CONSIDER THIS: While there are currently no teenagers inhabiting the WTA Tour's top 10, Monica Seles—a grunting lefty from what was then Yugoslavia with a terminal case of the giggles—had won eight Grand Slam titles and been ranked No. 1 for more than 100 weeks by the time she turned 20. It wasn't just that she was winning relentlessly but how. Clubbing the ball with her two-fisted strokes, hitting so early she often short-hopped her shots, Seles almost seemed to be playing an altogether different sport from the rest of the field, including the great Steffi Graf. Had Seles sustained her trajectory into, say, her mid-20s, she would have been recalled as the best female player ever.
We know, of course, what came next. During a tournament in Hamburg in the spring of 1993, Seles was stabbed in the back by a deranged Graf fan. Sadly, that act did more to change tennis history than any rule change or racket innovation. The wound on Seles's left shoulder blade would eventually heal; her emotional recovery would take much longer. After more than two years away, she returned—her giggles, pointedly, gone—but would win only one more Grand Slam title, the 1996 Australian Open. Graf, meanwhile, would win four more.
In the winter of 2000 I sat with Seles outside a gym in Oklahoma City, where she was playing a small WTA event. The "power era" she single-handedly (double-handedly?) inaugurated was now her nemesis, as heavy hitters such as the Williams sisters were blowing her off the court. Injuries were conspiring against her as well. Seven years after Hamburg the subject of her stabbing was still taboo. "I'm about the present," she said, before finally conceding that she was ready for the Fates to grant her a happy ending.
Yet, transformed from champion to tragedienne, Seles became far more popular than she was while winning all those titles. It became impossible to root against her, at first out of sympathy, then because she revealed herself to be so thoroughly thoughtful, graceful, dignified. When she quietly announced her retirement last week at age 34, she exited as perhaps the most-adored figure in the sport's history. As endings go, one could do worse.