IT: Congratulations. How does it sound, Monica Seles Hall of Famer?
MS: It’s so exciting. I worked on this book for nine months and now to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same time is fantastic. I look back, what a humble beginning. Then I started playing tennis and look where it took me – the joys, the sadness, I’ve felt all the emotions, but all along, my love for the game never changed. I have to pinch myself that I’m in there with all the other great names.
IT: These days there are so many problematic sports stars. Yet you hold a position as an inspiration. Billie Jean King said you were “one of the best souls” she’s ever known. In that terrible moment, when you were stabbed, you went from being this glamorous, A-list star to devastation. Virtually no other elite athlete has had to endure that.
MS: Tennis has been my life. It consumes. It’s your husband, your mother, your best friend, because on the road you can be so out of touch. My career is unique. Fortunately, what happened to me in Hamburg never has happened to any other athlete and I hope never will. But it definitely put a different twist on my career and how I view sports and life. It happened to me when I was only 19. And it altered a lot of things. When I came back at 21, I came back with a different attitude. I realized how fragile our lives are. Plus, I had to deal with my dad’s [fatal] illness. God, I wish it never happened. I had difficult times and struggled with my depression, but one thing that’s helped me through my difficult times, like when I was deciding whether to come back [to the tour] was knowing those things that happened were outside my own doing. What was it? Who knows? I can’t be a philosopher. I don’t think anybody knows. It is what it is. That’s the path I’ve been given and I try to make the best of it.
IT: In the book you talk about how in Hamburg, during the changeover just before the stabbing if you had drank your water a moment earlier, that it could have really changed things. You might have been paralyzed.
MS: It could have totally changed. But these are all unknowns.
IT: You said that right after the incident, when you were being taken to the hospital, you went into shock. Similarly, in those two-plus years after the stabbing, when you were off the circuit, was there an element of shock or trauma?
MS: It was a very difficult period. Suddenly, I was going from my fourth French Open, to watching others on TV winning the tournament. It was an ironic story. [A demented fan of her archrival Steffi Graf had stabbed her and then, just weeks later, Steffi triumphed at the French.] But it’s past. I almost don’t even remember it. Maybe there’s a purpose for that. Those aren’t happy times to look back to. One thing I’m happy about is that I came back. I didn’t have the same success I had before, and that’s a hard one to have to deal with. I wish I could have been in my prime, because in tennis the prime is really from 17 to 22. Tennis, unfortunately, for whatever reason, rewards youth.
IT: A lot of players have had careers interrupted by war, by accidents or by the old shamateur rules that cut out pros. But there’s been nothing like your situation. Around the press room we speculate, how many more majors could Seles have won if it weren’t for the stabbing. Three? Seven? How many?
MS: You can’t go back. I would love to go back and relive my first French Open, the first time that I had a sense of the feeling of “Oh, yes you can!” I look back at pictures and I’m, like, “Wow!” I didn’t even realize how cool all that was. I look at myself and wonder, “Was that really me with all that hair?” Twenty years from now I’m going to look at my hair now and think, “Oh, my God!”
IT: Early on as a kid, as you came out onto Roland Garr’s’ Court Centrale, you were handed some roses and tossed them to the crowd and gave some to Zina Garrison. There was such an innocence, but it wasn’t taken in that spirit.
MS: I learned my lesson at an early age. I had to grow up in the public eye. The biggest deal was when I cut my hair. All of a sudden people were commenting on how I looked. There I was, just a teen struggling with my own [self-worth] issues of how I looked. I didn’t need strangers telling me about it. But that comes with the territory, whoever’s No 1. Of course, every player wants to be No. 1. That’s why we play. If we weren’t competitive, we wouldn’t be where we are.
IT: Your fans recall many moments of joy – little Monica hitting against the apartment house wall; a teen dreaming about being an actress or giggling over shopping at Barneys. Talk about happiness. How has that evolved for you? You’ve gone through some wonderful and not so wonderful times.
MS: I look back and know it’s going to continue on for the rest of my life. As we grow older, we realize that’s life – we get highs and lows, and as the top player it’s all very public. I never had the option of having my teenage freak outs at home, or it would have been written about right away. But I didn’t have any scandals, so there really wasn’t much to write. I always thought it was funny when crazy [stories] were made up. Still, my highs and lows were different. I picked up a racket because I loved the sport. Now I go anywhere in the world and I have fans.
IT: But Dinara Safina just spoke about how you can’t really have friends on tour.
MS: It’s really hard. When I competed against Mary Joe [Fernandez] and there were [questionable] line calls, it was just tragic because here is your close friend. But to be at the top, you have to have that killer instinct where, no matter what, you just want to win. I had my two close friends – Betsy [Nagelson] and Mary Joe – and I said, “This is great. Its quality over quantity.” That’s okay.
IT: One other thing on the Hamburg incident: it was bad enough that this crazy guy stabbed you, but then 16 of the 17 players [all but Gabriella Sabatini] voted NOT to protect your No. 1 ranking, then the German justice system totally failed, and to top things off, the WTA moved their big year-end championships to Germany. All that had to be hard?
MS: Everything after the stabbing, I didn’t understand. I understood what happened to me. But the stabbing happened in front of all those people and it was on TV. Then there were confessions [in court] and yet the person who stabbed me [just] stayed the night in jail and the irony was that the player he backed went on to win the tournament. Then the players didn’t vote [for ranking protection]. I’ve learned this was out of my control. Monica can only do what she does when she steps out on court. Everything else I can’t control. I came to that after seeing my dad struggle. Of course, I wish I didn’t see that so early on because it made me look at life in a harder way. My innocence was gone. But even in his last days, my dad had his innocence. He told me, “Don’t let life get to you. Keep that childhood feeling.” And I’ve tried. I’ve had better years than others, but my dad was really right.
IT: Andy Murray went through a lot, too, [having survived a mass murder in his school when he was in fifth grade.] Do you ever reflect on what a great job he’s done dealing with that?
MS: Exactly. What I’ve noticed is his maturity. Wow! For a man, he’s so mature. He plays an all-court game, kind of like Federer. Roger is a genius at making it look very easy. Murray has that, too. He makes it look like it takes no effort. I’m amazed. Mentally, he’s very strong. That just blew me away. His and Nadal’s mental strength. Roger used to have that, but now he’s going through a little crisis.
IT: Much of your book reflects on your battle with overeating. So when I say Pop-Tarts or barbecue chips, does that…
MS: I’ve had such a love-hate relationship with food. When you’re traveling the pressure is always with you and you never have time to say, “Look, I’m going to focus on this now.” I never got a grip on it, even though I tried so hard with different trainers, because I knew if I could get that in control, my game would be better because … My strokes were always good, but my movement … The girls on tour got stronger and trained hard and then Venus arrived. Physically, she was in a different dimension. Unfortunately, I never got a handle on it because, emotionally, I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. For whatever reason, that was my soft spot. I still haven’t figured that one out. That hurt me because I had more injuries. I was pretty good [when I came back], top five, but I thought, “God, why didn’t I just lose that weight.” But, again, it passed.
IT: You wrote that it wasn’t what you were eating, but what was eating you.
MS: That was one of the main reasons for writing my book. I never realized how many women struggled with this. Growing up on the tour, it was more that women wouldn’t eat, not that they would overeat. I never saw anyone deal with what. So when I finally came into the real world, I realized that a lot of women have this issue and they all want to know how I lost the weight.
IT: You said that the harder you tried to be the old Monica, the further you got away?
MS: I always looked for outside help, whether it was my coach, my trainer or trying to get a doubles player who was really fit. Instead of looking inside, I always thought they held the answer. If I hire them, I’m going to be like them and then I realized it takes a lot of work and discipline to be like that. That was my outlet with all the stress. That it just manifested itself in it.
