The gate is open. Monica Seles was out a bit late last night, shooting pool at a Sarasota pub, so there is no sound coming from the tennis court yet. But she is there, hurrying because even at 8 a.m. you can feel the coming blaze of Florida in July. Her father, Karolj, rolls the clay. Small talk: Hello, nice place, how long have you been here? "We moved here six months after the stabbing," Monica says. She is wearing green shorts, a T-shirt.
A high chain-link fence surrounds the court. Scanning it, Monica tells of how, five months ago, a friend of a neighbor wanted to meet her. She was hitting one day and, the next thing she knew, some guy was scaling the fence. Love you, Monica! he yelled. Come back! He dropped back down, but Monica panicked, raced off to hide in a storage shed. Her brother, Zoltan, called the police. The neighbor phoned later, full of apologies. He'd still like to meet you, she said. "Tell him," Monica said, "to drop me a note."
It is 9 a.m. and 101°. Across the ocean this Thursday, women are playing the Wimbledon semifinals. Monica isn't interested. She has already stretched, jogged with Karolj, served out two baskets of balls. As she rallies with this morning's hitting partner, Auburn sophomore Davidson Kozlowski, the slightest hint of that famous grunt works up through her lungs: Uh-hah! There are no clouds. She feels nothing in her back. The scar tingles only when rain is coming.
She walks back to the tiny pink boom box beside the fence. It has been a long time since Monica professed love for Madonna's music. Now? "I'm graduating to Hendrix," she says. And with that statement the game ignites, balls bullet back and forth, Monica double-fisting strokes into impossibly gorgeous angles. She moves well. When the racket makes contact—Uh-hah!—her lips disappear just as they did before her career collapsed in a shocked heap 27 months ago in Hamburg, her teeth flash in a rough grin unlike any other in women's tennis. The face of Monica Seles at her ferocious best.
I know what I want, but I just don't know how to go about gettin' it.... Jimi's icy guitar licks rise into the air. Monica is hopping from foot to foot, head bobbing with the music. In less than three hours she has soaked through three shirts. Karolj strides about shirtless, moving this table, picking up that ball, always watching; his belly is tanned and marred by a giant scar—the slashing handiwork of his 1993 bout with stomach cancer. He hooks a thumb in the waist of his shorts, and before you know it, you're looking down another man's pants: Another scar, this one running south. His '93 operation for prostate cancer.
"If I die, I die," he says with a shrug. He grins. He glances at Monica. The point has just ended, and Kozlowski isn't pleased, and there is the slightest smile on Monica's face—fleeting, yes, but there sure enough.
"Look!" Karolj yells. "Monica happy practicing! Happy Monica!" Monica. Last weekend at the Special Olympics World Games in New Haven, Conn., Seles, the 21-year-old former No. 1 player in the world, announced that she "plans" and "hopes" to play in the U.S. Open. But last week at her home Seles wasn't tentative at all: She is, she says, coming back. She will tune up at tournaments in either San Diego, Los Angeles or Toronto after her July 29 exhibition in Atlantic City against Martina Navratilova, which will give her a chance to get used to a rustling crowd, abrupt shouts, strange faces. But for the eight-time Grand Slam winner, New York will mark her true return to tennis. "If I'm not hurt, I'm going to play," Seles says.
But...happy Monica? With Günther Parche, the unemployed lathe operator who stabbed Seles during a changeover in Hamburg to help Steffi Graf become No. 1, free after two trials? With the Women's Tennis Association's shortsighted bickering over whether to offer Seles a co-ranking of No. 1? With the thought that 10 Slam events have passed without her? Before the 1995 Australian, Seles couldn't see highlights of any Slam without crying, "because I should be there," she says. There were so many times when she would be on her practice court, racing and reaching and unleashing a gorgeous shot—and there was no one to see it. That's what Seles missed: hitting a winner and hearing them all scream, thousands of people she didn't know. She made them scream. And the noise coursed back to her, flew down her arms, into her hands; she felt such powerful chills firing through her hands at those moments that only by gripping the racket tightly could she calm them enough to get through the point.
For two years and three months, that was gone, along with her champion's will. During that time Seles became something else, became someone who went to sleep fearing sleep because he would find her there, too, behind the high white walls of her Sarasota home, behind the locked door. Sometimes her dreams were vivid replays of the attack: She would see Parche's leering face, lunging down with the knife once and trying again. She'd wake shivering after vague visions of a tennis court and a crowd, and the crowd shouting in fear. She couldn't get the sound of her own voice, howling as the knife came down, out of her mind. "My scream is what stayed with me a long time," Seles says.
"It was eating me alive. I'd go out on the-court, I could be playing great tennis, and it would all start coming back. I'd say, I can't do this. I pretty much moved to daylight sleeping times. I couldn't sleep at night. I saw shadows in every corner."