Monica Seles was a tennis phenomenon, winning eight Grand Slam titles as a teenager between 1990 and 1993. In the early part of her career, it seemed inevitable she would go on to become one of the most decorated tennis players of all time.
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Then, in a terrifying incident that shocked the world, the 19-year-old was stabbed in the back by a knifeman during a tournament in Hamburg, Germany. The world’s number one was rushed to hospital, where her physical injuries soon healed, but the mental scars left her unable to play for more than two years.
Miraculously, she went on to play at the highest level again, despite battling an eating disorder and suffering depression after her father died from cancer. She won her ninth Grand Slam title in a remarkable tale of triumph over adversity.
Today, at the age of 46, she has written a book about her own battle with binge eating and depression, in an effort to help and inspire other young girls. She is also a spokesperson for Shire Pharmaceuticals, fronting its campaign to help people overcome an eating disorder.
Seles was born in Novi Sad, Serbia, in December 1973, to Karolj and Ester Seles. She began playing tennis at the age of five and was coached by her father. Later, she had said being a girl held her back, because she wasn’t taken seriously as a player. Her father had initially encouraged her to become a track and field athlete.
Her father soon realised she had always preferred tennis and encouraged her, although she learned to play on a parking lot. Karolj became the driving force behind his daughter and developed her famous two-handed playing style for forehand and backhand shots.
Winning her first tournament, the Junior Orange Bowl tournament in Miami, Florida, in 1985, aged 11, this was the start of her international career, as she caught the attention of American tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who had developed the idea of a tennis boarding school.
In 1986, Seles was invited to join the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. Her parents later moved to Florida and Seles’ remarkable career took off quickly. When she was just 15, she turned professional in February 1989, joining the pro tour.
Beating Chris Evert in the final, she won her first title at Houston in May 1989. Seles finished her first year on the pro tour ranked number six in the world, before going on to win eight Grand Slam titles, representing Yugoslavia, by the time she was 19.
Now a naturalised American citizen, Seles seemed unstoppable – at her peak, she won six Grand Slam events between January 1991 and February 1993, reaching the final of 33 out of 34 tournaments and winning 22 of them. Her win rate was an amazing 92.9% and she looked set to become the most successful women’s tennis player in history.
Seles was playing against Magdalena Maleeva in the Citizen Cup, in Hamburg, Germany, on 30th April 1993. During a break, crazed knifeman Günter Parche ran from the crowd and stabbed Seles in the back at the edge of the court. The knife struck her between her shoulder blades.
It was later revealed that had the nine-inch blade entered just 1cm to the left, Seles could have been paralysed for life. Parche was quickly arrested and Seles was rushed to hospital, leaving the world shocked at what was described as the sport’s “darkest day”.
German citizen Parche was later said to be an obsessive fan of leading German player Steffi Graf. Described as having an “abnormal personality structure” and psychological abnormalities, Parche had developed a hatred of Seles after she replaced Graf as world number one in 1991.
Seles’ physical injury healed, but mentally she was seriously scarred and struggled to get over what had happened. She developed an eating disorder which lasted for a decade and worsened after the death of her father from cancer at the age of 64.
Her road to recovery was a long one, but Seles’ strength of character enabled her to return to the tennis circuit in 1995 to make her brave comeback. She won her first tournament, the Canadian Open, beating Amanda Coetzer in the final.
She went on to win her ninth and final Grand Slam title in 1996 and won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. Regularly reaching the quarter and semi-finals of major tournaments until her retirement in 2008, she was regularly in the WTA tour’s top 10 women until she retired at the age of 35.
Today, Seles has said in interviews that she doesn’t let tennis define her as a person. If the attack hadn’t happened, she could have matched Graf’s 22 Grand Slam singles titles. However, she isn’t bitter and doesn’t dwell on the past.
Although she has always kept her enthusiasm for tennis, she has concentrated in recent years on helping others who have eating disorders and depression. Her 2009 autobiography – Getting a Grip on My Body, My Mind, My Self – chronicles her journey back to tennis after the attack.
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