By late 2003 Seles was suffering from a chronic injury to her right foot—perhaps caused at least partially by her weight. In fits and starts she rehabbed for years, but she never made it back onto the court. The career that had once blazed with so much promise was officially laid to rest in '08. Inasmuch as Seles's retirement announcement made any news, it was because it came accompanied by reports that she would be appearing on Dancing with the Stars. She was the first celebrity voted off the show that season.
Still, for all the unfortunate subplots, the Monica Seles story is, finally, a happy one. When she was recast as the ultimate underdog she became far more popular than she had been when she was acquiring trophies in bulk. She, in turn, opened up. And the more fans got to know her, the more they liked her. Here was the rare athlete who was not just down-to-earth but also thoroughly aware of life beyond the rectangles of a tennis court. She shopped where fans shopped, read what they read; she, too, snuck seconds on dessert, fretted over finances and knew loss and failure. "I think people related to her so much, they almost came to see a little of themselves in her," says Lindsay Davenport, the former world No. 1 and one of Seles's good friends. (That's another of Seles's virtues: She ignored the prevailing social code of the women's circuit and cultivated friendships with her colleagues.)
Seles also finally got control of her weight. The moment of reckoning came when she turned 30 in 2003, doddering in tennis years, and was made to wear a boot on her injured foot. "I'm thinking, If I'm heavy when I worked out five or six hours a day, what's going to happen now when I can't move and don't have my coach and trainer around?" she recalls. "I just had to get of out this rut."
She did so without dieting, much less popping weight-loss pills or spending her waking hours on a treadmill. For the last five years she's maintained a healthy weight for her 5'10" frame—140 pounds or so, if you must know—and claims to be appreciably happier. Her secret? As she put it in her recent book, Getting a Grip, "You just have to figure out what's eating you ... and deal with it." Once she did, food was simply food, not a means of escape or form of therapy. "It's not, Don't eat that cookie," she says. "It's, Eat one cookie. The other one? Save it for tomorrow. It will still be there."
If writing such a bracingly candid book was cathartic, so was the publicity tour. "I'm not crazy about crowds, but it hasn't been so bad," she says as she nurses a latte in a busy New York City Starbucks. "Also, rehashing the stabbing for the 500th time—you know, I realize, sadly, people know me for that, and it's part of my life."
Seles still plays tennis but purely for fun. She's taken to hitting forehands with only one hand on the racket—the equivalent of Roger Clemens throwing sidearm. She doesn't keep score and wouldn't care if she lost or won. Where does she channel all that intensity she once released on the tennis court? "I don't," she says flatly. "Look, tennis was great. It gave me wonderful opportunities, and I loved to play. But that part of my life is over. I've noticed that some athletes have such a hard time retiring. I don't get that." The thought hangs in the air, and then, Seles being Seles, she quickly adds, "That's just me. Whatever works for other people, more power to you." This summer she'll be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Seles spends most of her time nourishing her passions. She served an internship in an architecture firm. She's been taking photography courses. She and a friend have been designing jewelry. She hangs out with her four dogs and a gaggle of friends who are indifferent to her tennis career. "As an athlete you have a choice to be as [socially] open or closed as you want," she says. "I made a choice to be open."
She's also taken an interest in women's causes, particularly through the Laureus Foundation. "The more you travel, the more you realize that in a lot of cultures, women are treated unequally," she says. "My dad got heat, even from his own family, about having a daughter who played sports. I wasn't allowed on official courts [in her native Yugoslavia]; I played on practice courts and the parking lot. Now [Serbia] has two top women players [Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic]. Even if girls don't make it to a professional level, it's important to introduce them to sports." Then, predictably, she adds, "But I don't want to get too political."
We hear it all the time: People who endure horrifying events express a curious indebtedness to them later in life. The trauma strengthens their character or otherwise helps make them who they are. So, to what extent does Seles credit her tragedies for making her the person she is today? She thinks about it and then demurs.
"It's been a journey, and it took a while, but I'm here and I'm happy," she says finally. "What if we leave it at that?"