It is widely believed that Monica Seles was one of the greatest players to step on a tennis court. Some new fans in the game might wonder what the fuss is all about. Yes, winning nine Grand Slams is truly an achievement par excellence, especially while living in an era where Serena Williams’s nearest current competitor to her Major tally is streets away (sister Venus with seven and in the twilight of her career).

There are commentators and fans who have longed for a closely-fought rivalry in the WTA circuit in recent years. The late-1980s and the ‘90s, though, was a trickier time to negotiate for a young hopeful. With Martina Navratilova, Jana Novotna, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf ruling the roost, newer players had a formidable mountain to climb. There was greatness everywhere you looked.

That was when Seles, a well-built teenager born in present day Serbia, burst onto the scene. Turning professional aged just 14 in 1988, she instantly became the darling of the tennis world. The southpaw had a unique technique and possessed the fortitude as well as composure required in clutch moments. Seles was pocketing titles at an astoundingly rapid pace for someone who had not even celebrated her 20th birthday.

At 15, Seles beat an aging Chris Evert in Houston to win her first career title. A month later, she reached the quarter-finals of the French Open, losing to Graf, and that match kick-started a duel that would be talked about for the ages.

Elsewhere, Seles was shaking the status quo of the game in a manner never seen before. Aged just 16 years and six months, she became the youngest French Open champion in the year 1990. For the second time that season, Seles defeated Graf in straight sets and that set the tone for world domination for the former.

In 1991, Seles won ten of the sixteen tournaments she was a part of, reaching the final in each and every one of them. Now, she had Australian Open and US Open titles in the bag and successfully defended her Roland Garros crown. She was subsequently ranked No 1. More glory followed in 1992, which was yet another year punctuated with Seles lifting title after title.

Barely a month after turning 19, Seles beat Graf for the third time in four Grand Slam finals at Australian Open 1993. Eight Majors at 19! Who could possibly stop her?

Stabbing and the setbacks

From the start of 1991 to 1993, Seles had won 93% of the games she was involved in. She was already a bonafide great. It was purely a numbers game at that point. Could this genius surpass even Margaret Court’s tally?

But tragedy struck on April 30, 1993. In Hamburg, leading up to the quarter-final, Seles was leading 6-4, 4-3 in the quarter-finals. A German national named Gunter Parche ran to the edge of the court and stabbed Seles with a boning knife on her shoulder to a depth of 0.59 metres. She was soon rushed to the hospital but made quick progress.

Parche, obsessed with Graf, was found to be psychologically unstable during his trial and was reportedly desperate to see his favourite German star as the top-ranked player. He was sentenced to probation for two years. Seles took just weeks to recover physically but had a hard time coping with the trauma as 7,000 people witnessed one of the most dastardly acts in a sporting arena.

Immediately after the incident, tributes came pouring in from all over the world. Tennis was undoubtedly a poorer place.

Seles grappled with what had happened and took a little more than two years to get back on track. At a tender age, she had to now rebuild her life.

Forget getting back on the tennis court, the once indomitable force had a hard time getting through a day. It didn’t help to watch her colleagues battle it out for the big prizes. The assailant, meanwhile, walked free prompting Seles to never play in Germany. To compound matters, her father was diagnosed with cancer.

“I was in such a dark place for so long,” Seles told LA Times in 1995.

“So unhappy. I thought after [the stabbing] there was no way up, I didn’t know how to go up. I felt I was in a deep hole and getting deeper. My dad told me, ‘Maybe you need professional help.’

“I had a very hard time talking about it. I couldn’t keep from crying. But I felt I was doing the right thing because I was going deeper and deeper, down and down. I didn’t know how to get out. I didn’t think there was a way out. If I hadn’t have done that, gone to a psychologist, it would have been bye-bye, Monica.”

Embracing the pain, Seles said, played a crucial role in her mental health improving over the course of time.

She further explained her ordeal: “You have to admit pain or that you have a problem with something. It’s part of any recovery. First you have to admit you aren’t a rock, then you wouldn’t be a human being. If you have no emotions and no feelings, you are a robot.

“This was total darkness and sadness and so many emotions I never had to deal with before. In tennis, if I say I’m going to hit a ball cross court, chances are, 90% of the time, it’s going to go where I say. For me to feel uncertainty, fear, everything, was terrible.”

For some of Seles’ aides at the time, it was a case ‘out of sight, out of mind’. From being the toast of the tennis world, she suffered a humbling fall.

“Everyone used to return your call right away where but then I was waiting one or two weeks because you fall down on that VIP list,” Seles told The Telegraph.

“I realised who my true friends were and learnt a lesson in human nature. Mentally and physically it was very tough because I was in my workplace waiting to get up to play the next game and the person [Parche] never spent any time in jail.”

The WTA toyed with the idea of freezing Seles’s No 1 rank till her comeback but didn’t go ahead with it.


Comeback and legacy

Seles, however, did make her return as the top dog after then WTA chief Navaratilova’s proposal for the move. The world’s best, Graf, also supported the decision. In August 1995, a 21-year-old Seles scripted another fairlytale by winning the Canadian Open upon return, dropping just fourteen games in the whole tournament. The foundation was set for Seles picking things up from where she had left two-and-a-half years earlier.

All roads pointed towards her winning the US Open. America, was, after all Seles’ adopted home since moving there with her family as a child. Events unfolded as if it was already penned down as a part of a movie script. Seles beat Anke Huber, Novotna and Conchita Martinez, all leading players at the time, in straight sets but couldn’t get the better of Graf in the final.

Seles didn’t have to wait for long to take her Grand Slam tally to nine, which came at the Australian Open in 1996. She might have lacked a little bit of bite while shaking off the demons of the past, but the commitment and bloody-mindedness was still right up there.

Take the semi-finals of the same event for instance: Upcoming American star Chanda Rubin was all set to pull of a mighty upset, leading 5-3 in the decider after pocketing two break points. In a brilliant contest that ebbed and flowed both ways, Seles, quite astonishingly, emerged as the winner. Seles went on to beat Huber in an emotionally drenched final. Tennis’s golden girl was back where she belonged.

But the truth is, Seles never managed to hit the peaks she scaled with ease as a teenager. She’d reach the finals of the US Open and French Open too, but couldn’t get across the line. Seles took USA to three Fed Cup titles and bagged an Olympic medal in Sydney at the turn of the millennium.

But those were mere footnotes in Seles’s decorated career.

Her greatness was increased by the manner in which she candidly opened up about her struggles, inspiring two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova among other stabbed victims around the world.

Her greatness was the remarkable dignity she showed on court, before and after being stabbed. Even the most ardent Graf fans would have found it hard to root against Seles.

Her greatness was constantly pushing the boundaries of excellence, and it goes well beyond being just a wonderkid who dazzled opponents and onlookers alike.

Her greatness, perhaps, emerged from why she picked up a racquet in the first place. “I really love the game. I mean, I really love tennis. And that’s helped me through all of the struggles, it saved me from being forever sad,” she said.

Could Seles have become the greatest if not for the stabbing incident? You wouldn’t want to bet against it.

Watch Monica Seles’s win in the Australian Open final 1996: