As of April 1993, Monica Seles was tearing up the tennis record book. Of the last eleven Grand Slam events she’d entered, the 19-year-old Seles had won eight. Included in this run to the top were three wins in Slam finals versus the great Stefanie Graf—twice at Roland Garros (1990, 1992) and, most recently, a crackling three-setter in the 1993 Australian Open.
If you rooted for Seles, you figured tennis had a new ruler. Those who loved Graf saw it differently. Though Seles had earned those three big wins in Paris and Melbourne, Graf had beaten her in the 1992 Wimbledon final and at that point had won six of their ten matches. But no matter which player you preferred, Seles-Graf was grand theatre, potentially a suitable successor to the 80-match epic staged by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
Unfortunately, one person took it far more seriously—in a deeply disturbed way. Gunter Parche was an unemployed German lathe operator. Tremendously upset by Seles’ ascent, Parche wanted nothing more than to see Graf return to the top.
On Friday, April 30, 1993, Seles took the court at the Rothenbaum Tennis Club in Hamburg, Germany to play a quarterfinal match versus Magdalena Maleeva. After winning the first set, 6-4, Seles led 4-3 in the second. Given her well-earned reputation for finishing off her opponents, this might well have been the last changeover of the match.
As Seles sat on the bench, Parche walked down the aisle, stopped briefly behind her and then, with both hands, raised a nine-inch knife. There came a loud cry from a spectator. Seles twisted to look, at which point Parche’s knife entered her back at an angle. Seles yelled, began to cry and was then lowered to the ground, tended to by tour officials. Parch was subdued by two guards.
Seles would suffer a half-inch wound between her spine and left shoulder blade that required surgery. Had she not bent forward prior to the attack, there’s a strong chance Seles would have been paralyzed. But once she’d been operated on, doctors believed Seles could return to tennis at the 1993 US Open.
Alas, the psychological wounds were much deeper. There were the memories of the attack itself and its lingering aftershocks—anxiety and depression by day, troubled sleep by night. There was the fate of Parche. Declaring that he had no desire to kill Seles, but only wanted to injure her just long enough to let Graf regain the No. 1 ranking, his penalty was a two-year suspended sentence: zero jail time. And then there was the tennis world. Should Seles’ ranking be frozen at No. 1? Save for Gabriela Sabatini, who abstained, all of the other top WTA players voted no. As for Graf, she visited Seles in the hospital in Hamburg that weekend, but from then on, the two had minimal contact. The Graf-Seles connection was a far cry from the days when Evert and Navratilova would share a bagel while waiting to play one another in a Grand Slam final.
Seles would spend more than two years recovering. For the assailant, mission accomplished. Graf was back at No. 1 just five weeks after the stabbing. Of the ten Grand Slams Seles missed while absent, Graf won six.
Not until August 1995 did Seles return to competitive tennis. The WTA opted to let her ranking remain at co-No. 1, alongside Graf. In Toronto, Seles’ first tournament back, she would win the title without dropping a set. Next came the US Open, where Seles made a superb run to the final, losing a dramatic three-setter to Graf, 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3. But as well as Seles could play, highlighted by raising her ninth—and ultimately last—major trophy at the 1996 Australian Open, she was never quite the fearless player she’d been prior to the stabbing. Though it’s never easy to determine how a single event might have affected future outcomes, surely tennis history would look much different had this tragedy not happened.