Action Replay: April 30 1993
Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:11
In some respects, Monica Seles had two tennis careers. In the first, she was a teenage sensation, seemingly set to dominate the women’s game. Raised in humble surroundings in the former Yugoslavia before uprooting and moving to Nick Bolletieri’s Florida academy, she was as famed for her powerful, double-fisted style on court as she was for her bubbly personality away from it.
After a meteoric rise through the junior ranks – she was winning tournaments before she truly knew how to keep score – Seles turned professional aged 14, and won the 1990 French Open singles title just two years later. For the next two years she dominated women’s tennis, but her on-court tenacity left her respected rather than revered, a trait of many dominant forces in the eyes of underdog-loving sporting romantics.
On April 30 1993, all of that changed. Seles, leading Magdalena Maleeva 6-4 4-3 in Hamburg, was sat down during a change of ends when Gunther Parche ran forward from the spectators’ stand, leaned over the three-foot barrier and plunged a serrated knife between her shoulder-blades, leaving a wound half an inch deep in her upper back.
The attack took place in full view of the 6,000-strong crowd watching the match. ‘He held the knife with both hands as he stabbed her in the back,’ said one eyewitness. Seles let out a piercing scream and staggered towards the court as Parche, later adjudged to be mentally deficient and obsessed with the success of Steffi Graf, was restrained by bystanders.
Doctors said her injuries were serious, but not life-threatening. ‘She was very lucky,’ according to tournament doctor Peter Wind. ‘Neither the lungs nor the shoulder blades were affected.’ Doctors expected Seles to return from the injury within four weeks, but the psychological trauma kept her away from the courts for the next two years.
The nature of the attack sent shockwaves through the tennis world. ‘It used to be that you would see people running towards you and think, oh they want autographs,’ said Martina Navratilova. ‘But now you wonder, oh my God, are they carrying a pen or a knife?’
While she continued to win WTA tournaments and added one further grand slam title to the eight she won as a teenager, Seles never truly recovered her standing in the women’s game.
However, her comeback endeared her to fans the world over – through no fault of her own, her struggle and grief was played out in the public eye. Once the unpopular champ, Seles was – and remains – beloved for her spirited efforts to return to the top.
What happened next…
- Gunther Parche was charged but never jailed, and resultantly Seles vowed never to return to Germany. ‘What people seem to be forgetting is that this man stabbed me intentionally and he did not serve any sort of punishment for it. I would not feel comfortable going back, I don’t foresee that happening.’
- Her fellow players almost unanimously voted down a proposal to let her keep her No. 1 ranking during her absence from the tour. Only Gabriela Sabatini voted in its favour. ‘Gabby is a human being,’ Seles remarked. ‘The rest – they treated it like it was a sprained ankle or something.’ On her return she was co-ranked no.1 with Steffi Graf.
- Her return in August 1995 appeared to pick up where it left off, but her 6-1 6-0 demolition of Amanda Coetzer in the final of the Canadian Open proved to be something of a false dawn. A month later she lost the US Open final to Graf, and went on to appear in just two more grand slam finals, winning the 1996 Australian Open, and losing the French Open final in 1998 just weeks after the death of her father.
- The second half of her career was littered with injuries, particularly knee problems and even a freak broken finger when catching a Hingis serve while warming up for an exhibition match in 1996 that prevented her defending her Australian Open crown.
- Seles last played competitively at the 2003 French Open. Struggling with a foot injury, she never returned to the tour, and officially retired in February 2008.
- Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim wrote shortly after her retirement: ‘Transformed from champion to tragedienne, Seles became far more popular than she was while winning all those titles. It became impossible to root against her. At first, out of sympathy. Then, because she revealed herself to be so thoroughly thoughtful, graceful, dignified. When she quietly announced her retirement, she exited as perhaps the most adored figure in the sport’s history. As happy endings go, one could do worse.’
By Michael Beattie