She hadn't surfaced at a public event in nearly half a year. But whatever misgivings she had about appearing in the Arete Awards show in Chicago seemed to fall away as afternoon rehearsals gave way to the evening taping. Her visit as a presenter had been a fiercely guarded secret, so baseball great Hank Aaron was surprised when she strode onto the soundstage unannounced, and ESPN reporter Lesley Visser nudged her co-host, Ahmad Rashad, and whispered, "That's not Monica Seles, is it?" Sonya Bell, the 13-year-old blind gymnast whom Seles had come to honor, turned to Seles later that night and said, "I know it took a lot of courage for you to come here."
Given Seles's reclusiveness since her stabbing in Hamburg, Germany, two years ago, no detail of her visit had been left to chance. Her transport from the Chicago airport, her seat at a corner table facing the rest of the banquet room, the posting of a bodyguard (one guarding her back), all had been scripted. Seles entered the hall for the presentation of the awards, which honored courage in sports, only after the rest of the crowd had been seated. She was escorted down the aisle during the grand introductions. She was relaxed, even chatty, and everything went marvelously—until Seles and Bell joined the other stars onstage after the show, and members of the audience began abandoning their tables, pressing forward for a handshake, a bit of shouted conversation, perhaps an autograph from one of the celebrities.
"It was a deluge, just a rush of people, and I remember thinking, We didn't talk about that; we didn't practice that," says Bell's coach, Rhonda Bowen. "I could see it bothered Monica a lot. She got a little nervous. She started sweating. Her eyes got a little wide. She was getting very, very uncomfortable. Her manager finally said, 'It's time to go now.' "
That was in November. Seles didn't make another public appearance until last weekend.
If she was pessimistic at all, the thoughts were shoved deep inside her. Rather than acting like someone afraid of what might come down in a day or two in a courtroom half a world away, Monica Seles was acting almost buoyant. She traveled to Williamsburg, Va., last Friday to attend the opening of a tennis center at William & Mary that had been funded by a friend. She made the rounds of banquets and receptions. Then, discarding her past insistence on practicing in solitude, she even smacked some balls around on Sunday morning at William & Mary with a university administrator, apparently unbothered that 10 or 12 people had paused to watch.
When Monday finally broke and Seles caught a sunrise flight home to Sarasota, Fla., the day seemed to hold untold promise—a chance to put the agony of the last two years behind her. That is, until Seles telephoned her agent during a layover in Atlanta and was told that her assailant, Günter Parche, was again a free man. Falling into the arms of her mother, Esther, Seles began sobbing inconsolably. When Seles's throat unclenched enough for her to talk, her voice was tremulous and thin.
She didn't linger on her obvious shock as she spoke to a reporter on the phone. By now, even the anger had been wrung out of her, replaced only by a plaintive question that Seles understandably asked again and again. "How can anyone say that it's O.K. to do what this man did to another human being?" Seles said into the phone, crying softly. "How can they say it's O.K.? I'm a human being."
How? The basic facts about the attack are undisputed. Parche, an unemployed German lathe operator, admits that he stalked Seles for days before stabbing her once in the shoulder, his two hands wrapped around the handle of a nine-inch boning knife. The attack occurred on April 30, 1993, during a tournament match at the Rothenbaum Tennis Club in Hamburg before 7,000 people. Parche said he assaulted Seles to restore his countrywoman, Steffi Graf, to the No. 1 world ranking that Seles had wrested away.
Yet when Parche's first trial concluded on Oct. 13, 1993, he received only a two-year suspended sentence. Judge Elke Bosse said then that she found Parche's promise to not hurt anyone again "absolutely believable," especially when buttressed by a court-appointed psychiatrist's opinion that Parche is "mentally diminished" but a low risk to be a repeat offender. After a 19-month wait, a new judge, Gertraut Göring, basically concurred, adding that Seles's refusal to testify was a determining factor, even though in testifying Seles would have had to sit with her back to the courtroom.
Suddenly, instead of the closure she sought, Seles was back where she was two years ago, trying to explain away the unexplainable through her terror and her heartbreak. "How can they have expected me to go back there and testify?" Seles said on Monday, her voice breaking again. "When I heard I would have to sit in the courtroom with my back to him, I knew it was the 100 percent absolute right decision. I mean, the man stabbed me.