ONCE UPON a time there was a girl called Monica Seles. She lived in Novi Sad, in the province of Vojvodina in the northern part of Yugoslavia, where she had been born into a Hungarian-Serb family on 2 December 1973. There were few tennis courts in Novi Sad. In Novi Sad, there was not much of anything. But her father, Karolj Seles, was not going to let that spoil his child's dream. So every day, after school, he would string a tennis net between the cars in the town's pot-holed parking lot. To help his daughter focus on her shots, Karolj, who at that time was an illustrator and TV director, drew cartoon characters on the balding balls they used for practice: Micky Mouse, Donald Duck, the Wabbit, icons of that promised land to which he dreamt he might one day take his daughter, far away from triste Novi Sad, where life ached like a septic tooth.
Two weeks ago, as Monica Seles battled against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the French Open final, much of the dream had come true. The family had made it to the promised land. The girl had blossomed into a young woman. A cramped apartment in the Balkans had been transformed into a million-dollar villa at the Laurel Oak Country Club, a gated community for the super-rich in Sarasota, Florida. Instead of a parking lot, she has her own private courts, with different surfaces, and an endless supply of new balls in cans that hiss like Coca-Cola when she opens them.
But the girl from Novi Sad has also been through much heartache. At a tournament in Germany, in 1993, she was stabbed in the back by a demented fan, and for 27 months darkness and depression became her hand-maidens. On returning to the game she loved, she faced humiliation on the court and tragedy at home. Two weeks ago, she at last seemed to be reclaiming her place in the tennis pantheon. But the man who had first taught her to hold a racket, who had coached her, inspired her, and dreamt the dream with her, was dead.
That she was out there at all, battling in the red dirt of Roland Garros, is not just one of the great stories of modern sports. It is a parable of the power of love and human courage in the face of adversity. Monica Seles is only 24, but she has already lived many lives. Her first incarnation was as a tow-headed wunderkind who arrived at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida in 1985, aged 12. " I remember the first time I saw her, at the Orange Bowl junior tournament," recalls Bollettieri. "I walked along the courts. There were big pine trees. They had said, 'You'll hear her squeak.' And there was this thin little girl with a big Prince racket and feet that never stopped moving. "
With Agassi and Courier, Seles was part of the Golden Age of the Academy. And though she would later break with her former mentor in an acrimonious dispute, no other player so embodies his take-no-prisoners style of play and boot-camp work ethic. "Of all the thousands of students I have worked with," says Bollettieri, "she was the most dedicated, hard-working and disciplined."
It was not just her attitude, or her unorthodox grip (unlike most players who hit double-handed, Seles does not change her grip: the right hand stays over the left on both sides), that set her apart. It was her courage: the courage to hit the ball sooner, and harder, than any woman had ever dared. "She was the first player who really started to step in and jump on top of the ball," says Chris Evert. "The typical baseliner before her, like myself, or Steffi, waited for the ball before we crunched it. Monica nailed it right on the rise." Fritz Nau, who worked with Seles as a child and later coached Agassi, puts it this way: "Andre took the return of serve to a new level in the men's game. Monica took it to a new level in the women's game."
Indeed, it can be said that there are only two eras in women's tennis : pre-Seles and post-Seles. When in 1990, at the age of 16, she became the youngest player to win the French Open this century, she looked set to demolish all previous records. In five short, explosive years, she won seven of the eight Grand Slams she entered.
I have to confess: I did not like Monica Seles at the beginning. Her mother reminded me of the witch in Little Red Riding Hood. Her tennis also alarmed me. I come from the Ken Rosewall school: sliced backhands, rushes to net, reticence. Seles, with her banshee scream and her face bunched into a cat snarl as she cudgelled the ball off the baseline like a baseball batter, was the epitome of a new, more violent kind of tennis: the tennis that would be played in the last quarter of this most violent century. Like road rage, or the war that engulfed Seles's Balkan homeland, her ballistic hitting seemed a symbol of the times.
But when, on 30 April 1993, an unemployed lathe-worker called Gunther Parche sank a nine-inch boning knife into her back, a quarter of an inch from her spine, Seles became a symbol of the times in a more complicated way; and my heart went out to her. Like those inner-city kids who kill for a pair of sneakers, Gunther Parche was spawned by the hype and hysteria generated by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Phil Knight, head of Nike, who, smelling the money there was to be made, began to feed off, and orchestrate, our love of sports. Not because they love sports. They love our money.
Seles was 19 at the time of the stabbing. She was at the top of her game, wealthy beyond her wildest dreams, even happy. "I was living my perfect life," she recalls. "I had a balance between tennis and my personal life and no reason to be afraid that anything would change." Everything did. She had to sleep during the day, because she was too scared to sleep at night. She rarely left the house. She binged on junk food. She broke into tears at the slightest provocation. "My scream is what stayed with me a long time," she has said.
Parche's trial in Hamburg, in September 1993, ratcheted up the pain a notch further. In court, Parche described how he originally planned to present her with a bouquet of flowers at her hotel - and cut off her hands. It was better than Struwwelpeter! The German courts let Parche walk, with two years' probation. The Seles fairy-tale had turned into a nightmare. "I would spend the next two years in the jail he was supposed to inhabit," she wrote in her 1996 autobiography, From Fear to Victory.
