How they made Monica smile again

Relaxation techniques have enabled Monica Seles to recover from her stabbing and play in the US Open starting on Monday. John Roberts reports
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Seles is stabbed in Hamburg

Asked if he had considered consulting a sports psychologist to analyse why his mighty serve has failed to nail a major title, Goran Ivanisevic said: "No way. You just lie on a couch, they take your money, and you walk out more bananas than when you walk in."

Monica Seles has reason to disagree. Moreover, whatever the size of the fees Jerry May has received for helping to coax her back to tennis, he deserves a couch sponsored by Nike at the customary mind-boggling rates.

The comeback, due to be continued at the United States Open, which starts on Monday, began with the loosener of a straight-sets win against Martina Navratilova in an exhibition match in Atlantic City 29 days ago and gathered momentum with every stroke hit past Kimberly Po, Nathalie Tauziat, Anke Huber, Gabriela Sabatini and Amanda Coetzer en route to victory at the Canadian Open without losing a set in Toronto last week.

It was there that Seles praised May's contribution to her rehabilitation after being stabbed in the back by the deranged Gunther Parche during a changeover while playing in Hamburg on the last day of April, 1993. "It's still hard and there are days when you struggle with it, but I have someone I can talk to and I go through exercises that help me to sit down in that chair again," she said.

"That's nice," was May's response. Politely but firmly, he explains that he does not discuss clients except at their request, such as when he testified on Seles's behalf during Parche's retrial in April this year. May told the judge that Seles was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has trouble doing normal, public daily tasks, such as shopping. "She talks about herself being like a bird in a cage," he said. "She is fearful, cries and feels very nervous. She is not sleeping well and has nightmares."

None the less, the judge rejected a request to jail Parche, who was originally given a two-year suspended sentence in October, 1993, and May returned to the task of preparing the 21-year-old Seles for the resumption of her career. Before Parche's intervention she reigned as the world No 1 and had won eight Grand Slam titles.

May is based in Reno, Nevada, famous for Jack Johnson's knock-out of James J Jeffries, the "Great White Hope", in 1910. May has worked as a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada School of Medicine since 1974. His reputation as a sports psychologist is founded on an association with the United States Olympic ski team dating back to 1977.

Although Seles's physical wound was comparatively minor, she experienced serious psychological and emotional difficulties. As the months passed, some observers doubted that she would ever play again.

May did not underestimate his task when entering the equation nine months after the stabbing. It was not a matter of reassuring an athlete who had suffered an injury in the natural course of a contest, or in some accident away from the arena. Competitors are not usually stabbed by spectators.

Having gained Seles's confidence, he could then have introduced her to relaxation techniques developed for the skiers. "You can teach people to relax very profoundly," he says.

He terms one of the methods "Stop Thinking", a way of preventing unwanted thoughts. This is achieved in three stages. "Step one is to say, 'Stop'. If you're alone, you can say it aloud. That jars the brain. That interferes with the thought pattern. Second, you produce a relaxing, peaceful, calm message in your mind that is very positive. It has nothing to do with the situation.

"The third step is you get up and do something else, just for a minute or two. You go talk to somebody else, you may go off and do some relaxation exercising. Then if the thought comes back, you repeat the process. It must be repeated for it to work."

Seles has emphasised the importance of enjoying her tennis. May once spent five years gathering data on fun. He discovered that people found the following reasons for not having fun: not enough time; not enough money; too many responsibilities; stress and tension. "All the things that interfere, I believe a person has control over," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "If you don't make time for fun, you're going to be dead anyway."

His research found that people rated outdoor recreation and being around friends high when defining their idea of fun. "In every group we studied, somebody mentioned sex. That was one. There are few people that ever put down work. That's really sad. One of the psychological factors of success is that people enjoy themselves and have fun." That is the message he passes on to the lawyers, business executives, medical students and athletes he counsels.

In recent weeks, Seles has brought a welcome helping of fun into the life of the Women's Tennis Association as well as her own. Last time she played at the US Open, successfully defending the women's singles title against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1992, she was kept waiting for five hours and 26 minutes before playing the final while Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang battled through the longest match in Grand Slam history. No matter how weird the scheduling becomes for this year's tournament, Seles is guaranteed to be the centre of attention.

Such has been her form that some judges consider that during the coming fortnight she is likely to be troubled by tendinitis of the left knee more than by the shots of her opponents. The injury caused her to abandon running four miles per day in an effort to shed excess pounds while training for the comeback and is probably one of the reasons why, according to Tauziat, Seles appeared slightly vulnerable when shots were played deep into the corners during their match in Canada.

She has yet to be exposed to strokes such as those emanating from the fierce forehand of Steffi Graf, the Wimbledon champion, who is ranked jointly No 1 with Seles, or to be induced to scurry about the court while attempting to out-rally Sanchez Vicario, the world No 2. Seles's chief rivals lost early in Toronto, and Conchita Martinez, the No 3, who has a variety of groundstrokes with which to expose any weakness, was not among the entries.

The disparity in the depth of talent in the women's game compared to the men's tour raises the point that it would be extremely difficult for an Andre Agassi or a Pete Sampras to return in triumph after being out of action for nearly two and a half years. What Seles managed to achieve in her first week back at work was wonderful for her, but hardly a commendation for her peers.

Bjorn Borg bade farewell to the Grand Slams after the 1981 US Open, when he was 25, and 10 years later attempted an abortive comeback to the professional tour. John McEnroe never quite caught up again after taking a seven-month break in 1986. Pat Cash, in spite of repeated efforts, was denied by injuries the consistency to build upon his success at Wimbledon in 1987. Mats Wilander, who wound down and walked away after winning three of the Grand Slams and rising to No 1 in 1988, returned to play for pleasure and is competing well at 31.

Thomas Muster is exceptional. No sooner had the Austrian reached the top 10 in 1989 than he was the victim of a drunk driver in Miami, the accident severing ligaments in his left knee. Using a contraption which enabled him to swivel and hit balls on the practice court while lying on his back with the injured leg immobilised, Muster continued to work on his game. He also attended tournaments while on crutches. Less than six months after undergoing surgery he returned to the tour, and has developed into the most feared competitor on clay courts, winning the French Open in June. He is currently ranked No 3 behind Agassi and Sampras.

"I can't speak for Monica Seles or anybody else, but for me it was important to keep in touch with the game," the 27-year-old Muster says. "I wanted to watch the tennis, to see how the guys were playing, how the courts were playing. It depends how hungry you are for tennis."

In his moment of triumph in Paris, Muster vaulted the 8ft backboard in front of the players' guest box and embraced his coach, Ronnie Leitgeb, who had supervised his rehabilitation. "For Thomas, the most important thing was to come back as quickly as possible, because tennis moves so quickly," Leitgeb says. "It didn't matter how he played or if he won matches or not, but just to be there, just to be alive."

Being alive was all Seles could think about 28 months ago.