Few other sports celebrate their retired icons quite like tennis. The formula is clear: enter the Hall of Fame (sweet); be the focal point of a U.S. Open to-do (schmaltzy); write an autobiography (“here’s my truth”) and drop in for a breezy chat with Letterman, Leno or Oprah (“make sure my limo’s on time”).
This year, ‘tis the season of Monica Seles, who has a new book out, will enter the Hall of Fame in July and will probably be celebrated at the U.S. Open. Seles has always intrigued me. What a trooper. From the first time I spotted her, a tiny baseliner on the backcourt at Bollettieri’s singular factory, I found her compelling. For starters, I loved the gypsy connection. After all, how often do you hear that ol’ phrase “gypsy tennis player?” (Monica’s “peeps” came from Hungary and Seles watchers connect the gypsy dots.) Her mother was always a sympathetic figure, an earthy woman who, okay, perhaps was a tad out of place in the snazzy world of tennis. And Monica’s dad was the prince of all tennis papas; numero uno in a field overpopulated by rogues and psychologically-impaired gents, desperate to gain glory through their kids. Fame and fortune were important to Senor Seles, but, ultimately, the health of his kid was key. Plus, it always was a hoot talking to the cartoonist-turned-coach, although his hefty accent meant all I really “got” was a sense of his indomitable spirit.
Monica Seles’ carreer had an incredible arc. At first a bit of a contradiction, off-court she was a carefree, Holly Golightly prodigy with the giddiest giggle in town, while on-court she punched two-handed groundies from both sides. As Sports Illustrated’s Sally Jenkins noted, Monica was “a spooky little kid who turned out to have the game of a rattle-snake.” No she was not exactly endowed with an abundance of Federerian athleticism. After all, those frenetic little stutter steps she used to motor about the court didn’t exactly flow. Grace was not her calling card. But she was blessed with Agassian hand-eye coordination and a fierce will to win that was equal to or maybe even greater than any other, say Chrissie, Austin or Steffi.
Then, inexplicably, despite all the Slam titles she had pocketed (she ended up with nine), triumphant cheers were subsumed by sniping over her grunting. Critics complained that her two-toned shrieks “made Jimmy Connors sound like Perry Como,” while reporters cruelly invented the infamous “grunt-o-meter” and asked her: “Does it annoy you when they compare you to a locomotive train?” or “Do you think grunting takes away the elegance or beauty of the game?” But Seles had her backers. “The whole point of women’s tennis in the last generation,” noted the New York Times, “has been that women are free to be powerful, competitive, sweaty, noisy jocks, just like the men.” Annoying as it might be, Seles’ grunting was both a hard drive habit and the after effect of Seles’ singular shock-and-awe offensive. This girl didn’t just stroke the ball; she attacked it with a lethal and thunderous ferocity that shook the heavens of tennis. Her impossible-to-read, on-the-rise groundies created never-before-seen angles that astounded and crushed her breathless foes.
Over the years, the brouhaha over Monica’s sound effects abated as a completely new take on Seles took hold. She became an inspiration, as fans came to realize that no other women’s star wrestled with more traumas than the Serb-Floridian. Soon after leaving home at age 12, Monica became her family’s sole breadwinner. She had to endure an inexplicable stabbing, which remains the most shocking assault in sports history. To this day, Seles is cautionary when she refers to the incident.
“I never know how to handle this part,” she wrote. “There isn’t an easy…way to say it. It’s something that was so traumatic, that when I mention it today, it’s like I’m referring to something that happened to someone else. It can make people uncomfortable because they don’t know how to react…It’s a horrible thing that changed the course of my career and inflicted serious damage to my psyche. A split second of horror fundamentally changed me as a person.”
And things didn’t get better quickly. The psychologist she went to for posttraumatic stress disorder said that Seles talked “about herself as a bird in a cage. She is fearful, cries and feels very nervous. She is not sleeping well and has nightmares.” To make matters worse, she endured the cold-shoulder rejection of her fellow players (who refused to protect her ranking after the stabbing) and an outrageous, O.J. Simpson-like jury that let her assailant off scot-free. Then there was the civil war that ravaged her native Yugoslavia and NATO’s carpet bagging of her hometown, the heart wrenching (“why do the good die young?”) passing of her dad and most recently a doubt-ridden battle with obesity. To Monica food came to be both comfort and poison. Her favorite memory of the Atlanta Olympics was of the food court. After enduring an excruciating six-hour work-out, she’d blow it with pretzel and pop tart binges. No wonder she gained 40 pounds and would only walk on the beach fully clothed. Ouch!
All the while, Monica was quite the risk-taker, a competitor who had a pioneering penchant to establish many firsts. Still the youngest French Open champ ever, Seles was the first great Serb, first great Bollettieri girl, the first and only great double-fisted gal, the first women to win a major best-of-five-sets title (the ‘90 WTA Championships), first great (even louder than Sharapova) female grunter and (worst of all) the first elite athlete to be the victim of a vicious, near-fatal, career-ruining, sport-impairing attack.
I’m not sure why I find Monica so appealing — her unique style, her vulnerability, her guts, her risk taking, openness and accessibility, her willingness to share, her maturity and basic goodness. Maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe I just have a soft spot for gypsy ladies who courageously climb back on stage after suffering the devastation of a coward’s blade.