On Monica Seles

I have no quantifiable data to prove this, but I suspect that if one were to poll tennis fans as to who their favorite player of all time was, across the world  the runaway answer would be Monica Seles.  Once a world-beating teenager, Seles, through no fault of her own, became her sport’s tragic heroine.  In doing so, she won over fans by the legion. and her name became a shorthand for dignity and class–a trait all too seemingly rare among famous athletes.

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Tennis matches are most enjoyable to watch when opponents’ styles contrast.  The classic example, the one that goes back to 19th century Wimbledon, is that between the baseline player and the serve-and-volleyer.  That contrast produced some of tennis’s most exciting rivalries: Navratilova/Evert, McEnroe/Borg, and to a lesser extent Sampras/Agassi.

There is another battle, less classic and far rarer, that has made the hearts of tennis fans beat all the faster, and that is the battle between athlete and artist.  The serve-and-volley game is nearly extinct, destroyed by modern equipment and training, but at least it had a good run.  The tennis “artist” on the other hand, a player of uncanny intelligence, near perfect shot making ability, and effortless mobility on the court (practically dancing), is as rare and as precious as a blue diamond.  For decades in the women’s game there was only the holy Trinity of Suzanne Lenglen, Maria Bueno, and Evonne Goolagong.  In recent years, only Martina Hingis and Justine Henin could lay claim to an artistic ideal.  Although neither had the fluidity of Lenglen, Bueno, or Goolagong, Henin’s backhand and Hingis’s intelligence are easily the equal of their predecessors.  (In the men’s game, Roger Federer stands alone among tennis artists although lesser mortals such as Gustavo Kuerten and Manolo Santana have approached Federer’s Alp.)

In contrast to the rarity of tennis artists, there has never been a lack of “athletes”, players whose superior physical ability augment their formidable (but not Platonic) tennis abilities.  In any era, there will always be such athletes at the top of the game; Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are the quintessential contemporary examples.  This is not to say that the artists lack athleticism–although Hingis was harmed by her inability to cope with the physicality of her competitors–or that the athletes lack an aesthetic quality, but when the great artists meet the great athletes, then tennis fans are rewarded with great battles.

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It is these attributes that make for the great tennis players, yet Monica Seles was none, which makes her success all the more remarkable.  She preferred the baseline (perhaps out of necessity; her lateral movement was good, but ability to move forward left much to be desired), but she was no classic baseliner like Evert, Borg, or Connors.  She was not an athlete, certainly not like Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova.  Fitness was never her strongest point, and it an Achilles heel after her return to the game in 1995.  From 1990-1993 her shotmaking ability was arguably the finest in the world, but if anything she completely subverted the artistic ideal.  Her ground strokes were just, and there is no other word for it, odd.

Seles had no forehand.  This is not a derisive remark about the weakness her shot; it is a factual assessment of the way she gripped her racket.  She held the racket with both hands, thereby creating a second two-handed backhand instead of a forehand.  It was a not a particularly attractive shot (especially to the tennis purist, who can barely tolerate a two-handed backhand), but it was an extremely effective one.  What she lost in reach, she more than made up for in power and control.  It also allowed her to hit angles that other players could not reach and with incredible pace and precision that opponents could not match.  This was such an effective tool for Seles, that one wonders why it was never copied.  Perhaps a lesser player could not get away with such unorthodoxy.  Nevertheless, Seles’s influence on today’s game cannot be overlooked.  She nearly single-handedly (no pun intended) initiated the power game in women’s tennis.

Seles was born in Tito’s Yugoslavia to an ethnic Hungarian family (her prime years coincided with the disintegration of her home country and the ensuing chaos and war.)  Her father Károly, a cartoonist, showed her how to play by drawing pictures for her–thus the development of unique style.  She joined the professional tour in 1988 at the age of 14, and beat Chris Evert in 1989 to win her first tour title.  Immediately afterwards, Seles reached the semifinals of the 1989 French Open where she met the reigning champion Steffi Graf and lost in a tight match.

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In 1989, Steffi Graf ruled tennis with an iron fist.  Graf conquered all in 1988, demolishing all opponents en route to a Grand Slam.  For good measure, she won the Olympic title too thereby achieving the Golden Slam, a feat unique in tennis history.  Although she lost her French Open title in 1989 due to the combination of another teenager (Aranxa Sanchez Vicario) and menstrual cramps, 1989 was actually a more dominant year than 1988.  Graf’s seemed completely unbeatable.

Then came 1990.  It started off well with another victory at the Australian Open.  Then the German tabloids discovered and revealed an extortion attempt against Graf’s domineering father Peter for allegedly fathering an illegitimate child with a model.  It was crushing for Graf personally, and the media was brutal.  Graf also suffered a host of physical injuries, including a sinus operation.  Seles was the first beneficiary, beating Graf at the 1990 French Open.  Graf’s year was not bad by mortal standards (a semifinal loss at Wimbledon to Zina Garrison was followed by a final round loss at the US Open to Gabriela Sabatini), but by Graf’s own exacting expectations, it was a horrific year.  However, the worst was yet to come.

1991 was the year Seles truly arrived.  She won the Australian Open, successfully defended her French title, skipped Wimbledon, and then won the US Open.  Her absence from Wimbledon caused a stir, particularly among the scandal-crazed British tabloid press (who sparked ridiculous “Seles is pregnant” claims), but the truth was far more mundane; Seles suffered from shin splints.  In hindsight, Seles probably regrets that she skipped Wimbledon, because it remained the one title she never won.  Graf benefited from Seles’s absence and won her first major title in a year and a half.

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There are two aspects of Seles’s early career that must be noted because–for better or for worse–she was the trailblazer in what are now ubiquitous to the women’s tour.  First, Seles a giggling teenager with an infectious smile, was a star as well as a champion.  She spoke openly of her admiration for Madonna and had a strange friendship with Donald Trump.  She was tailed by the paparazzi, and wore wings and sunglasses trying to escape them.  The tennis dress designer Ted Tinling claimed that Seles was the first legitimate star tennis produced since Suzanne Lenglen (a friend of his from his youth.)  To Tinling, all the other greats in the women’s game never transcended the sport the way that Lenglen did until Seles. Because of the stabbing, Seles never fulfilled Tinling’s vision, but she led the way for player/celebrities like Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters.

The second important aspect of Seles’s early career was the grunting (for lack of a better word.)  Seles was not the first player to grunt, but she elevated it, she made it okay, and many of today’s players who grunt (including Venus and Serena Williams) cite Seles as a model.  Perhaps this is hypocritical, but while I detest the screaming of today, I tend to be less harsh on Seles.  Her grunting, a distinct “ungh-EEE!“, drove her competitors crazy, Martina Navratilova in particular, and not unjustifiably.  At the time, I always sided with Seles because (1) on television her grunts did not seem as loud as they actually were (to my ears, Sabatini was far worse), and (2) Seles took the #1 spot from Graf, a player whom I adore now, but did not care for at the time.

I also tend to be less harsh about Seles because, unlike today’s screamers, I truly believe that grunting was an important if inconvenient factor of Seles’s game rather than elaborate cheating.  Seles tried to stop after being mercilessly hounded by the British tabloids at Wimbledon 1992 (where the “Grunt-O-Meter” was introduced).  In the end she meekly fell to Graf in the final round.  Considering that Seles won all the other major tournaments in 1992, including a now-legendary three-set classic over Graf in the French Open final, it was pretty clear both to her and tennis fans that if Seles wanted to continue winning she had to continue grunting.

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Early on signs indicated that in 1993 Seles would continue her march to the title of greatest ever.  At the Australian Open she again beat Steffi Graf, in another three-set classic.  However, at a tournament in Hamburg, a madman literally stabbed Seles in the back (with a boning knife) and the phrase “deranged Steffi Graf fan” entered the popular tennis lexicon.  Günter Parche, a deeply disturbed man, distraught that his beloved Graf (whom he stalked at one point) was no longer the world’s top player, took advantage of the lax security at Hamburg and altered tennis history forever.  He destroyed Seles’s career; the physical wound healed, but she was sidelined for the next 28 months, plagued with nightmares, psychological trauma, and weight issues.  Graf, whom Parche also deeply traumatized by the attack, benefited the most.  With the absence of Seles and the decline and retirement of Navratilova, Graf had virtually no rivals left, and she swept all before her.  Graf’s only real rival over the next four years was her own body, which eventually broke down.

Seles returned for the 1995 US Open, but everything had changed.  She was no longer the same player.  Her giggling was replaced by a weary and wary reticence.  But Seles carried herself with quiet dignity that won her fans worldwide.  Whereas she had once been a divisive figure in the tennis world, she was now universally beloved.  Speaking ill of Seles was akin to blasphemy.  No matter what continent she played on, no matter who her opponent was, the crowd collectively supported her.  Even some of her opponents had very mixed feelings when playing her, probably none more so than Graf.  Sanchez Vicario beat Seles at the 1998 French Open final just after Seles’s beloved father died and publicly apologized to Seles for doing so.

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In Jon Wertheim’s book Venus Envy, there is a very poignant moment.  A random fan approached Seles and shared her own story of woe.  Seles, rather than trying to get away, listened to the fan’s story.  Wertheim indicated that this was not a unique occurrence.  Fans connected with Seles in a way that they could not before and on a very personal level, which was ironic because Seles was a far more private person than she had previously been.  In a way, Seles became larger than the sport; to tennis fans around the world she was the embodiment of a heroic ideal.  For all her seemingly supernatural talent, it was her humanity that attracted people to her.  It was made all the poignant by the understanding that there would be no fairy tale ending for Seles.  Nevertheless, she persevered, and she did so standing tall.

In his tribute to Seles after she announced her retirement, Wertheim wrote, “[S]he exited as perhaps the most adored figure in the sport’s history. As happy endings go, one could do worse. “

One wishes Seles happiness in life.  If any athlete deserves that, it’s Monica Seles.

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