IT: Eventually, on an eco-vacation in Costa Rica, you said to yourself that it’s okay to just lay in a hammock and just do nothing and to not make all those purposeful New Year’s resolutions you always made every year.
MS: I was tired of them. After three weeks, every one I made went out the door. [As Einstein asserted] repeating the same thing that fails is the definition of insanity, and I was definitely doing that for nine years. I know the exact years. I’m a very anal person. It just freaked me out. I just turned 30 and my foot was in a cast. If you are comfortable with it, there’s nothing wrong with being heavy. That’s fine, but I was miserable. And there was the fear of that. I knew my career was coming toward the end. It wasn’t like, “I’m 16 and have a life ahead of me.” I just didn’t want to be heavy. It was more a matter of being a woman than a tennis player. It was, like “Whoa, I’ve got to take charge of this.”
IT: Is weight gain a disorder or a disease?
MS: I don’t know. For me it was more emotional. Anytime you do something in excess it’s not good. Because I was so deprived, it was always you have to do this and do that. So I was constantly hungry. So that’s why I always say to women, don’t go on any diets because you’ll be hungry. You might lose the weight. For me I might have lost weight for the road, but afterwards you just gain it back because you can’t live on 1,200 calories a day for the rest of your life. One thing I hope comes through in my book is that this is a plan for the rest of your life. This is making your lifestyle choice, it’s not a quick ‘to do’ thing.
IT: To me, the most poignant quote in your book was when you said that you were pouring over photos of your dad and that was the key to unlocking the door to your grief after his death.
MS: The irony was that my father was passing away from stomach cancer. It was a really fast, seven-month fight, and here I was eating enough for five people. I realized my dad had such a great outlook, so I thought I better learn a little bit from this. He had a much better brain process than I do, and some of those days were as rough as any I hope to see. Even when he was really struggling, he still kept his sense of humor and I thought, “God, I wish I had a little bit of his cartoonist mentality.”
IT: Your perspective emphasizes accountability, a sense that “no one is going to take care of me and my problems, I’m the one.”
MS: Definitely. In tennis, you’re always surrounded by people that work for you, who are always saying yes. You live in a bubble. As a woman and having my personality as a caretaker, that always made me take care of everybody’s needs before my own were met. Then a light bulb went on. I learned that if I didn’t take care of myself, nobody would. I worked with trainers and figured out that there isn’t a magic pill. I’ve never taken a single pill in my life. I had to be selfish for once in my life.
IT: There was always a tremendous pressure on you …
MS: As with any of the top players. They all struggle with something. Some are more public than others, but from the inner circle, that’s just the reality. There’s no way not to. Even my friend who finished medical school, she struggles, and the other one that finished art school, she can’t find a job. There’s always something.
IT: You came to the realization that it was okay to be on your own, to have not won another Slam [after the ‘96 Aussie Open,] to accept injustice. It must have been a place of acceptance.
MS: It showed in my weight loss and my general happiness. I’m a happier person.
IT: You were incredible in taking the ball on the rise, creating angles, your disguise. You were one of the great fighters: 9 Slams, 178 weeks at No. 1. What are you most proud of on the court?
MS: It’s very simple, every single match I gave 110 percent. I never walked off a court. Sometimes it was to my own detriment, like in the Miami final against Martina [Hingis] in 2000, when I really shouldn’t have played. But the competitor in you decides you’ve got to play, even though you can’t move. I was very lucky to do something that I loved, not many of us get to do that.
IT: People also speak of your courage, your determination, your willingness to share. What quality are you most proud of away from the court?
MS: Being a great friend, a very loyal friend. If I say something, I’ll do it. Reliable would be the word, being a fair person. Everybody thinks I’m really competitive. I love tennis. But anywhere else — like any other game, ping pong or a card game – I’m not competitive, absolutely. My friends are, like “I can’t believe you were a top player. You’re so non-competitive.” Now when I play tennis, I’d rather hit middle to middle than play points.
