Monica Seles was just twenty years old, and the world ranking number one female tennis player, when she was stabbed between the shoulder-blades in 1993. Her attacker was an obsessed fan of Monica’s main rival, Steffi Graf. It was to be two years before Seles returned to the game, and the incident marred her career.
Despite the injuries she sustained though, she managed to prove herself one of the best female players tennis had ever seen. Today, tennis pundits like to speculate on what might have happened had Seles not suffered the attack. Her youth and character gained her many fans in the USA, before and after the attack, and the native Yugoslavian became a US citizen and went on to play for them in the Olympics. The loud grunt she shouted out when hitting the ball became her trademark, not only as a slightly comical sign of her personal determination, but the signature of a forceful player who made her mark on the sport.
Monica Seles was born on the 2nd of December 1973 in Novi Sad in the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia). Her father, Károly, trained her as a child and by the age of nine the young Seles was winning competitions, despite not yet fully understanding how the game was scored!
In 1986 the whole family moved to the United States so that Monica could enroll at a tennis academy. She won her first professional tournament in 1988 when she was still a student, and her first career title in Houston in 1989. She continued to build a reputation for herself. Losing to Steffi Graf in the French Open in 1989, she finally defeated her in 1990.
The First Half of her Career
Seles went on to win title after title in rapid succession, beating Steffi Graf, the incumbent record holder, to most of them. Australian, French and US Opens were all taken, and only Wimbledon eluded her. In 1991 she did not play the English tournament due to an injury, and in 1992 Steffi Graf managed to beat her to the title, as she was more experienced on the grass court.
However, Graf’s victory here did not prevent Seles becoming youngest ever number-one ranking female tennis player in 1991 at the age of 17. 1990 to 1993 proved Seles’ golden years, as she seemed unbeatable. Out of 34 tournaments played, Seles won 22. She won an incredible 152 matches to just 12 lost. Everything seemed set for a domination of the game the like of which tennis had never seen. Seles was at the top of her game, and though it seemed so unlikely she would be pushed off the number one spot in a tennis match, unfortunately one man found another way to do it.
In April 1993 Seles was competing in a tournament in Hamburg when she was stabbed between the shoulder blades by an obsessed fan of Steffi Graf, Gunther Parche, who was sitting in the stadium directly behind Seles’ chair. Parche attacked her with a steak knife, leaving a puncture wound half an inch deep.
Seles’ immediate physical injuries had healed within a few weeks but the psychological effects were dramatic. Parche only received a suspended sentence for the stabbing from a German court, and the aftermath of the incident left Seles suffering from anxiety and depression. She withdrew from public life for over two years, but finally became strong enough to come back in 1995, when she made a sensational return to the game by winning the Canadian Open.
The second half of her career
Seles’ second career could never be as glorious as her first. After winning the Canadian Open in 1995, she went on to lose to Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon finals of that year. The next year she won the Australian Open, but this was to be one of her last singles title.
Seles became a citizen of the USA in 1994 during her recovery, and afterwards won international tournaments, including an Olympic Bronze in Sydney in 2000, as a part of the national team. However, with the death of her father (who was also her coach) from cancer in 1998 and her myriad injury problems, she moved into de facto retirement. After a tournament in 2006, she admitted that “I’ve been trying really hard in the last few years. (Playing tennis at my age) is not the same as when you’re 20 or so for your body. In the next few weeks or a month, I’m going to decide (whether or not to retire). But it doesn’t look too good.” Despite her partial decline, Seles’ status as one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time is secure.
Ranked 13th greatest player ever (Tennis Magazine. USA)
Ranked one of 12 ‘Greatest Ever’ female players (Tennis Magazine, Australia)
“It is not easy for me to live with, knowing that I’m Number 1 because she was attacked” Steffi Graf
“I have this terrible dark side to my personality, which playing tennis keeps at bay.”
“You have to want to play it all day, every day to get to the top.”
“People think I must have been so talented at an early age, but I don’t know – was it talent or hard work? Who knows?”