OTI Online
Spring 1994

by Cindy Shmerler

As a player, Monica Seles embodies determination and fearlessness. Her ability to fight when the odds are against her has led to riveting tennis. A match point down, she still won't play it safe and hit the ball down the middle of the court, but will aim as close to the line as possible, even at the risk of hitting outside. Champions like Seles live in danger zones. And until recently they were zones of their own making. But with the attack on Seles last April, danger from the outside world has brought an edge to women's tennis. Once again, the woman as champ, as well as the idea itself, is in jeopardy.

From the time she first struck a tennis ball - one on which her father had drawn Tom and Jerry cartoon characters so she would have an easier time concentrating - Monica Seles has displayed a steely determination to excel that is rare even among the world's elite athletes. In a sport that has come to consider prepubescent professionals the norm, the teenager from Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (a province now claimed by Serbia), armed herself with double-fisted groundstrokes and a sonic boom-level grunt, and began her assault on the staid tennis establishment.

But even though Seles rose to number one in the world in 1991, winning seven Grand Slam Championships - two U.S., three French and two Australian Opens, she was never quite accepted by the cognoscenti. First it was her abrupt departure from (and surprising denunciation of) tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who had brought the Seles family from Eastern Europe to sunny Florida in 1986, given them a place to live, and Monica a place to train. Then it was her last-minute withdrawal from Wimbledon in 1991 which she shrouded in such secrecy that rumor mongers wondered if she were pregnant and/or sequestered at friend Donald Trump's Palm Beach estate. It turned out to be nothing more than a case of shin splints. And, it certainly didn't help her popularity with some that Seles refused to take sides in the escalating war back in her homeland. Seles, it seems, had become part Madonna, part Greta Garbo, an enigma to all those around her. Even her mastery of the game and her triumph over all challengers couldn't endear her to the public.

A dazed Monica Seles after being stabbed in Hamburg, Germany
A dazed Monica Seles after being stabbed in Hamburg, Germany

But on April 30 of last year, in the midst of a quarter final match, as Seles was sitting courtside between games at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, all that changed. With one stab of a kitchen knife thrust between her shoulder blades by a deranged fan of rival Steffi Graf, Monica Seles became a victim. Suddenly she wasn't mercurial, she wasn't overly dramatic, she wasn't even a tennis player. On that day she joined thousands of women worldwide - celebrities, professionals, housewives - who are stalked each year.

The stabbing of Seles has led to protective measures: security firms have been hired, guards are now stationed next to each of the competitors in courtside chairs, and players are employing private bodyguards. And while she has all but recovered physically, the fact that her attacker, Gunter Parche, a German national, was set free with a suspended sentence, has had an enormous impact on Seles, and on women's tennis. The fact, too, that this happened in a game through which women athletes have won a place at the top of the sports world made it, symbolically, doubly hard to bear: from champion to victim with one thrust of a knife.

But consider this: in tennis, love means nothing; it means not a single point has been scored. So isn't it ironic that out of crazy, so called "obsessive" love a fanatical fan has been able to alter the course of the sport in which women have proved their mettle, the sport in which they earn as much money as (and in some cases more than) their male counterparts? Some would call that scoring. And is it possible that behind the need to act out in the name of obsessive love - whether it be stalking the object of one's desire, or causing harm to her rival - lurks a hidden, perhaps unconscious, drive to render women at the top vulnerable?

Tennis has always been the most popular and well-known of women's sports. But it didn't really take off until 1970, when Billie Jean King and eight colleagues signed a one dollar contract with Philip Morris to inaugurate the first Virginia Slims professional circuit. And when King beat Bobby Riggs before some 64,000 fans (still the largest audience ever to watch a tennis match, men's or women's,) in the famous Battle of the Sexes at the Houston Astrodome on September 13, 1973, the game was on its way to fame. Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps luck, that women's tennis came into the forefront in the early 1970s, just when women in impressive numbers began to embrace feminism. Through tennis, women gained a measure of self-confidence heretofore unheard of in professional athletics. Tennis players, with their grace and style, were suddenly seen as the ideal women and - as would naturally follow in our society - the ultimate marketing tool, able to sell everything from makeup to Virginia Slims "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" cigarettes.

