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July 13, 2009
RETURN GAME She burst onto the scene two decades ago, came to dominate women's tennis—and then traveled a rocky road to self-discovery
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July 13, 2009

Monica Seles

RETURN GAME She burst onto the scene two decades ago, came to dominate women's tennis—and then traveled a rocky road to self-discovery

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Need further proof that time, while it might not fly, at least runs a 4.4 40? It was 20 years ago that Monica Seles, all arms and legs and larynx, made her debut on the WTA tour. She was 15, and within two years she wasn't just winning Grand Slam singles titles—she was also dominating the field, including her purported rival, Steffi Graf. Blasting the ball with two hands off both sides, generating angles and levels of intensity never seen in women's tennis, she won tournaments as a matter of ritual. ¶ Seles's game didn't draw high marks for style, even when she wasn't punctuating her shots with keening shrieks. But damn, it was effective. "I look at videos, and I'm like, Wow, I was really good," Seles, 35, says with a laugh, as if describing a different person. "I was one-dimensional, but I had this focus"—here she crunches her face—"this drive!" During one stretch, from January 1991 to January '93, she won seven of the eight Grand Slam tournaments she entered. She was on track to become the most accomplished player ever to grip a racket.

Then, of course, came the great twist in the narrative. In the spring of 1993, at a French Open tune-up event in Hamburg, Germany, Seles sat down in a courtside chair during a changeover. As she rested, Günter Parche, a deranged fan who later claimed he was acting to preserve Graf's dominance, plunged a nine-inch serrated boning knife into Seles's left shoulder. It was one of the most horrifying moments in sports history: a top athlete in her prime viciously attacked during competition. Sadly, one of tennis's enduring images is that of a shocked and agonizing Seles collapsing on the court after the stabbing.

This mad act would change the sport irrevocably. Seles would miss two years of tournaments. Graf, who already had 11 major singles titles, would win six more in Seles's absence, cementing her legacy—just as her violent admirer had intended.

While Seles's injury healed after a few months, the wound to her psyche was more serious. After a period of "darkness" (her word) she returned to tennis in the summer of 1995. But she was a shard of her old self, "not even close" to the same player, she admits. She had once cut the ribbon for the power era in women's tennis; now bigger, stronger players, starting with the Williams sisters, simply overpowered her. And fate kept harassing Seles. Her father and coach, Karolj—one of the relatively few universally well-regarded tennis parents—was stricken by stomach cancer and died in '98. Meanwhile, Parche never spent a day in prison. (He received a two-year suspended sentence for causing grievous bodily harm and underwent mandatory psychiatric treatment.) Seles's legal costs, including a failed lawsuit against the German tennis federation for inadequate security, exceeded $1 million.

Ultimately, though, what sabotaged Seles's comeback was addiction. Not to drugs or alcohol or gambling, but to food. "With all the things that happened, eating became my therapy," she says. She would eat early and snack late. Sometimes she would dine out ("Name me any city in the world," she says, "and I'll tell you the best Italian restaurant"), and sometimes she would stay in and gorge on junk food (pretzels stuffed with peanut butter were a favorite). "It wasn't the food, it was the emotion," she says. "I always loved to eat, but eventually eating overtook my life. I could control a tennis match. This I couldn't control at all."

Her weight gain occasioned cruel remarks. The notoriously rude Chilean player Marcelo Ríos—he of the zero Grand Slam titles—was once stuck behind Seles in a players' cafeteria line and reportedly instructed her to move her "fat butt." But the more subtle references stung just as much. Journalists' and commentators' critiques of her "conditioning" were thinly veiled references to her weight. As for personal acquaintances, Seles tells the story of the time a boyfriend once wrapped his arm around her waist and, just loud enough for his friends to hear, sniffed, "Whoa, honey, you better watch it. You're getting a little too pleasantly plump around there."

"Oh, really?" she said, smacking his considerable gut. "Have you looked in the mirror lately?"

"Whatever," he responded. "You're a chick. It's different."

She broke up with him that night.

Even 35 pounds overweight, at 174, Seles hovered around the top 10 on talent alone. "Remember when Andre [Agassi] dropped to Number 141 and it was a wake-up call? I never really had that," she says. So she kept playing, seldom losing early in tournaments but seldom winning the big prizes. Meanwhile, she spent a small fortune on diet books. She hired fitness gurus. At one point she even retained track coach Bob Kersee to help with her training. None of it worked.

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