Monica Seles interview: Turning tragedy into triumph

12/03/2014
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Fighting back: Seles' return from her tragic stabbing in 1993 is still remarkable.

Nine grand slam titles, victory in 53 singles and six doubles tournaments, number one in the world for 178 weeks. Those achievements make Monica Seles a tennis legend. But, it should have been so much more.

The 40-year-old’s career was interrupted on April 30, 1993 when a deranged fan stabbed her in the back with a nine-inch blade during a match in Hamburg, Germany. The surprise attack occurred when she was at the peak of her powers, fighting for the sport’s elite titles with Steffi Graf – and usually beating the German great to them.

You could excuse her for feeling bitter about the event which sidelined her for more than two years. While speaking to Sport360° in Abu Dhabi for Inspire Sports Management’s Inspirational Women 2014 event, however, the United States-based icon seemed to have made her peace with the incident. 

“I do not believe in living my life with regret,” she said. “I was lucky that with a fuzzy yellow ball and a racquet I was able to travel the world and make a living.

“Most of us, after a certain stage of our lives, know there are highs and lows. You just have to deal with them.

“I am very happy that after my stabbing I decided to come back and play. The love for the game won over everything else.

“Every day, you try to be a better person and a stronger person. To this day, that is the motto I live by.”

Seles burst onto the scene as a prodigious frizzy-haired teenager, who went from practicing with her father in the car park of the family’s apartment complex in her native Yugoslavia to becoming the youngest-ever French Open singles winner at 16.

Her remarkable journey included seven other major victories during a golden spell between 1991 and 1993, in which she and Graf battled for glory.

The emotional trauma then caused by the attack in Hamburg, and subsequent fitness issues, would have caused lesser athletes to crumble.

Instead, Seles mounted one of sport’s most endearing comebacks when she recovered from the verge of defeat in the semi-final to lift her fourth Australian Open title in 1996 with a dominant 6-4, 6-1 victory against Anke Huber.

When asked to pick between the triumphs that bookended her career at the highest level, Seles is unable to offer a definite answer.

“For me it is impossible to pick between the two, as they are important for different reasons in my heart,” she said. “I dreamed of winning the French Open as a 16-year-old. Going into the tournament [at that age] you do not think you are going to win it, you think you come back and will win it at 18. You go from being an unknown to someone who has arrived.

“[After the stabbing] I missed tennis at the peak of my time, and I hardly played for two-and- a-half years. To know I could still play at a high level [after winning the Australian Open] will stay very special to me.”

Since retiring in February 2008, Seles has dedicated much of her energies to promoting health and fitness. She speaks from experience, with her autobiographical self-help book ‘Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self’ revealing with searing honesty the binge-eating episodes that saw her weight balloon until she began conquering the problem a decade ago.

Now tanned, lithe and with sun-kissed hair thanks to the glorious weather in her adopted Florida, Seles radiates well-being in person. It was this message that saw her invited to Abu Dhabi for a five-day trip last week by ISM, Mubadala, Al Dar Academies and SMK Tennis, in which she put on several training sessions, including one for more than 1,000 children.

“I have been to Abu Dhabi a few times, but this was the first time I really got to interact with the Emirati ladies,” she said. “That made it extra special.”

Seles has not always been in such fine fettle, and was questioned about her conditioning at various stages of her career.

This is a topic which British player Laura Robson knows all about. Speaking to ESPN in January, 18-time grand slam winner Chris Evert urged the 20-year-old Robson to work on her fitness “a little bit more” and become more disciplined if she is ever to realise her potential.

When asked whether she feels frustrated when watching Robson, Seles said: “For sure. But I went through a phase where my coaches told me about my fitness problems.

“Hopefully, as she matures and spends longer on the tour, she will realise how much her game would improve if she could stay fitter and focus on that. Her strokes are there, but it has to come from the player.

“In my career, a lot of people wrote about that and told me about it, but until I internalised [that message] in my mind, in a positive way, the outcome was not successful.

“For me, that came once Serena and Venus Williams came on the tour [in the late 1990s] as they took fitness to a whole new level.”

Seles speaks fondly of her experiences in the Middle East, and expressed hope that a grand slam would soon be played in the region.

“I think in my lifetime we will see one played, for sure,” she said. “Hopefully we will also have a ladies event or a special invitational tournament played in Abu Dhabi too.”

Seles revealed that she turned down the chance to enter the draft for the newlyinaugurated International Premier Tennis League, in which Dubai have a team.

She said: “I was offered a chance to play. But unfortunately I really do not play enough tennis [now] to be comfortable playing.

“If it had happened 10 years ago, for sure, I would have loved to play. It is a great idea to bring the sport of tennis to new parts [of the world] and introduce it to young children.”

The multi-talented Seles has even found time to launch ‘The Academy’ series of fictional stories, which she claims are not based on her experiences on the tennis tour.

Quite right, too.

You simply cannot conjure a life story like hers.

Seles on…

… the lack of rivalry in women’s tennis:
“It is so hard to say. When you have it we are not happy, and when we do not, it is the same. I think now Serena Williams has that bit of extra consistency. But in a way, it makes it exciting. Tennis is in a fantastic place, and we as fans have got to enjoy it.”

… Eugenie Bouchard:
“She has a fantastic head on her shoulders. I played with her in a celebrity doubles event in Toronto last year. She is a very mature young lady and has great skills, which she displayed at the Australian Open.”