But it's doubtful that even King could have imagined that in 1993, the number one ranked player, Steffi Graf, would earn in excess of 2.5 million dollars, and that more than 100,000 fans would be on hand throughout the week to watch the year-end Virginia Slims Championships in New York's Madison Square Garden. In fact, ever since the late seventies, when Evert (or "Chris America" as she was dubbed by television commentator Bud Collins) began dueling with a young defector from Czechoslovakia named Martina Navratilova, women's tennis has been attracting fans in droves, both men and women. The Slims Championships, for example, has broken attendance records nearly every year it has been played in New York, while the men's year-end Masters languished in that city before finally departing in 1990 for the more lucrative Frankfurt, Germany.

Last year, however, the women's game began to experience serious setbacks, both in perception and overall attendance. Much of that can be accounted for by the absence of Seles, who had taken the game to new levels of excitement with her uninhibited style of play. She's a slam-bang player and hits with two hands off both sides of the racket, which gives her increased power. It's an unorthodox method because it limits a player's mobility, but not Monica's - she's too quick for that to happen. "The thing that always struck me about Monica was the absence of fear that was so much a part of her makeup and her game," says Mary Carillo, a former tour player and now omnipresent tennis commentator for ESPN. "I've never seen anyone play the way she does; the tighter a match got the harder she 'would hit and the closer to the lines she would try to go. She just didn't react to pressure in the same way as anybody else. She was dismissive of fear - an elemental part of everyone's makeup. In that way, I think the stabbing went a long way toward changing a lot of what is Monica."

Graf became the unwitting beneficiary of Seles' misfortune. Because of it she regained the number one ranking last May, which is exactly what Seles' assailant, Gunter Parche, wanted to have happen when he stabbed her a month before. At the time he said he did not mean to kill Seles, only to sideline her so that his beloved Graf could again become number one. The ranking question would become important not only because of Parche's wishes but because of what it would do to Seles' psyche. "It's not fair that he should get what he wants," a dejected Seles said sever al months after the attack. "This guy planned to do this to me and he had the access to do it."

Seles remained troubled by one thing: she could not reconcile herself to the fact that one human being could grievously injure another over a tennis ranking. "If that other man hadn't been there to choke him, and if I hadn't jumped forward, I don't know what would have happened," Seles told Robin Finn of the New York Times in August. "But if this is what it takes to be number one, then forget it, maybe I should just go to college - go and be normal.... You pay a price to be a celebrity, to be an athlete, but this is too high a price."

Many people wondered why Seles' colleagues didn't rally around her after the attack. And then there was the ranking question. Seles requested that the Women's Tennis Association freeze her number one ranking indefinitely because of the extenuating circumstances surrounding her absence from the game. But the other players rejected the idea, declaring that it would be unfair for everybody else not to be rewarded for their good results, and to be held in a holding pattern because of one woman's misfortune. In tennis, ranking is based upon a player's results at a given tournament from year to year. If a player wins the U.S. Open one year, she would have to achieve the same result the following year in order for her ranking not to suffer. While prize money is tied to results at tournaments, endorsement dollars can be tied to a player's ranking. Steffi Graf's win at the '93 U.S. Open not only benefited Graf - but in more ways than one - it hurt the recuperating Seles.

"This just falls under the Act-of-God Clause-of-Life," says Mary Carillo. "Monica's people made an unreasonable request. I mean, what were they supposed to do, hold her ranking steady for 10 months until she decided she felt well enough to play again?"

But Stephanie Tolleson, Seles' agent, says, "Monica wasn't asking for anything so unreasonable. She just wanted people to recognize that she was forced from the game by something completely out of her control, she shouldn't be penalized for that."

