Monica Seles: The Most Underrated Tennis Player Of All-Time

“Everybody has their story – at some point, you have to say, “This is who I am: Now it’s up to me to become what I want to be.”

– Monica Seles

Monica Seles’ Story Of Greatness

On December 2, 1973, in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, Monica Seles was born to Hungarian parents Karolj and Ester Seles. By the age of 5, Monica’s father had already taught her tennis in a parking lot. Despite her mother and grandmothers’ best efforts to stop them, Seles and her father spent hours playing tennis. Her mother and grandmother believed a girl shouldn’t spend so much time playing a sport. Nevertheless, Seles continued her pursuit of defeating her brother, Zoltan, who was 8 years older and the No. 1 ranked junior in the country at the time. 

Just a few years later, at the age of 13, Monica Seles, like her brother, was the No. 1 ranked junior in the world. Then, unlike her brother, at the age of 16, Seles defeated Steffi Graf in the finals of the French Open to become the youngest champion of the tournament. This was only the tip of the iceberg for the prodigy though. By the age of 17, she became the youngest player to take over the world No. 1 ranking. 

Things only got crazier from there. By the age of 19, Seles was the World No.1, was coming off a run of 22 straight singles titles, and had already won 8 Grand Slams. In her first 4 years on the tour, 1989-1992, she won 231 matches while only losing 25 (90.2%) and had 30 titles. Not to mention her amazing stretch from January 1991 to February 1993 where she won 33/34 tournaments she entered, including 6 Grand Slam titles. And, in Grand Slam tournaments during this stretch, she only lost one match. 

To put all of this into perspective, in Steffi Graf’s first 14 Grand Slams she only won one. At 19, Serena Williams had 1 Grand Slam singles title and didn’t win 8 until she was 25. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal also didn’t win 8 Grand Slams until they were 25, and Novak Djokovic didn’t until he was 27. Plus, by the age Monica Seles won her 8th Grand Slam, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert had 0. 

So, it would be a bit of an understatement to say that Seles was one of the most dominant players to ever play the sport. At the age of 19, she had already put together a resume many great players could only dream of. Monica Seles was young and destined for greatness.

Monica Seles’ Life-Altering Tragedy

But, on April 30, 1993, Monica Seles’ life was changed forever. Seles was seated during a changeover in her match against Magdalena Maleeva at the Hamburg Open when Gunter Parche, an obsessed devotee of Steffi Graf, leaned over the fence and struck Seles between the shoulder blades with a boning knife. The 9-inch blade penetrated Seles 1 ½ cm, missing her spinal cord and major organs.

“I remember sitting there, toweling off, and then I leaned forward to take a sip of water, our time was almost up and my mouth was dry. The cup had barely touched my lips when I felt a horrible pain in my back,” Seles would later write in her autobiography. “My head whipped around towards where it hurt and I saw a man wearing a baseball cap, a sneer across his face. His arms were raised above his head and his hands were clutching a long knife. He started to lunge at me again. I didn’t understand what was happening.”

If you would like to watch the video, it will be embedded below. However, I warn you, it is very graphic and immensely difficult to watch. I do not recommend watching this to the faint of heart.

The physical damage left by the knife required surgery to repair the muscles and tissue near her shoulder where the knife struck. In spite of all the tragedy, one positive thing physicians told Seles is that if she had not bent forward right before being stabbed, she would have most likely been paralyzed. After treating her, Seles’ surgeons assumed she would make a full recovery if she followed their instructions. However, her shoulder continued to ache months after the healing of the wound.

The Dark Days

The winter following her attack, Seles fell into a deep state of depression and began experiencing crying episodes. Soon, she would develop an eating disorder that would include gorging on junk food during times of substantial stress. 

Reflecting on this time in her life Seles said, “So much of tennis is about body image, about sponsorships and endorsements and how you look,” she says. “When I gained a lot of weight, I realized people just looked at me like, ‘How could she do that to herself?”

