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Steve Flink: "Getting a Grip" on Monica

4/28/2009 1:46:00 PM

By Steve Flink

Remembering Monica Seles in her prime, I think of perhaps the most ferocious woman player ever to set foot on a tennis court. It was not simply her renowned grunting that set Seles apart from everyone else in her field, but even more so the relentlessness of her competitive firepower. The force of her will was almost tangible. Her capacity to garner victories of the highest order seemed to know no bounds. When she was at the peak of her powers between 1991 and 1993, she never wavered, seldom lost conviction, and frequently left adversaries in a state of despondency as they fought in vain to prevent Monica from beating them into submission. Seles was the ultimate competitor.

Sadly and tragically, her almost incomparable mindset was permanently altered on April 30, 1993. At the end of a changeover during a quarterfinal contest against Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, Seles got up from her chair and was stabbed in the back by a deranged Steffi Graf fan named Gunther Parche. Not only was she severely harmed physically, but Seles’s psyche was probably even more deeply wounded. She did not return to the WTA Tour for nearly 28 months. Her life had been turned upside down. In many ways, she had been robbed of her innocence.

In her new book, “Getting a Grip (On My Body, My Mind, My Self)”, (published by Avery, a member of Penguin Group USA Inc.), Seles writes poignantly about the stabbing and every other issue of significance in her life. What strikes me more than anything else in assessing the book is the depth of her candor. She is admirably forthright, willing to reflect as much on the unflattering aspects of her life as she does on the many positives, coming across as a mature and appealing 35-year-old woman who can celebrate her past but is determined to build a productive future.

The primary theme of this book is the monumental fight waged by Seles to battle her inner demons and conquer an eating disorder that disrupted her life for more than a decade. In addressing this issue, Seles is courageous and even self effacing, exposing her vulnerability to food vividly in chapter after chapter, explaining how and why her weight soared at some stages after her 1995 comeback as high as 174 pounds, and often into the 160’s. She writes in painstaking detail about how she lost control and what she tried to do in combating her immense problems with food.

Those sections of the manuscript are essential for Seles in telling the story of her life, and she displays humor, humility, and considerable insight on the entire subject of her terrible struggle to control her weight. My view is that perhaps she devoted more space than necessary to cataloguing her food intake across the years. I would have preferred a bit more fleshing out of her great matches and moments as a player, although she does include a fairly comprehensive account of her on court triumphs. But many readers will undoubtedly benefit from reading Monica’s in depth analysis of the complexities of weight control, and her refreshing way of addressing it.

To me, the most absorbing material in the book is what Seles has to say about her upbringing in the former Yugoslavia under the tutelage of her proud father and coach, Karolj; her time at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy; and her special affection for Roland Garros, where she won her first Grand Slam championship at age 16.

Seles describes her early love for the sport as she got started in her hometown of Novi Sad. Speaking of her father---- who left no stone unturned in finding ways to nurture Monica’s swift and undying devotion to tennis--- she writes of the “elite” tennis club not far from their home that had only four courts with kids under the age of 12 not permitted to play. She explains how Karolj solved that problem. “He took a ball of string down to the parking lot in front of our apartment building, cut a long piece off, and tied the ends to cars placed about ten feet apart. Voila! We had our own private, free, always available court where dress whites were optional. I devoted every afternoon to playing in that parking lot.”

Seles developed from the outset a two-handed backhand and a two-handed forehand. Local coaches approached her father when Monica first started going to junior tournaments, asking if he was going to make her change to a one-handed forehand, but Karolj Seles would simply answer: “That is what feels natural. So for Monica, this is the way she is supposed to play.”

When Seles left home with her older brother Zoltan to attend the Bollettieri Academy--- her parents originally stayed at home in Novi Sad before later joining Seles and her brother in Florida--- she was told by members of the Bollettieri teaching pro staff to trade the two-handed forehand in for a one-handed stroke off that side at the age of 13. She suffered short term damage to her confidence and her game, but her father and Bollettieri soon concurred that Monica should go back to the two-hander. In retrospect, Bollettieri must be deeply admired for recognizing his staff had made a serious mistake.

In any event, Seles was a major presence at the Academy, and those years under Bollettieri’s guidance were invaluable in her development as a player. She was an astonishing ball striker from the outset, known for taking the ball on the rise and hammering the ball relatively flat off both sides not only with incomparable depth but often at almost unimaginable crosscourt angles. She tells an amusing story in the book of a brief practice session she once had with a young Jim Courier at the Academy.

As Monica writes, “One blazing afternoon, Nick asked Jim to hit with me. I was so excited. I’d never said more than hi to the guys [Andre Agassi, David Wheaton, and Courier were the stars] and we’d never set foot on the same court, although we practiced in adjacent courts every day. I saw how seriously they took their hitting sessions: they always wanted to obliterate each other. I wanted to prove that I could keep up with them. I guess I tried a little too hard, because our hitting session only lasted ten minutes before Jim stormed off.”

