Stopping the Unstoppable

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 /by

A warning about the clip above: It begins with the sounds, but not the video, of Monica Seles being stabbed in Hamburg in 1993. It's not, as you might imagine, a pleasant thing to hear. 

That terrible event happened 20 years ago today. Here's what I wrote about it earlier this month for Tennis magazine's digital edition, 15-30.

*****

Have you ever sat in your place of work and been interrupted by urgent news from the world of tennis, news that had your colleagues hanging up their phones in shock and walking around the office asking each other, “Can you believe it?” 

It happened to me exactly once: 20 years ago today, on April 30, 1993. A friend in my office walked up and said to me, in what was half a statement of fact, and half a disbelieving question, “Monica Seles was just stabbed at a tournament in Germany!?”

No modern story in the sport has been as big, or as hard to fathom. Who would stab a tennis player? More than that, who would stab a 19-year-old girl in the back with a 9-inch knife while she was playing, in front of a huge audience? That person was Gunter Parche, forever known in the tabloids as a “deranged Steffi Graf fan,” an overweight and disheveled man who wanted to help his favorite player overcome her younger rival and take back the No. 1 ranking. Mission—horribly—accomplished: Seles would leave the tour for two years, and when she returned she would only be a shadow of her formerly indomitable self. Graf would indeed regain No. 1 and win more Grand Slams. As for Parche, he was deemed mentally unstable and never saw jail time. Because of that, Seles hasn't set foot in Germany since.

Maybe the worst thing about the whole sad story is that in April 1993, there really wasn’t much else that could stop Monica Seles. She had won seven of the previous eight majors and, after her title at the 1993 Australian Open, she looked like she might tear through the season and win a calendar-year Grand Slam. Her father, Karolj, had said that from a young age she had wanted nothing more than to hit a tennis ball. More than any other player I’ve seen, the Seles of that period played in what can only be described as a trance. Nothing, it seemed, could wake her from it. Until the moment you see above.

Before Seles arrived on tour in the late 1980s, as a 99-pound 15-year-old, it had been hard to imagine a fiercer fighter than Graf, but Monica matched her. There was nothing “ladylike” or elegant about her roundhouse swings—Seles slugged with two hands from both sides—or the pioneering grunt that she brought with them. In terms of both power and willpower, Seles upped the ante and pointed the way ahead. When she was at her best, from 1991 to ’93, no one rose to her challenge. It’s no surprise that so many of today's players, including Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic, cite her as an inspiration.

If there’s a moral or a lesson to Seles’ story, it may be that having the stuff to be a warrior in tennis, or any sport, is a more delicate proposition than we think. At first, she was tentative about walking back on a tennis court. By the time she became a fixture again on tour, she had lost the edge, the hunger, the youthful gusto—as well as the wiry physique—that had once made her unstoppable. If her stabbing shocked office workers halfway around the world, imagine what it did to her, and imagine how hard that shock must have been to forget. 

After Hamburg, Monica knew that there was more to life than smashing a tennis ball, which is a misfortune for any professional player. She had been jolted, in the most frightening and permanent way, out of her trance. But in that brief, blazing, invincible period when she was in it, she changed the women’s game and set the bar higher for its future champions.

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