… being in Abu Dhabi:
“It was an honour when Inspire Sports Management invited me. I did a kids’ clinic with more than 1,000 children, and then got to play tennis with the local Emirati ladies. Coming to the General Women’s Union for International Women’s Day, has been a really beautiful learning experience for me.

… obesity:
“At the end of the day the mind and body connection is really important. Education is always number one. But a healthy body produces a healthy mind. With that combination you have huge advantages.”

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WTA offer lukewarm support to IPTL

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In the dark: Melissa Pine insists she has very few details on the IPTL.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) offered only lukewarm support for the new International Premier Tennis League on Tuesday, with some details still sketchy even after the player draft.

Melissa Pine, the WTA's Asia-Pacific vice-president and tournament director of this year's WTA Championships in Singapore, also raised concerns over possible player burn-out related to the new "exhibition" event.

Pine, speaking to AFP in Singapore, admitted the body which oversees women's tennis remains unclear on aspects of the IPTL, a multi-city team tournament to be played in Asia and the Middle East from late this year.

"We're really just reading about it as you are. We don't have a lot of details on the IPTL," Pine said, as BNP Paribas was announced as the WTA Championships' sponsor on a five-year deal.

"But I guess just as a matter with the WTA and players, it's for them to ensure that they're striking the right balance in the off-season between capitalising on promotional opportunities, while at the same time ensuring they have the proper rest and recovery for the upcoming season."

Asked whether the WTA was broadly supportive of the new initiative, Pine said: "We don't really have a lot of details, but exhibitions can be good for tennis."

The IPTL, an invention of Indian former doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi, is set to launch in November and December — a rest period for most players — with stops in Singapore, Bangkok, Mumbai and Dubai.

The tournament will feature 24 matches across the four cities with each comprising the best of five single-set face-offs in singles and doubles, in an order decided by the home team.

At the draft in Dubai this month, the teams spent nearly $24 million on top players including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, and retired greats such as Andre Agassi.

However, Agassi has since said the tournament clashes with his Thanksgiving holiday, while Pete Sampras appeared unclear on which team he is playing for.

Organisers are yet to announce the identities of the team owners who are fronting large sums, including a fee reportedly close to $1 million per night for Nadal.

Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Kei Nishikori and Li Na – Asia's top-ranked player and a major drawcard – are skipping the tournament altogether.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the IPTL does not have its own website and its Facebook page is out of date.

But the IPTL, inspired by cricket's Indian Premier League, may yet prove a hit with its made-for-TV format and strategy of targeting Asian and Middle East markets.

The event will take place between the WTA Championships, the traditional women's season finale which is debuting in Singapore, and the start of the 2015 tennis circuit.

Pine said it was "critical" that the women playing the IPTL, who also include Victoria Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki, scheduled in time to rest and recover.

"I think the critical aspect here is that players are managing their off-season time and balancing the promotional and financial opportunities with the critical element of health and recovery period during the off-season," she said.

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Murray ‘wins ugly’ as he survives scare against Vesely

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Job done: Andy Murray confessed he was forced to win ugly against the world No77.

Andy Murray gave a new meaning to winning ugly after he survived an inspired assault from world No77 Jiri Vesely to beat the young Czech 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4 in two hours and 47 minutes to reach the last 16 in Indian Wells.

Murray squandered an early double break to lose the first set, and he had to fight back from a break down in both the second and third sets before finally sealing the win. 

“It was a pretty ugly match to be involved in,” admitted Murray. “Thankfully I managed to dig it out in the end. He’s a tricky player. I’ve never played against him before. He’s a lefty, understands how to play the points and uses the angles well. It was tough.”

Vesely was playing his first ever ATP Masters 1000 tournament and this week was the first time the 20-year-old had posted consecutive victories on tour. Before Indian Wells, he had never beaten anyone ranked higher than No55 in the world.

Murray, a finalist in 2009, had fallen in his opening match in two of the past three years at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Murray got off to a flying start, breaking twice and was serving for a 4-0 lead before Vesely – who was playing a top-10 player for the first time in his career – showed hints of what he’s capable of and got one of the breaks back with a forehand drive winner.

The Czech lefty, who was the world No1 junior in 2011 and is the youngest player in the top-100, found his swagger as he aced to hold to love in the following game.

Murray pulled out an ace to save a break point in game six before Vesely survived a 10-minute game to hold before he called the trainer to help him with a terrible bleeding blister on his foot, which made all those long rallies he managed to win against the Wimbledon champion all the more impressive.

Murray was still up a break and as the world No6 served for the first set at 5-4, Vesely upped the ante and broke serve.

The set went to a tiebreak, which saw Vesely race to a 3-1 lead, albeit with an illegal point, where he reached over the net to hit an easy volley. Murray argued with the umpire Mohamed Lahyani but to no avail.

The world No77 then hit a brilliant backhand passing shot for a 5-2 lead and a netted volley from Murray gave him four set points. Vesely only needed one as he took the opening set with a service winner.

He then broke in the opening game of the second set and continued to make use of Murray’s lacklustre display to hold for 3-1.

The Scot found a way back into the match though when Vesely hit a couple of errors to get broken in the sixth game. The pair then exchanged breaks and a terrible overhead miss from Vesely allowed Murray to level for 4-4.

The nerves of the inexperienced Vesely got the best of him, and Murray stole the second set, with little effort, when his young opponent sent a lob long.

They both exchanged breaks to open the final set but it was Vesely who edged ahead and maintained his lead until the eighth game, where he crumbled under pressure, and double-faulted to give Murray the break back for 4-4.

And Murray took the match on his second match point two games later.

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