history

Eastern_Europe

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MONICA SELES      
  

by Jason Knapp
 

 

 

 

 

 

"The second of the two children of Karolj... and Esther Seles... Monica Seles was born on December 2, 1973 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, in the ethnically Hungarian Vojvodina section of Serbia" (2, 131). When she was six years old, her father introduced her to tennis. Frustrated by her slow progress, she quit within a few months, but a short time later, after seeing her brother, Zoltan, won at the Yugoslav Junior Tennis Championships, she decided to resume lessons with her father (2, 131).

Under her father's guidance, Monica Seles rapidly developed into an outstanding junior player. At the age of eight, she won a major European tournament for players twelve and under, even though she couldn't keep score and had no idea when the match was over (5, 23). At twelve, she captured the fourteen-and-under division of that tournament and became the youngest woman to be named Yugoslavia's Sportswoman of the Year. In 1985, while playing in a tournament in Florida, Seles caught the eye of Nick Bollettieri, who runs one of the top training centers in the United States for young tennis players. Bollettieri was so dazzled by the way Seles trounced one of his star pupils that he offered her a full scholarship (including living expenses for her family) to his academy. Karolj and Esther secured leave of absences from their jobs in Yugoslavia, and the family moved to Bradenton, Florida in April 1986. At the academy Seles developed her game through practice sessions rather than the tournaments in order to avoid the tremendous pressure that can be placed on tennis prodigies (1, 12)

 

Seles first attracted attention at the beginning of the 1989 season, when she reached the semifinals of two tournaments, defeating the world's seventh-ranked player in the process. But injuries forced her to forfeit both semifinal matches, raising concern that she was too small and frail to withstand the rigors of the professional tour. Seles' breakthrough came in April 1989, in the final of a Virginia Slims tournament in Houston. Down a set to the top-seeded Chris Evert, she rebounded to take the match, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, and her first professional championship (2, 133).

The 1990 season began inauspiciously for Seles, now sixteen years old, who seemed to be having trouble adjusting to a spurt in her height. (Between October 1988 and February 1990, she had grown from five feet, three inches tall to five feet, nine inches tall.) The relationship between Monica and Nick Bollettieri also began to disintegrate at this time when the Seleses complained that he was devoting too much time to another star pupil, Andre Agassi. Finally, in March 1990, immediately after Monica won the Lipton International Players Championships, the Seleses left the Bollettieri academy and moved to a private tennis facility in Sarasota, Florida. Putting the controversy behind her, Seles played well enough to rise to third place in the world ranking's by May 1990. She also won the Italian Open and the German Open (where she posted her first defeat of Steffi Graf, snapping Graf's 66 match winning streak). In 1990, Monica also became the youngest champion of the French Open and the Virginia Slims Championships in New York City (2, 133).

 

In 1991 Seles' career was marked by phenomenal success on the court and by controversy off the court. She began the year by competing for the first time in the Australian Open. To almost no one's surprise, she defeated tenth-seeded Jana Novotna, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, in the final. Once again, she was the youngest champion in the history of the event. By the start of the French Open, Monica, at the age of seventeen, had dethroned Steffi Graf to become the youngest number-one-ranked player in the history of the game. She strengthened her claim by winning the French Open for the second straight year (2, 133).

Largely because Seles would be going for her third Grand Slam crown of the year, tennis fans looked forward to Wimbledon, but just three days the tournament was scheduled to begin, Seles abruptly withdrew. She was the first top-seeded player ever to pull out of the very traditional event. Tour officials were perplexed by a statement asserting that she had withdrawn because of injuries suffered in a "minor accident" but giving no details. Since she did not supply any documentation and she had already used the annual limit of one medical exemption, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) fined her $6,000. Seles managed to elude International Management Group, the sports marketing firm that represents her, for twelve days and the press for three weeks, probing a raft of rumors about her skipping the prestigious event. Some speculated that she was suffering from shinsplints, but others were less charitable, suggesting that she had bypassed the tournament to ensure her number-one ranking and thus receive a large bonus from her racket manufacturer or that she wanted an excuse to avoid playing for Yugoslavia in the Federation Cup in late July (5, 58).

 

Seles resurfaced at an exhibition tournament in Mahwah, New Jersey. At a press conference she gave there all she said regarding her three-week seclusion was that she needed to get away from all of the attention for a while. Because she chose to rejoin the women's circuit at a non-tour competition, the WTA levied a $20,000 fine. Adding to tennis officials' displeasure with Seles was her announcement that she was not going to play for Yugoslavia on the Federation Cup. She had not kept secret her dislike of the way Yugoslavia's tennis establishment had treated her and her family before she moved to Florida, so despite a doctor's note citing the same injury that kept her out of Wimbledon, the International Tennis Federation punished Seles by banning her from competing in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games (4, 59).

By the time of the United States Open in September 1991, Seles had become such an unpopular player among the fans that she was repeatedly jeered during her appearances. Despite that fact, she went on to win the 1991 U.S. Open and ended the season with $2.4 million in tournament winnings (4, 59).

 

Seles was on her way to achieving superstar status, which is what she always wanted, having won seven of the last eight Grand Slam events she entered when a bizarre incident occurred in the Spring of 1993. Seles was playing in Hamburg at the German Open on April 30, 1993 when a burly fan lunged out of the stands and stabbed her in the upper back. The first thought was of Balkan politics since there had been threats against her in the past. But the issue turned out to be top-level tennis, not war. The German spectator did not want to kill Monica Seles, he only wanted to injure her so Steffi Graf, the number-two ranked player of Germany, could become number one again (4 ,26).

Seles' wound healed within months and she was physically ready to return to the women's tennis tour, but she was not mentally ready. In fact, Seles did not return to professional tennis until August 1995, two years and four months after the attack. Now an American citizen and co-ranked number one, Monica Seles won the first tournament she entered, and in the second tournament she entered, the 1995 U.S. Open, she made it to the finals losing a tough three-set match to Steffi Graf, the current number one player.

Seles has definitely achieved superstar status and is now one of the most popular players on the tour. The attack has given Monica a new perspective on life and she is not as serious on the court. Now, Monica laughs at her mistakes and is just happy to be playing.

 

1. Bollettieri, Nick. "The Baltic Basher." WORLD TENNIS March 1987: 12.

2. Callery, Sean. THE PICTORIAL HISTORY OF TENNIS. New York: Gallery

Books, 1992.

3. "Close Cut." TIME 10 May 1993: 26.

4. Jenkins, Sally "Salvos at the Garden." SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 2 December

1991: 58+.

5. Loehr, James E. "Not Until She's Good and Ready." WORLD TENNIS June 1989:

22+.

 

 

 

 

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