IT: Ahh, if you only did that as a kid at Bollettieri’s, when you drove young Jim Courier nuts by running him side to side. He came off the court telling Nick that he never wanted to hit with you again.
MS: I was 13 years old. [Laughs] We always mention that when we see each other. It’s such a good laugh. I didn’t think I did anything wrong. He doesn’t want to run, well okay. Maybe it was inappropriate of me, but I thought, “Why waste time? Never hit middle-to-middle.”
IT: The surge in Serbian tennis is incredible. What in your heritage contributes to the person you are now?
MS: A part of my life is always there: my ancestors, grandparents, everything. I left home at nine and moved around a lot before coming to the U.S. at 13. I’m so proud when I see Jelena [Jankkovic], Ana [Ivanovic] and Novak [Djokovic], when I talk to them and they say how much I’ve done for them. It’s a wonderful feeling and I know it took them a lot of hard work to get to where they are.
IT: Do they ask for advice?
MS: A bit. But all you can do is support them because they have their own team. You just can’t come in off the cuff. But a few called and I shared the things that worked for me. But I know where my line is. It’s unbelievable, how fast Serbia’s risen and what a level the women achieved. I hope the U.S. will have that too and have someone after Serena and Venus.
IT: What’s holding the U.S. back?
MS: The players are not hungry enough. It’s that simple. The [lifestyle] situation [here in the U.S.] is just better. But you never know. You look at Serena and Venus and just how fantastic they’ve come up, how their family has given it their all and how close they’ve stayed. It’s fantastic. I hope they inspire kids to pick up their rackets just as I inspired them. Their story is wonderful.
IT: Yet some criticize their parents, but…
MS: I can’t imagine playing my sibling in the Wimbledon final, how difficult that is. It’s still your sister. It’s rough.
IT: You’ve had such great success. Yet, you have gone through so many challenges, whether it was the grunting brouhaha, the stabbing or your dad’s passing. In your book, you said you always felt you had a cloud over your head. Do you ever reflect on that?
MS: No, I like to be in the present. I’m not big on memories, I love looking at childhood photos, but I’ve maybe looked at them twice in 15 years.
IT: Actually, I was just looking at that picture of you running as a Kid in Dubrovnik. There’s such a determination.
MS: I always had it. All great champions have it. They all have something. You have to be a tough cookie because so many other people want that position. You’ve got to give that extra. In kids you can spot that right away.
IT: So Monica what was your sweetest moment on tour?
MS: When I won my first tournament, which was against Chris Evert in Houston. The first time you actually say, “Wow, I can really play with the big girls, I beat someone I grew up watching, who I’d only seen on TV. This is the greatest ever.” I couldn’t believe Chris was real. Plus, my first Grand Slam. Everybody said, “Oh, you’re going to be great,” but until you actually do it… And playing Fed Cup and learning from [coach] Billie Jean. I thought, “Wow, this is pretty heavenly” – magical moments.
IT: Did Billie try to get you to come to net?
MS: Of course. Of all people she said, “Your volleys are amazing.” But stupid Monica didn’t believe in herself.
IT: Speaking of magic, if you could actually say something to your dad as you went in the Hall…
MS: Thank you for nurturing my love of the game and being there through all the steps. And always making sure that I had fun, never putting an ounce of pressure on me and really worrying about me as a person rather than as a champ. He taught me so much when he applauded my opponents as much as for me. I don’t know if I could do that.
IT: He brought a tremendous love of laughter and joy.
MS: Definitely. I look at him and I just think, “Wow! I was really lucky. Will I see you at the Hall of fame induction?
IT: I’d love to, but I have two teenagers…
MS: Oh, God, you probably don’t have much hair left.
IT: Well, that’s the one thing I do have.