The Force of Youth: Seles before and after

by: | July 24, 2009

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It’s funny how Monica Seles, who as a girl used to do everything at a double-time clip, began taking her sweet old time in just about everything after her career was savagely interrupted in April of 1993 by a deranged Stef?  Graf fan who plunged a knife into her back.

Still, the inevitable moment came in February: Seles, who had contemplated a comeback at various times since she played her last Sony Ericsson WTA Tour match in 2003, ? nally announced that she was of? cially retired. The news doused the ? ickering hopes of Seles’ many fans worldwide and, judging from the readers of my blog, caused much weeping and gnashing of teeth. She was, and is, beloved.

I’m happy that La Monica decided not to make a comeback this spring, because the painful reality is that she never really was the same after the attack in Hamburg. What chance is there that Seles in 2008 would have been equal to even the watered-down version we watched in the second half of the 1990s? How many athletes have made two full-scale comebacks?

The damage done to Seles by her attacker in 1993 was, by physiological measures, relatively minor. A torn ACL or rotator cuff injury might have presented an equally formidable threat to her career. It was the psychological damage that was major. It was severe enough to keep her off the tour for 27 months as she tried to attain some kind of emotional equilibrium. That assailant’s knife, while sinking an inch into her back, pierced and shattered her world.

When Seles returned to tennis in August of 1995, she seemed a more whole, aware person—a young woman enjoying the bene? ts of rehabilitation and therapy. The circumstances surrounding her comeback were a powerful propellant. In addition to her own motivation and the sheer joy she might have felt returning to the court, fans felt for her, and deeply so. How could anyone not want to see her triumph?

Seles was in a unique position to continue where she had left off: At 21, she was still young enough to dominate, and the long layoff gave her plenty of time to rest, ? ne-tune her game, and maximize her ? tness.

Monica Seles  © AFPIn her ?rst tournament back, she blasted through the ?eld at the Canadian Open (she lost just 14 games and no sets in ?ve matches). She reached the U.S. Open ?nal, and won the 1996 Australian Open. She did it in signature fashion, too, dictating with her ground strokes, striking them with power, penetration, and astonishing accuracy. This was vintage Seles—she was a player who took running out of the tennis equation because she was good enough to stand at the baseline clubbing the ball and jerking her opponent around like a yo-yo.

But the joie de combat, perhaps even the joie de vivre, didn’t last. The lurking subtext began to emerge as the main story line: Although she seemed to be emotionally centered, she had lost something that could never be recaptured or mimicked, nor implanted by the most enlightened of therapeutic techniques. Although she was just 22, she had lost her youth, and her killer instinct with it.

Seles couldn’t crawl back into the bubble in which she had existed before April 30, 1993, when she had not a care in the world and neither the knowledge nor concern that anything else might count besides pounding a tennis ball. She had played the game with extraordinary focus and passion, the sum of which is a lack of self-consciousness invaluable to any tennis player.

By the summer of 1996, Seles was in trouble. Her conditioning was a glaring issue, and she had niggling injuries. She could no longer play the aggressive, attacking tennis she once had. You couldn’t blame Seles for not having focused on ?tness and injury prevention in her time off, but you could also see how having done so might have altered her destiny.

Seles might have found a way to build ?re walls to protect her singular gift: that extraordinary ball-striking ability. While she tried over the next few years to play tennis the old-fashioned way, the Monica way, she could never recapture the spirit and game of the delightful stick-? gure she once was. It didn’t help her cause that she had grown to nearly 6-feet tall and had a ?gure full enough that during one Wimbledon, a British tabloid gleefully published photos of the “spare tyre” around her waist.

That Seles has since matured into a beautiful woman should be some consolation to her fans. But as for that elusive second comeback, nobody has ever been able to recapture the aspects of youth that once made Monica such a force in tennis.
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