Seles spent most of the year recovering from her injuries - the knife had cut both tissue and muscle, rendering her unable to lift her arm to serve, or even stroke the ball for months - and readying herself to return to the pro circuit. But just as she had begun healing emotionally, the unthinkable happened: On October 13, Gunter Parche was convicted of "causing grievous bodily harm" to Seles but was given nothing more than a two-year suspended sentence and sent home a free man. The rationale for the lenient sentence was that the German judge, Elke Bosse, believed Parche's contention that he wanted only to disable Seles, and never intended to kill her, even though he had clearly planned the attack for a long time. The judge took into account, as well, a psychiatrists's testimony that Parche had a highly abnormal personality, which could have diminished his ability to reason, and that he had given a full confession and had shown remorse. According to German law, the sentence was in line with the charge of "causing grievous bodily harm."

Assailant Gunter Parche after his trial: Love Made Him Do It.
Assailant Gunter Parche after his trial: Love Made Him Do It.

Part of the problem, and the reason the prosecution could not seek a conviction on attempted manslaughter, was a lack of information from Seles herself, who elected not to testify at the hearing, and only provided her medical records just as the trial was scheduled to begin, rather than months before, as requested. Still, almost everyone who heard about the sentence found it virtually impossible to believe that someone could commit a crime of this magnitude, not to mention admit to it, and leave the court a free man.

"What kind of message does this send to the world?" a stunned Seles asked after the verdict. "Mr. Parche has admitted that he stalked me, then he stabbed me once and attempted to stab me a second time. And now the court has said that he doesn't have to go to jail for this premeditated crime. He gets to go back to his life. But I can't, I'm still recovering from his attack, which could have killed me."

What infuriated most people was the vision, played over and over on international television, of a helpless Seles, jerking around after the attack, putting her hands to her face as she was helped to the ground by two bystanders and then being carried off the court on a stretcher. Oddly enough the judge never allowed the tape to be played in court. "Apparently the judge felt that the incident went too quickly for anyone to have a true grasp of what happened," says Stephanie Tolleson. "The big question was whether this man was lifting his arms in order to stab Monica a second time, which the witnesses said he was. But, incredibly, the judge wouldn't let any of them testify."

"What was so tricky about this case was that it wasn't a matter of fact, but a matter of German law," says Phil dePicciotto, an attorney at Advantage International, the Washington, DC-based firm that represents Graf. "No one disputes the facts of the case, especially since he confessed to the crime. But the facts have to be applied within a framework rooted in that jurisdiction, and that yield a possible range of penalties."

After the verdict, the state, led by Seles' own German attorney Gerhard Strate, immediately filed an appeal. Since then the Women's Tennis Association has retained its own counsel in Hamburg to see if it can help get a reversal. Meanwhile, Parche remains free. It is virtually impossible to find someone who feels that Seles wasn't victimized twice by her attacker. But she is not alone in her plight. Stalking has become almost commonplace for women in positions of prominence. Actresses have long been the targets of deranged fans. Graf herself has been stalked several times. Several years ago, a man who had written her numerous love letters walked onto a court where she was practicing and slit his wrists right in front of her. More recently, a man drove his car through a gate in front of her home, left his luggage by the front door and began professing his love. Both incidents, Graf admits, have been unnerving.

"We used to think that tennis was a nice little insular world," says Chris Evert, "and to a certain extent it still is. But what happened to Monica could just as easily have happened to a track star or figure skater, especially in smaller countries throughout Europe where athletes are considered bigger than life."

In light of the recent attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, one might think that Evert was prescient. But as traumatic and horrible as that attack was, it was certainly not perpetrated by an obsessed fan.

According to Tolleson, what happened to Monica is "a stalking issue. It's just a sad reflection of what's going on in our society, and it really points to a need for more lobbying for victims rights. So many women think of this as an ugly issue and one to be avoided for all kinds of personal reasons. But it really can't and shouldn't be hidden away any longer."

In professional tennis, the number one player in the world is always a target. Opponents try to beat her and take her top ranking away. Fans, applying the root-for-the-underdog theory, cheer when she makes a mistake. Even tournament promoters, sponsors and the media try to take advantage. Monica Seles knew all that. She knew to be on the lookout for those with an ulterior motive. The problem was that Seles, fueled by an abiding faith in her ability to prevail, always faced forward. Now, she'll be checking behind her, as well.

Cindy Shmerler, former managing editor of World Tennis magazine, is a New York-based freelance writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and on ESPN and USA Network.

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