'I live every day like it's my last'

The Saturday Story: The memory of her attack still haunts Monica Seles on her comeback. By Paul Vallely and John Roberts
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Why did he use a knife? It is now more than two years since Monica Seles was stabbed as she sat towelling herself during a break between sets in a top-ranking tennis game in Hamburg. And, still, the knife is one of the things she cannot come to terms with. Today she will attempt to return to the international circuit with an exhibition match against Martina Navratilova in Atlantic City. But she has not left behind the horror of the incident. She lingers over the knife in conversation. It still plays back in her dreams. And it has foiled her three previous attempts to make a comeback. Will it haunt her today?

"Why did he put something in me as ... sharp as a knife ... take it out ... and want to do it again? And from the back ..."

Monica Seles was only 19 but she was the world's leading player in 1993. The youngest player ever to receive the number-one ranking, she had won seven out of the previous eight grand slam titles when Gunther Parche, an unemployed lathe operator, walked on to the court and stuck a nine- inch boning knife into her back. He did it, he said, because he was a Steffi Graf fan. As stabbings go, it was relatively minor - a cut, two inches deep, just below the left shoulder blade. But the psychological scar it left went much deeper.

"For a long time, I didn't trust anyone to even move behind me," she says. "So, looking back, I didn't go to a lot of places. In my mind, I'd see his face. I'd see a lot of hatred in his face. A lot of nights when I woke up, I'd think, he's right there where I was sleeping."

Often her dreams were vivid replays of the attack. She would wake shivering. She could not, she told Sports Illustrated, the US magazine, in a remarkable interview last week, forget the sound of her own voice, howling as the knife came down. "My scream is what stayed with me a long time," she said. "It was eating me alive. I'd go out on the court, I could be playing great tennis, and it would all start coming back. I pretty much moved to daylight sleeping times. I couldn't sleep at night. I saw shadows in every corner.

"These are the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Dr Carol Seheult, a clinical psychologist who advises the British Olympic Association and the England squads in a wide range of sports. Victims of the King's Cross fire and Herald of Free Enterprise sinking suffered in precisely the same way. "It's incredibly distressing and can be very debilitating," says Dr Seheult. "During the day you repress this stuff, but when you sleep, your defences are down and all these deep fears come out in dreams. Switching the biological clock is classic. People think, 'If I sit up all night, I'll get so tired that I won't be able to dream.' But when the trauma has been great you can't escape it."

And no trauma can be greater than one that goes to the heart of your being. "The one place I felt safe was a tennis court - and that was taken away from me," Seles told the US magazine. "That's the place where I'd have no worries, whatever was going on in my private life or in school. I felt comfortable. And now, this is the place I feel least safe." There could not have been a more traumatic place for the attack, says Dr Seheult. It was like attacking a writer in her study or a housewife in her kitchen.

The knife itself haunts Seles. As she talks about it, she holds her hands nine inches apart and the edges of her fingers describe the curve of the blade in the air. She was shown it as she lay in hospital by a German policewoman, who told her that Parche had said that when he was living with his aunt, he would cut sausages with it. As the policewoman said the word "sausages", Seles envisaged the knife cutting into her back. The bizarre juxtaposition refuses to leave her.

Neither Seles nor any of her family attended Parche's trial in October 1993, where a Hamburg court handed down a two-year suspended sentence, but their complaints about the verdict led to a retrial in March this year. "I trust," her father Karolj said, "that justice will win this time. So far my daughter has lost two beautiful years, two of her best young years, which she can never replace and bring back. Monica was a laughing, cheerful girl. This cheerfulness has disappeared from her face." But the sentence was upheld and Parche walked free. She now intends to launch a private prosecution.

Regaining her physical fitness was the easy part. By Parche's first trial, she was already working out hitting tennis balls harder than she ever had. But she was trying to pretend the stabbing never happened. Then the post-trauma stress hit. "Often it is delayed," says Dr Seheult. "You think you're getting over it, and it somehow creeps up behind you again." She began to ask herself again and again what she had done to deserve Gunther Parche. She began to think that, in some way, it had to be her fault.

