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The scene that was played out at the genteel, tree-lined Rothenbaum Tennis Club in Hamburg, Germany, last week may have looked like pure Hitchcock—a knife looming over a vulnerable young woman—but it was no movie: A deranged German tennis fan, obsessed with the idea of returning the No. 1 ranking to countrywoman Steffi Graf, stabbed top-ranked Monica Seles in the back during the quarterfinals of the Citizen Cup tennis tournament. Although the 19-year-old Seles was not seriously injured, there was nothing superficial about the wound inflicted on her psyche.
Last Friday evening, during a changeover in Seles's match against 18-year-old Magdalena Maleeva of Bulgaria, the assailant stabbed Seles with a nine-inch, curved, serrated boning knife, striking her just below the left shoulder blade. Seles's attacker was later identified as Günter Parche, 38, an unemployed lathe operator from Görsbach, Thuringia, in eastern Germany. Parche has lived with his aunt, Irma Pieckardt, for 22 years. "He was always a quiet, reticent child," Pieckardt told a reporter. "His best friend was the TV set."
Parche was charged with attempted murder after he told Hamburg authorities that he had stabbed Seles because he "could not bear" the fact that she held the No. 1 ranking. He said he did not mean to kill Seles but only to injure her, so that the 23-year-old Graf, Seles's chief rival, could recover the No. 1 ranking Seles took from her two years ago.
Seles suffered a puncture wound half an inch deep and a slightly torn muscle just to the left of her spinal cord, according to tournament physicians. She was hospitalized and in seclusion at Hamburg's Eppendorf University Hospital for two nights before returning to the U.S. on Sunday night. Seles's recovery is expected to take at least four weeks, and she will most likely miss the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament beginning May 24, in which she was scheduled to defend the championship she won the past three years. No one could predict what long-term emotional effects the attack might have on Seles, who had become fearful and even reclusive during the past two years after receiving death threats from Croats because of her Serbian origins.
Athletes have been used as pawns by politicians, abused by mobs and taken hostage and slain by terrorists. But rarely, if ever, has an athlete of Seles's stature been so savagely attacked purely for reasons related to sport. That is what made last week's incident all the more unnerving. Who can guard against such behavior? It provided an emphatic reminder of the origin of the word fan, which comes from fanatic. "This hurt me, too," said Graf. "It hurts me to know that it happened in Germany, that this guy is German and that apparently he's a fan of mine."
Seles was described by the handful of people who had seen her after the attack as suffering from emotional shock. Although Seles could have been released from the hospital after one night, she chose to spend one more in her private room on the ninth and uppermost floor, with Hamburg police patrolling the halls. On Saturday morning she received a visit from Graf, with whom she had an emotional meeting, though they exchanged few words. "I would say she is very, very depressed," said Graf. Although Graf went on to reach the Citizen Cup final, she was clearly drained. She lost 6-3, 6-3 to Spain's Arantxa Sánchez Vicario on Sunday.
Had the attack been politically motivated, perhaps it would have been easier to fathom. But a spokesman for the Hamburg police, Dankmar Lund, said that Parche appeared confused, if not insane, when questioned, and that the authorities had no reason to doubt the explanation he save for the assault. Parche told authorities he had contemplated the attack for some time and saw his opportunity when Seles took a wild card into the tournament. He told police he stalked Seles as she progressed through the draw.
"We've had threats to Monica before, and to other players as well," said Gerard Smith, executive director of the Women's Tennis Association. "But this is bizarre. You can't imagine someone who would take a sport to such an absurd level."
Seles has always been wary of a physical attack. Although she is an ethnic Hungarian, Seles may well be the world's most famous Serb. Born in Novi Sad, a town in a section of the former Yugoslavia claimed by Serbs, she moved to Bradenton, Fla., when she was 12 to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. She now lives in Sarasota and is considering becoming a U.S. citizen. Over the past two years Seles has tried to distance herself from the conflict in her homeland. "I am an individual," she has said. "I play for Monica." Nevertheless, about 150 Serbs demonstrated in protest of the attack outside the Rothenbaum club on Saturday morning.
Because of the death threats, which included a bomb scare at Wimbledon last year, Seles is exceedingly cautious when traveling the circuit, using an assumed name at hotels, making multiple plane reservations and sometimes wearing a wig and remaining secretive about her practice schedule. Hamburg was Seles's first tournament after a long absence because of a viral infection. She said she had been bedridden during much of the 63-day hiatus, but early last week Seles was cheerful and seemed glad to be back. At the same time, she defended her furtiveness.