When she left the game at 19 she was the absolute best. She had amassed 32 singles titles in only four years, won seven of the previous eight Grand Slam events that she played and made the finals in 32 of her last 33 tournaments. Other players had more athleticism. What separated Seles was her unbreakable will. And this: "No one really knew her," says Martina Navratilova.
Though Seles's 23-month absence is the longest of her career, it's not the first time she has slipped out of sight. In 1993 she missed 63 days with an unspecified viral infection, and in 1991, shortly after becoming No. 1, she went incommunicado and skipped venerable Wimbledon. In the firestorm that ensued, the frothing British tabloids suggested everything from the possibility that Seles was pregnant (or a "Wimble-mum") to the notion that she was romancing Donald Trump. When Stephanie Tolleson, Seles's agent, finally tracked her down, she implored Seles, "Say something. At least let me tell them all you're not pregnant."
Seles shot back, "How do you know I'm not?"
Even in the best of times, Seles is a bundle of contradictions. She can be charming yet coy, good-hearted but peevish, publicity-loving and abruptly inaccessible. She cultivated an image as a glamorous enigma. Yet she often becomes hurt or angry when, inevitably, she's misunderstood. She insists on near-total control while reserving her right to act unpredictably.
In addition to Seles's talent, tennis misses her flamboyance and her sense of the absurd. For her debut on Court Central at the French Open in 1989, she flipped roses to the crowd. For a while she changed hair colors like other people change socks, trying to decide whether to go blonder ("You know, the Swedish goddess look," she said) or shave her pate like rock star Sinead O'Connor—"until somebody reminded me my head would get pretty sunburned," Seles cracked.
Among the thoughts that now make Karolj cry is, "Monica was a girl who was laughing all the time, having fun," he says. "All that is now gone." Until last weekend Monica had made only three public appearances since being stabbed—at a charity exhibition and press conference before the '93 U.S. Open, at a charity event in Monaco last summer and at the Arete Awards.
If she occasionally feels like a bird in a cage, she's not a complete shut-in. Friends say Seles has been skiing in Vail, frequenting the beach near her Florida home and haunting shopping malls. Last summer she attended some World Cup soccer games. She has also tried hiking, fly-fishing and camping.
Seles rarely answers the telephone when she's home, but she has become an inveterate fax sender and letter writer. When Pam Shriver, president of the WTA at the time, offhandedly told reporters in January 1994 that she'd had a recent telephone conversation with Seles, Seles fired off a fax to Shriver and sent copies to four or five other tennis officials. Seles's gripe? "She felt I had betrayed our conversation," Shriver says, "because I said she was considering playing Australia."
By then Seles had said as much herself in an interview in late December '93. Shortly before that, the president of Tennis Australia, Geoff Pollard, suggested that Seles might play in the Australian Open, which is held in mid-January. Fila was convinced. It spent $3.5 million on a new line of Seles clothing.
Then figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Seles released a statement later the same day saying she wouldn't play Australia after all. Seles's publicist now insists the timing of her announcement was coincidence. (Others agree, saying Seles's never-explained reason for not playing was her father's diagnosis of treatable prostate cancer.) Either way, a shaken Seles did phone a friend after the Kerrigan attack and say, "It happened again."