"It was a typical response," says Dr Seheult, adding that the psychological process is very similar to bereavement. "Most people ask: 'Why me?' And a certain kind of person turns that hostility inwards and blames themselves."

"Why was it me?" Seles says. "I didn't think that at the age of 19 I would have to deal with this: I was playing and suddenly I wasn't playing and it changed my daily life. You have to decide, if you live till 90 living this way, do you really want to live? Why do I have to face these questions? This is supposed to be fun, and here I am thinking about life- or-death issues. This guy stabbed me, he's out there, he can come to any tennis tournament, any place. And he's still obsessed. What will it take for him not to do it again?"

Nine months after the assault, Seles began seeing a US sports psychologist, Jerry Russel May. Sometimes she would talk to him daily by phone. Sometimes she flew to Reno to see him. She spoke to other victims - of stabbing, of rape. May urged her to look at a tape of the attack. "If you don't confront the reality, you always fantasise about it. That is why people are advised to see the bodies of dead relatives and parents should hold the bodies of stillborn children," says Dr Seheult. "Watching the film, she can control it, stop it at any time, discuss it, replay it and get used to it. You have to desensitise yourself to it, because so long as you don't, it's like the tiger in the cupboard - you just imagine how long his teeth are. She needs to be able to look at this man and see him as a pathetic little inadequate rather than a monster. If she can confront the reality and retaliate emotionally, that will prove a good thing."

It is easier said than done. In January, 21 months after the attack, Seles finally decided to replay the film before some old friends. "When I sat down, I said, 'No big deal, I can watch this'," Seles told Sports Illustrated. But her heart began racing and she broke out in a sweat. As Parche was there jabbing, Seles bolted from the couch and out of the room, her stomach heaving.

Not everyone has been sympathetic. The tennis-clothing firm Fila, with which she has a contract, has complained about her refusal to make public appearances to advertise its products. Last December, Fila sued for breach of contract, saying that Seles misled it about the three comeback attempts. "Why would I fake it? There's no logic," she says," I love to play tennis, and for the past two-and-a-half years I have lost all my income. I have not received anything from the endorsements, and I've never had an insurance policy. Why wouldn't I play? It doesn't make sense."

Dr Seheult has no doubt that Seles is genuine. "It's entirely consistent. She just wasn't ready. This really is like bereavement - it was a loss of her faith and trust in other human beings, of her previous way of life, and could easily have been a loss of her actual life if that nine-inch knife had punctured her heart. The normal course of a bereavement is two years, and if there's anything out of the ordinary about it, the grieving response is going to be that much more severe and long-term." Seles is likely to be particularly vulnerable, she says, living in the world of the super-fit, the super-human and the super-protected.

The Monica Seles who returns to the international stage today appears fully recovered. Her hair, a bottle-blonde cascade in her early years, is now a dark brown shoulder-length closer to her natural colour. At 21, she has grown an inch and a half, to 5ft 11in, and is also several pounds heavier than her previous game weight of 9st 2lb. But, beneath the composure, is she really ready?

Asked about how it will all seem a decade hence, Seles at one point says in parenthesis "if I make it to 10 years". It is a revealing aside. "You never know," she explains, "I've got to the point where I live every day of my life like it's my last. Anything can happen."

It is a common response from people who have brushed with some life-threatening experience. Nothing is certain any longer for them, so they live from day to day in a way which is difficult for the rest of us to understand. "On a good day they do it in a positive way, on a bad day in a desperate way," concludes Dr Seheult. So is this the right time, at last, for the comeback? "Why does it have to be a comeback? It should not be all-or- nothing. She has to work herself back gradually and build again, setting herself little realistic goals rather saying it's beat Martina or nothing. People do get over these things, but it can take a very long time."

Sport, page 26.