“Sponsors would say to me, ‘Gosh, look at you, what has happened?’ and I wanted to say: ‘I am still the same person. It shouldn’t matter.’ With our generation, we couldn’t talk about it. It was swept under the rug and to realize it is a disease like any other one, food is there every day as part of your life.”

“I went from training five, six hours a day and having all these people around me and they all just disappeared,” she said. “Everyone used to return your call right away but then I was waiting one or two weeks because you fall down on that VIP list. I realized who my true friends were and learned a lesson in human nature.”

At the time, everyone in her support team was male and talking about mental health at that time was taboo. Seles believes that if more women were in the supporting corners of athletes there wouldn’t be as many mental issues in female sports. Not surprisingly, when current WTA star Petra Kvitova was stabbed in the hand by a home intruder in 2016 she and Seles formed an unbreakable bond. “It is a bond that probably neither of us would like to have,” Seles admits. “I hope maybe when we are old that we will be able to share more.”

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

After a 2-year hiatus from tennis, Seles decided to return to the sport in 1995. Although she did win the Australian Open in 1996 and a bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, she failed to return to her former stature. 

Then, with horrible timing, her father Karolj passed away to stomach cancer at the age of 64. Not only was this her father, but this was her rock. He was the very man who put a racket in Seles’ hands and believed in the 5-year-old with an unbreakable spirit as much as he did the 19-year-old with a broken one. I could never begin to understand how deeply this must’ve hurt Seles, especially with her state of mind then.

Nonetheless, she continued to play until 2003 when she suffered a foot injury. This injury kept her out of tennis until she officially retired in 2008. Since retiring, she has taught many tennis clinics and spoke about her difficulties with eating disorders. And, despite her life-altering incident, she has never lost her love for the game and still enjoys playing tennis to this day. 

In 2009, she began dating her future husband and businessman, Tom Golisano, who is 32 years her senior. In the same year, she wrote the book Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self and has started writing young adult fiction including the first 2 books of a series about a tennis boarding school entitled The Academy. In addition to writing, she enjoys working with animal charities in her spare time.

What The WTA Doesn’t Want You To Know

Now, I would love to stop this article here. However, in the fairy-tale of life, not every story has a happy ending. The aforementioned Gunther Parche, Seles’ attacker, received no more than a suspension for his actions. After being described as mentally ill, a German court convicted him of grievous bodily harm in October 1993 and he received a 2-year suspended sentence. Seles, among many others, was enraged by this permissive verdict and prosecutors eventually won the right to a re-trial. However, the judge at Parche’s second trial in 1995 upheld the suspended sentence. Once again, Seles was blindsided with a stab in the back. 

“The man said quite clearly that he did not want to kill Monica Seles,” the police told reporters. “He only wanted to injure her and make her unable to play so that Steffi Graf could become number one again.”

Unfortunately, the attacker got what he wanted. Steffi Graf returned to being the number one player in the world and defeated Seles in two US Open finals. On top of this, while Seles was recovering physically and emotionally from the attack, the WTA held a meeting in Rome with the top 25 WTA players. The meeting was held to decide if Seles’ should be allowed to maintain her No. 1 ranking while she recovered from the stabbing. Sadly, aside from one player who abstained, the entire body of players collectively voted against Seles. Effectively delivering the third knife in Seles’ back.

Your Duty As A Tennis Fan

Aside from this being an awful incident that changed the life of a young woman forever, there is one final case I must plead with you, the reader. Although I do not expect everyone to know the story of Monica Seles, even tennis enthusiasts often never mention Seles as a contender for the greatest player of all time. Yet, Graf is always the first or second name spat out in a debate. 

Don’t let Parche get what he wanted. Remember the Monica Seles that dominated the tennis world and Steffi Graf, the one only corruption could stop. The next time you are debating the all-time greats of tennis, make the case for Monica Seles. She’s earned it.

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