Through months of what she described as "total depression," gaining weight and haunted that she "saw shadows in every corner," Seles rarely addressed the notion of returning to the court. When she did, at the 1995 Canadian Open, she drew emotional strength from the fact that, as a naturalized U.S. citizen, she could target playing for America in the 1996 Olympics.
And without question, there were flashes of the old Seles. Even while admitting she was "not even close" to her vintage self, she won that first tournament, and took Graf to three sets at the U.S. Open a month later. Then, in a stirring personal triumph, she defeated Anke Huber to win the 1996 Australian Open -- the last bold statement in a career that, deep down, she knew could never be the same.
I haven't heard much about Seles' life these days, only that she has engaged herself full-bore in a number of pursuits and, on the best days, she's awfully good company. I'd imagine that other days aren't so invigorating. I can only recalling her at the age of 35, marveling at videos of her prime-time performances and telling a Sports Illustrated writer, "Wow. I was really good."
That doesn't begin to describe it. We should all get a look at those tapes. Come spring, every year is the anniversary of Monica Seles' greatness.