As Seles recounts, Courier screamed at Bollettieri, “Don’t ever ask me to hit with her again!” Seles continues, “I thought it had gone fine, but Jim hadn’t appreciated being run all over the court by a girl half his size. He teases me about it now, but back then I didn’t understand what had gone wrong. Most people will hit back and forth to each other, but that’s not how I operated. Right from the start, I was hitting it from side to side at crazy angles; I wasn’t making anything easy for him… Understandably, Jim didn’t appreciate it, and that was the end of my court time with the boys.”

Seles eventually parted ways with Bollettieri in the spring of 1990, when she was 16. At the time, there were some hard feelings since Bollettieri had given so much of his time and passion to Seles and her family. But with the passage of time, nearly two decades later, Seles has the whole experience fully in perspective, writing, “My memories of those years are filled with a lot of tears, a lot of laughs, and a ton of hard work. Nick and his staff had been incredibly supportive, and it had been an incredible place for me to hone my skills in preparation for the tour……At seventy-seven [these days] Nick looks as tan and fit as ever. He still gets up before the sun and works harder than anyone else at the Academy. His intense work ethic has paid off: his record in producing top players is unmatched. A lot has happened since our departure from the Academy, and I will always love Nick and be grateful for the opportunity he gave me.”

She will also always be appreciative for what her father did for her as both a parent and coach before he passed away in 1998. How did they make it work so successfully on the court without harming their personal relationship away from the arena? Seles answers that question with clarity and conviction in the book: “From the get-go, my dad kept our coaching relationship separate from our father-daughter relationship. Most people were skeptical, and I don’t blame them. If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible either. Surely, something would have to give, or my tennis or my family life (or both) would be damaged in the end. Most families have been destroyed while attempting the same thing. Somehow it worked. We could clash like cats and dogs on the court over some technical issue but the second we got off the court, one switch flicked on, one flicked off, and we were like two different people.”

When Seles writes about her stabbing and how the tragedy changed the course of her life forever, she does so without drifting into a sea of self pity, and that is no mean feat. She is honest and philosophical, gutsy and perceptive, authentic and commendable. She says of that horrific incident, “There isn’t an easy, antiseptic way to say it. It’s something that was so traumatic, shocking, and violent that when I mention it today it’s like I am referring to something that happened to someone else. It can make people uncomfortable because they don’t know how to react to it; they don’t know what to say to me. There isn’t much to say. It’s a horrible thing that happened in my life and it irrevocably changed the course of my career and inflicted serious damage to my psyche. A split second of horror fundamentally changed me as a person.”

That section of the book is heartbreaking in many ways as Seles takes the reader through the aftermath of the stabbing and the dark ramifications surrounding it. But there are some bright reflections about her Grand Slam tournament triumphs. And yet, she moves through her nine triumphs at the majors relatively quickly. Perhaps those shining moments have become largely a blur for Seles, but her first WTA Tour title is one she recollects with extraordinary clarity and appreciation. In the final of the Virginia Slims of Houston in 1989 when she was 15, Seles rallied gamely for a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory over her idol Chris Evert, who was 34 and in the final year or her illustrious career.

Writing about that win over Evert, Seles says, “The thing about being fifteen and achieving something extraordinary is that it isn’t fraught with the same drama that it would be when achieving it as an adult. I was fifteen, what did I know. If I’d been older, I might have psyched myself out. I might have thought I didn’t deserve to win and let negative thinking sabotage my success… Teenagers are fueled by a naïve invincibility that can lead to tremendous achievements---- it just goes to show how much power the mind has. Before you’ve been knocked down by life and [have] seen your share of disappointments, you think anything is possible.”

After that match, Evert gave Seles some advise that Monica would never forget. She told Seles “Enjoy every day you have on tour now. Before you know it, a new generation just like you will be rising up, but they’ll be faster and stronger. You’ll have everything to lose and they’ll have everything to gain.” Seles writes of that period, “Why would I worry about getting old? I’d be young forever. I had no idea that Chrissie’s advice would turn out to be so dead-on.”

The stabbing took place when Seles was only 19. In some ways--- but clearly not all--- she had turned old when she was entirely too young. It was a burden no one should have been forced to endure. Tennis fans have long speculated on what might have been if Seles had not been taken away from the game so prematurely. She had, after all, won seven of the last eight majors she had played before her 1993 tragedy. To her credit, she does not offer an opinion on what she might have accomplished had she played on with no interruptions.

After her comeback in 1995, she spent eight years among the top ten in the world, capturing her last major in 1996 at the Australian Open. But she was never quite the same powerful personality or player. The old ferocity was essentially gone. She finally announced her retirement on February 14, 2008. I believe she would have won another eight to ten majors, and possibly more. She would have almost surely made a case for herself as the greatest ever female tennis player.

But the best thing about this took is the absence of bitterness. She has moved on. She has made herself trim and more attractive than ever. She refuses to look back with much remorse or many regrets. As she summed up her philosophy as a player in the book, Monica Seles revealed something very impressive about herself and her sensitivity, writing, “I had loads of fun preparing for matches, but playing under pressure? Beating someone else? It just wasn’t for me. I was born with an unshakable people-pleasing personality, and I never loved winning at someone else’s expense. I loved winning points, but I hated seeing the other person upset at the end of the match. Focus, motivation, drive--- I had all those things. But the desire to wipe up the court with my opponent was never part of my game.”

Enter to win a signed copy of Monica's book here.

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