The story goes that a music lover met the composer Mozart and said, your music is so beautiful.  I’d give my life to create that kind of music.

Said Mozart: Well, I did.

To this, Monica Seles would nod in concurrence.  Seles turns 50 today.  Her tennis legacy is a rare one, at once prolific and tragic.  Consider that as a teenager, she won a staggering eight Grand Slam singles titles.  But then, also consider the way Seles’ progress to even more greatness was cut short by something unimaginable.

There is arguably no player in tennis history who best personified this instructional concept: the ball doesn’t know what the score isSo hit the ball the way you were taught to hit it. Such was Seles; at her best, utterly fearless. One major objective in a tennis match is to reduce your opponent’s response time.  This is usually accomplished by one of two ways.  The player can hit the ball harder.  Or, hit the ball sooner.  Seles was the rare case of someone who could do both.  With pace, depth, and angles, she repeatedly smothered opponents.

All this was the result of the concurrently disciplined and playful way she learned the game.  Seles’ father, Karolj, was a cartoonist.  When the lefthanded Monica began to play tennis at the age of five, Karolj borrowed an idea from two popular cartoon characters, Tom the cat and Jerry the mouse.  Drawing Jerry on the tennis ball, he then told Monica that she was the cat and should simply give the mouse a solid hit.  As Seles told Sports Illustrated years later, “in order to catch him I had to hit the ball on the rise, which created those great angles.”


People think I must have been so talented at an early age, but I don’t know—was it talent or hard work?  Who knows? Monica Seles

The same urgency Seles brought to hitting the tennis ball surfaced in her career arc.  Beginning at age 13, she spent several years training at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.  “You have no idea how many tennis balls she hit,” Bollettieri once told me.  “Millions, millions, maybe even billions.”  In April ’89, the 15-year-old Seles beat Chrissie Evert in the finals of Houston to earn her first of 53 WTA singles titles.  Later that spring, competing at Roland Garros in her first major, Seles reached the semis.  Said Seles once, “People think I must have been so talented at an early age, but I don’t know—was it talent or hard work?  Who knows?”  But this the world did know: The young Seles wasn’t just a star.  She was a supernova.

Rapidly, there came one major title after another.  The first happened at Roland Garros in 1990, a win over Stefanie Graf in the finals that commenced a Paris three-peat.  The next two years also saw Seles title runs at the Australian Open and US Open.  As 1993 began, Seles beat Graf in a sparkling Australian Open final.  Her rivalry with Graf appeared headed to Evert-Navratilova dimensions.

Then came the unprecedented.  The date was April 30, 1993.  On a changeover during a quarterfinal match in Hamburg, Germany, Seles sat in her chair.  A spectator named Gunter Parche, anguished that Seles had taken over the number one ranking from Graf, headed to the court, pulled out a knife, and stabbed Seles between her shoulder blades.  This horrific crime shook Seles to the core.  Though the physical wound healed in a few months, the psychological damage was greater.


Not until the late summer of 1995 was Seles able to return.  It was a glorious effort—a title in Toronto, the finals of the US Open and, best of all, victory at the ’96 Australian Open.  “She’s a tough cookie,” said that year’s men’s champion, Boris Becker.  The run in Melbourne proved Seles’ last major.

Karolj died in May 1998.  That year at Roland Garros, wearing a ring from Karolj as a necklace, Seles went all the way to the finals.  Her last major singles match came in Paris five years later.  Seles was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.  She’d earned nine Grand Slam singles titles.  Without a doubt, if not for the stabbing, she’d have won many more.

Happy Birthday, Monica.