`Unbelievable' verdict casts doubt over comeback

Bud Collins finds those around the former world No 1 in state of despair and frustration at appeal's failure
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The Independent Online
Gnther Parche remains free to walk the streets while his victim, Monica Seles, is still imprisoned far from the tennis courts she loved to run on.

"Unbelievable," she said from her Sarasota, Florida, home, deflated by the truly unbelievable verdict from a German judge that Parche is harmless. Millions have seen via film clips and photographs how harmless he was in sinking a knife into Seles's back - thus "taking away my career".

There were no circumstantial evidence or DNA tests in another courtroom concerned with a knife and a sporting celebrity - but far from the O J Industry in Los Angeles. Parche did it on a clear afternoon in Hamburg two years ago in full view of thousands. Yet . . .

"Monica is in shock about this," her agent, Stephanie Tolleson, said. "She can't believe it - who could? The skater Katarina Witt took a stalker to court in the United States and he was put in jail. He didn't actually harm Witt and yet this man . . . goes free.

"This is what bugs her. Monica has been working really hard to put this behind her. She wants to play again. But it's a setback knowing he's free."

The feeling I got from talking to people who know Seles in Florida was that if Parche went in, she'd come out. She's been practising, looking good. A photograph published several months ago purporting to show a fleshy, overweight Seles was airbrush artistry. But now?

When I last saw her 16 months ago, at a private lunch in a public place, a seaside cafe at the Colony Beach Resort, near Sarasota, she was in high spirits. Training fiercely, ready to go again - "maybe the Australian Open" of January, 1994. She had grown an inch to 5ft 11in. Looked and acted terrific, obviously past the physical impairment of the knifing.

But, then . . . no Monica, no word.

What happened? She can't get Parche out of her head. Knowing he's loose makes it worse. A friend says Seles regards him as a serious danger, not just a sickeningly patriotic drifter with a fixation on Steffi Graf and on reinstalling her as No 1. She is overwhelmed by the thought of Parche walking free and then stalking her again.

Seles is perplexed that such an obviously guilty man could have hurt her so badly, physically and mentally, robbed her of years of a luminous career, and his behaviour is apparently condoned, not punished.

She wonders what kind of a country Germany is. Parche has made her virtually a recluse, taken away income and recognition, and yet that doesn't seem a serious crime to a German judge.

Understandably it is a monumental injustice for her to deal with. She feels that whether Parche is crazy or criminal he should be locked up. She doesn't understand why photos of Parche aren't posted at tournaments, identifying him as a menace, as are photos of Jim Pierce, the father of Mary Pierce.

It may be because of their roots, a Serbian-Hungarian blend, but the Seles clan apparently see Parche as part of a plot, perhaps politically motivated, and not merely a pathetic loner obsessed with Graf. He scares them. It is easy to see why they suspect some sort of conspiracy, particularly with a repeat of the original release of Parche.

Has a curse come with the No 1 ranking? Seles lost it to a knife in the back, then Graf to a back injury. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is about to lose it to Graf having torn up her right ankle in a frightening fall while beating Amanda Coetzer at the Family Circle Cup in South Carolina five days ago. She will be out for six weeks.

"A curse?" Sanchez Vicario laughed when the question was put to her. "I don't think so. But whatever, the fact is that we need Monica back, and this is terrible for her and tennis not putting the guy in jail."

That mirrors the crestfallen feeling of Seles' colleagues and the beleaguered Women's Tennis Association that has taken so many damaging hits besides the loss of Seles lately.

The retirements of Martina Navratilova and Manuela Maleeva, recurring illnesses of Mary Joe Fernandez, the drug crash of Jennifer Capriati, the renewed swoon of Gabriela Sabatini, who brainlocked in blowing three match points against Kimiko Date at the Lipton and against the No 135, Lea Ghirardi, at the Family Circle.

An expectant feeling of springtime renewal hung amid azaleas in the sunny pine clearing near the Atlantic where the Family Circle finished on Sunday. Assuming that justice would be done this time, and Parche convicted, players and officials were speculating about when and where Seles would have her coming-out party. Some guessed wrong. A knowledgeable official predicted: "The special event at Mahwah, New Jersey, late in August, then the US Open."

Anne P Worcester, the chief executive of the WTA, said hopefully: "We look forward to her return and are prepared to ease it. Monica will be seeded as though she hadn't lost her ranking."

Billie Jean-King, the captain of the US Federation Cup team, had invited Seles (now a US citizen) to play and was "hopeful she will because that would make her eligible for the 1996 Olympics. I get the feeling that she'd like to be an Olympian for her new country."

However, it seems that all goes on hold. Parche is out. Seles is in. Only she - but maybe not unbelieving, traumatised Seles - knows when she'll feel safe to emerge, to see if she can delight and rule once more a world that was hers until an adjudged harmless man took it away.