rhapsody for a champion

by

A TSF reader bids Monica Seles farewell

Well, my favorite female tennis player retired from the sport this past Valentine’s Day. Monica Seles is yet 34 but a grand dame in the increasingly physical, ever youth-centric arena that is professional tennis. She simply found that she didn’t have any more of those blistering darts in her quiver, and so she made it official, packed it up, packed it. It was expected, a footnote really to a career that saw greatness and fit all too well into the always-spiraling soap opera that is tennis, though hardly by her design.

It’s the wondrous tale of a girl born in Yugoslavia to father Karolj, an artist who drew cartoon animal faces on tennis balls and set up a chain-link “net” stretched across a parking lot on which she bashed shot after shot. Monica’s family relocated to the United States in her parents’ middle age so that she could pursue what was, for a time, one of the most dominant careers in sports. Seles won eight of twelve Grand Slam tournaments and supplanted Steffi Graf atop the world rankings. She became No. 1 thanks to an arsenal of stinging strokes that found uncanny, acute angles and painted the lines of the court. She’s the originator of those fierce, two-note grunts that all of today’s stars punctuate their shots with, and arguably the one who introduced the power game to women’s tennis.

Yes, before Nancy got Kerrigan-ed by Tonya’s henchman, there was the reprehensible Gunther Parche, a crazed Graf fan, who plunged a knife into Seles’ back during a changeover at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany. Parche, the ultimate deutschbag, never spent a day in jail, got off with a suspended sentence. Seles would not return to the court for two and a half years. “I spent two years in the prison that he was to inhabit,” she wrote in her memoir. It was a sordid first for attacks on athletes, specifically female athletes, and forever changed the course of the sport.

Seles would return, and she'd pick up one more Slam trophy in Australia in ’96, but the damage was done. Those winsome giggles of teen glory were replaced by a near-grimace on the court. Sadly, she took to repositioning her chair on changeovers so that her back was not to the stadium crowd. The thrill was gone.

Indeed, the girl who grew up idolizing Madonna, streaking her hair blonde, and loving fairy tales became the heroine in a horror-film reel. Hers is the career of a young woman with steely nerves and admirable resolve who, though she disappeared for a time, always cast a shadow over any court on which the elite titles were fought for. And the rest of the field caught up in her absence. An armada of power hitters known as the Big Babe Brigade began to notch their own wins, and, well, then the Williams sisters happened. It wasn't all over, though. Seles won her share of battles, at times scalping big stars — Hingis, Davenport, Venus, Serena, Capriati — but it did seem that some wind was knocked out of her sails, much like that knife that came within an inch of taking her life.

Still she soldiered on, reaching the '95 U.S. Open, winning the ’96 Aussie, and, last, racing to be the unexpected finalist at the ’98 French Open. She did that while reeling on the heels of her father’s yielding to cancer, and she wore black for that fortnight in Paris. Regardless of how the world assailed her — a vicious attack, biting weight comments, other rumors — she stood tall and resilient and sane. She held fast her dignity. She looked regal.

And so the girl who began winning tournaments before she even knew how to keep score in the sport is now the rightful owner of nine Grand Slam titles (my favorite number!) and 53 tournament titles, and the spirited fighter (and often victor) in a few of the best matches ever played. No less than Frank Deford at Sports Illustrated has noted that Graf’s accomplishments may be a tad overrated in light of Seles’ presence. “The greatest ever [Graf]? She wasn’t even the greatest in her prime.”

Formerly bubbly, Seles is eloquent even now in speaking about weight and image issues that affect athletic girls, noting the loitering Kournikova complex afflicting women’s sports. She harbors all the luster and all the cost of the outstanding career that came and went and came again, and she knows better than anyone of the all-time tennis career that was extinguished with one vile act in April 1993. And bygones, she says.

In the end, we could all stand to learn from that. That complete lack of pretentiousness or entitlement, that restraint from airing grievances, that class in the face of danger and struggle. Always a champion. So ends the tennis career of the ultra-competitive shotmaker who led me to pick up a racquet myself during high school, and whose memoir retold her plight after significant injury in a way that inspires me even now to get back into shape and into form after a car wreck, teaches me to take back what I want, which is a place on the tennis court and on the streets and tracks where 5K and mini-marathon races are run. C’est la vie. That’s life — a race — and she’s already won.

Jon writes for Stereo Subversion, a music blog.

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2 Responses to “rhapsody for a champion”

  1. Carolee Pastorius Says:

    What a sad tale, I can’t help but think that if her attacker had been put in prison, where he belonged, Monica would have recovered enough to continue for a few years. She is really so regal and gracious. I wish for her all of the best.

  2. Nez Says:

    seles was always one of my favourites. i remember all those times i was cheering her on during matches i would watch on tv. then she came to the hopman cup and i was at the ticket stand hours before it opened to make sure i had front row tickets to her match. i also remember hanging around the practice court waiting for her to have a hit. she even signed my shirt!

    the biggest impact she made on me was her game. her two hands on both sides, which as a kid, i immitated and still use a little to this day. through my younger days playing tennis i always gained a little more attention playing two hands on both sides and thats something i learnt from seles. loved her game and loved her personality on and off the court.

    good luck for your future monica and good luck!

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