Mending her body, at the Vail Clinic in Colorado, was the easy part. By October 1993, she was working out again, under the guidance of Bobby Kersee and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Then in December 1993, another knife, this time a scalpel, slashed a fresh wound into the fabric of her life, as Seles's father was operated on for stomach cancer. They were equals in misfortune. She had a half-inch scar on her back. His stomach was criss- crossed with two giant scars.
By February 1994, Seles was in such bad shape that she had to seek guidance from one of America's leading sports psychologists, Jerry Russell May of the University of Nevada. May treated her for post-traumatic stress syndrome, tried to help her overcome her panic and fear. As she struggled to heal her shattered spirit, Seles, who had only known what it was to be one of life's winners, learnt what it was to be one of its losers. She talked to other victims: of rape, or stabbing. On the way, she discovered something that brat-pack prima-donna tennis stars like Marcelo Rios or Venus Williams will probably never know: the gift of compassion.
Like Christopher Reeve, adversity has made her more interesting. She first began to believe that she could get back her life at the Arete Awards for courage, in Chicago in November, 1994, when she watched a blind gymnast called Sonya Bell doing somersaults on a parallel bar, in total inner darkness. Watching Seles battling her way back since then has been like watching a wounded animal trying to walk after it has been hit by a car. She would rise up, only to stumble again; rise up, then fall back down. Her official comeback began at the August 1995 Canadian Open, where she blew away the competition, losing not a set on the way to the final.
Five months later, she won the Australian Open. At the post-match press conference she seemed like her old self. She giggled. She charmed even the most cynical hack with her freshness. In truth, she was one of the walking wounded. Her hip ached. She had pulled a tendon in her right ankle. She could barely lift her left arm above her shoulder. Her mind was a haunted house. "She was really miserable," recalls Boris Becker, with whom Seles has a close friendship ( Seles, who adores children, has frequently babysat for Becker's son, Noah). "But she's a tough cookie."
That she is. More than any other sport, tennis is won between the ears. And no one is tougher, mentally, than Seles. "Her body language betrays nothing," says Chris Evert. "You could come into a Seles match at any point and you would never know whether she was winning or losing." Off the court, Seles, who practises to the sound of Madonna belting from a pink boom-box, strives to be as American as the All Star Cafe in New York, in which she is a partner with such sporting icons as Agassi and Tiger Woods. She has an innate talent for publicity and drama. During her enforced lay-off Seles got into the habit of dressing up in wigs and frumpy clothes so as not to be recognised, like one of her heroines, Greta Garbo. A previous sponsor, Fila, threatened to sue her for misleading them about her comeback. Cynics said she was postponing returning to the tour so that she could collect a fat insurance check.
In private, she likes doing the everyday things other young Americans like doing: hanging out with friends, playing pool, going jet-skiing. She plays the guitar (another hero is Jimi Hendrix) and likes reading the autobiographies of eminent Americans.
Her latest date is one of them: Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world, in whose Lear jet Seles is now said frequently to travel. Not that her own earnings - over $10 million in prize money; a contract with Nike - are exactly paltry. Even last year, as her father's cancer began to overwhelm him and Seles struggled with her form and concentration (she was beaten four times by Hingis), she still managed to bank $750,000. It is a long way from Novi Sad. But the memory of that other life is still the fuel that drives Seles, and gives her her hunger.
By January this year, Karolj Seles could barely eat. He no longer recognised himself in the mirror. Often, he did not even know who his daughter was. Tennis was an irrelevance, and Seles dropped off the tour to be with him. She gave him his morphine doses, mixed his protein drinks, paid the bills. Her father had already said goodbye to his old life the summer before, when he and Seles's mother, Esther, went back to Europe. He revisited the family apartment in Novi Sad and called on Monica's Serbian maternal grandmother, who still lives in the town of Kanjiza. Back in Florida, when he was lucid, he told his daughter her family story and wrote reams of instructions, advising her on her career. On 14 May, he died.
Every tennis parent claims all they want is for their children to have fun on the courts. Many beat them in the parking-lot if they lose. Mary Pierce, John McEnroe, Jennifer Capriati, the Williams sisters: all have been dominated by dictatorial fathers. Seles's father was not like that. He genuinely believed in the pleasure principle. Unlike most of the current crop of sideline warriors, he was also a person of charm and sportsmanship, who spent as much time applauding his daughter's opponents as he did praising her brilliance. He also had a natural gift for making others, rather than himself, feel important: a gift he passed on to his daughter.
The gold wedding ring he also gave her before he died will be hanging from a gold chain around Seles's neck when she steps on to the courts at Wimbledon next week. She will probably not win the tournament. The quick, juicy grass is poison to her baseline style. And Gavin Hopper, her new Australian coach, who is a specialist in nutrition and exercise, has probably not had enough time to reverse the damage done by Seles's favourite foods: butter and Big Macs. But two weeks ago, at the French Open, as she gave Hingis a 6-3, 6-2 tennis clinic, she showed all her old courage and intensity, jumping inside the baseline, cudgelling the ball with brutal power, hitting impossible angles, all the while emitting her trademark "Aiiii-yeeee ". And though she lost in the final, she put the brat pack on notice: hang on to your stats, Seles is back. !
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