Seles stabbing heightens fears over fans who stalk players: Brian Cathcart reports on the anxiety gripping tournament organisers following the attack

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The Independent Online
'MY LIFE is a prison,' Monica Seles said soon after she became the world women's tennis number one in 1991. 'I can't go out of the house without having fans and photographers all over me. Sometimes it's scary.'

Any teenager who suddenly finds herself a star might say the same thing, and since that time Seles has been given an additional reason for fear. She is from Serbia, although she is not a Serb but an ethnic Hungarian, and she has received threats.

One place, however, where she could not have expected an attack was on the tennis court, as happened on Friday evening, and one motive she could never have imagined was the one now attributed to the 38-year-old German who wielded the knife. He is a fan of her principal rival, it is said, and he wanted to displace Seles from the world number one spot.

As a police spokesman in Hamburg put it: 'He only wanted to injure her and make her unable to play so that Steffi Graf could become number one again.' If Seles is out of action for long, he may get his way.

Yesterday, as Seles was recovering in hospital, the tennis world was digesting this. Gerry Smith, director of the Women's Tennis Association, spoke of the 'chilling effect' of what had happened. 'In the past we've had threats on players - bomb threats at Wimbledon and Davis Cup matches - but the fact that nothing ever happened made it seem remote.

'For the first time it has actually happened. We must change our attitude at all tournaments in the world because there will always be a problem with mad psychopaths.'

Many players, including Seles, already have bodyguards and they are sometimes offered additional protection during the main tournaments. In Hamburg, four plain- clothes security men were mingling with the crowd. Events showed this was not enough. But as one WTA official put it: 'It's an open environment. There were 7,000 people out there. How do you protect?'

It will certainly be difficult. Paul Hutchins, former British Davis Cup team manager, said: 'One angle they will have to look at now is the protection of players on court. Will the players be able to sit so close to the spectators? Will they need guards? At Wimbledon the spectators are very close, particularly on the outside courts.'

Everywhere that the top players go in Wimbledon fortnight they are followed by a crowd of fans, usually teenagers looking for autographs. If that is to be stopped, and the stars are to be kept apart from the public, then they can hardly be allowed to play on the open, unprotected outer courts. At the two main courts, Centre Court and Number One Court, they can enter and leave without rubbing shoulders with the public, but even Court Two can only be reached by walking across a public area.

The problem is that so many matches involving big names need to be played in the early stages that it would be impossible to get through them all on Centre Court and Number One Court alone.

If that solution cannot be made to work, the prospect looms of every ticket-holder being searched at the gates for offensive weapons, as they are at some football matches. But even at the Rothenbaum Club in Hamburg, where Seles was attacked, they were not searching handbags yesterday, and it is hard to imagine it happening at Wimbledon. The Wimbledon chief executive, Chris Gorringe, said he would be reviewing security at the tournament, adding ruefully: 'Security at Wimbledon seems to get greater every year.'

The same ripple of anxiety was passing through the entire international tennis establishment. Marshall Happer, executive director of the United States Tennis Association, said: 'Even though the US Open security system is complete in all respects, the USTA will, as a result of this incident, re-examine all security measures, and, if necessary, further tighten its security.'

Players around the world expressed concern. Martina Navratilova, in Rome to prepare for the Italian Open, said: 'Whatever reasons this man would have had or thinks he had for stabbing Monica Seles, there's not a good enough reason in the world to be violent against non-violent people. My thoughts are with Monica.'

The world men's number one, Pete Sampras, saw the attack on television. 'I saw her fall to the ground and faint or something,' he said. 'I was in shock. I don't think it's ever happened in a tennis match. I was pretty sickened.'

Chris Evert, former world number one, said: 'It's a scandal. If Monica gave up tennis tomorrow, I would understand.' Former British Wimbledon champion Anne Jones said: 'I'm sorry for Monica and I'm sorry for the sport but I don't think it's really a tennis matter. I think it's a sign of the times. Sport reflects society. It doesn't lead it, and we live in violent times. The heroes and heroines of sport are put on pedestals by the media and it can make them inviting targets.'

Monica Seles is not the most popular of tennis stars, either with the public or in the hothouse atmosphere of the women's circuit. Her grunts, battering-ram technique and pinched expression on court, and her rapid-fire, sometimes unconsidered comments off court have ensured she does not have the following of some of her rivals. She is perceived as pushy and mercenary, and for all her abundant talent is presented as one of the bad girls of tennis.

She was born in Novi Sad in 1973 and was coached by her father, a cartoonist who taught himself tennis technique from books. After she was spotted at a US junior tournament in 1985 she and her family moved to Florida and by 1989, when she was 16 and still growing, she was a force in senior women's tennis.

Two years later she won the Australian, French and US Opens but missed Wimbledon, alienating both officials and fans by failing to give a good reason. Last year she won again in Australia, France and the US, but at Wimbledon she was beaten in the final, by Steffi Graf.

(Photograph omitted)