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The Return
S.L. Price
July 17, 1995
For two years Monica Seles has suffered in silence on the sidelines of the game she loves. Now she's ready to get back onto the court—and to discuss the demons that have beset her
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July 17, 1995

The Return

For two years Monica Seles has suffered in silence on the sidelines of the game she loves. Now she's ready to get back onto the court—and to discuss the demons that have beset her

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Last November, Seles made her first public appearance in six months, in Chicago, at the Arete Awards, which honored courage in sports. The video clips she saw of the girl she came to honor, a 13-year-old blind gymnast named Sonya Bell, left Seles shaken; here was someone with a disability she will never lose, and there she is leaping, somersaulting on a balance beam, trusting herself in total darkness. Flying from Chicago to Seattle to see friends, it hit Seles: Monica, look at what she has been given and what she has done. You have a chance to go on with your life.

During her 10-day stint in Seattle, Seles came one night upon a Vietnam veteran begging on the street, a gray dog by his side. It was raining. The dog had the cup in his mouth. Seles tried to pet it, but the dog shied away, whimpering. "His spirit was gone," she says. "And I thought of how my spirit had been broken down." She couldn't get the picture of the man and the dog out of her mind. "I see these other people who have no place to go, no family, nobody. It changed my thought: You don't have it that bad. It was good to talk to this person who had been in Vietnam, who never got over it. I have the chance to get over it."

By January, Seles thought she was ready. May had urged her to look at a tape of the attack—which she had steadfastly refused to do—because it would help put the incident behind her. Some old friends were visiting her in Sarasota over the holidays, and everyone was talking about the case. They decided to watch the assault, and suddenly there on the screen it was. Hamburg again, Monica sitting during the changeover, toweling off. "When I sat down, I said no big deal, I can watch this," Seles says. But her heart began racing, and she broke out in a sweat, and Parche was leaning, jabbing. Seles bolted off the couch and out of the room. Her stomach heaved and her mouth gaped, and there, doubled over, Seles knew: Some wounds don't mend. Ever.

Karolj is sitting on the screened deck near the pool. A pot boils on the outdoor stove. This house, this yard with its big trampoline and basketball court and two tennis courts and a garage with three bright cars—all of this is nothing. The last 2½ years have brought cancer and injustice and pain. But if he has learned anything in his 62 years, it's that life is like that old Mario Lanza line he loves: After the storm comes the sun. "I told Monica, very important, my philosophy: Forget," Karolj says. "If tomorrow I die, your father? Forget."

But, of course, forgetting is impossible. Seles has grown more than an inch, to 5'10½ since she last played, and though she feels she must lose 10 more pounds to get to her prime playing weight, she seems thinner somehow, stretched, as if her center of gravity has shifted since her days of terrier ferocity. She still giggles at odd moments, thrills at meeting someone famous. But despite everything else, she has, in her absence, become an adult. When she goes out now, she'll wear baggy clothes, thick glasses, let down her hair. "I've learned how to go unnoticed," she says.

Yet Seles still delights in being discovered, maintaining the instinct for publicity that has kept her bobbing into view during the Grand Slams she didn't play. There was absolutely no need for her to announce her comeback on the day of one of the best women's finals in Wimbledon history, but there she was at her press conference in New Haven shortly after last Saturday's epic Graf-Arantxa Sánchez Vicario duel. There was no need for her to announce her exhibition with Navratilova during the French Open, but word conveniently leaked during the first week of the Paris tournament. While denying that she's trying to upstage the Slams, Seles admits it. "That one was timed by Caesars and those guys to get the most publicity," she says of the decision to announce the July 29 exhibition during the French.

Such flakiness in a great talent, of course, makes Seles compelling in a way that Sanchez Vicario will never be. "She's a drama queen," says Chris Evert. But the drama also leaves plenty of room for people to suspect your motives. Seles's sponsor, Fila, sued her last December for breach of contract and fraud (the latter charges, Seles says, have since been thrown out), saying that Seles misled the company about three supposed comeback attempts. Seles denies this, as well as rumors that she stayed away from the tour to collect a fat insurance check. "Some people felt, Monica is faking it, but why would I fake it? There's no logic," Seles says. "I love to play tennis, and for the past 2½ years, I have lost all my income. I've not received anything from the endorsements, and I've never had an insurance policy. Someone said, 'Monica orchestrated this.' Why wouldn't I play? It doesn't make sense."

Seles knows there are people who don't understand her skittishness so long after the fact, but her story is simple: She once had a place where she could exercise a gift appreciated by the world. Consider how that must make a 17-year-old feel. "I was so in control on a tennis court," she says. "If I wanted the ball to go here, it would go here 80 percent of the time. I lost all the control I felt I had. And the life I felt I had.

"Everything I thought would be O.K. in this world was turning against me. And nobody could tell me it would be O.K., because there is no guarantee. The one place I felt safe was a tennis court—and that was taken away from mc. That's the place where I'd have no worries, whatever was going on in my private life or in my school. I felt comfortable. And now, this is the place I feel least safe."

Seles is in a restaurant. She is speaking of the moment, calling him Mr. Parche, and so far her eyes and voice have been steady. "To me what was bad was that he used a knife," Seles says. She picks up a salt shaker. Now she is getting louder.

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