You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

+Sports Top Stories

Exclusive interview: How Monica Seles learned to love herself again

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 22/03/2019 Kate Rowan
Former US tennis player Monica Seles pose on the red carpet before the 2018 Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony at the Sporting Monte-Carlo complex in Monaco on February 27, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Valery HACHE        (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Images Former US tennis player Monica Seles pose on the red carpet before the 2018 Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony at the Sporting Monte-Carlo complex in Monaco on February 27, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Valery HACHE (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

A conversation with Monica Seles rarely lacks light and shade. One moment she is breezily discussing her passion for adopting rescue dogs and why she seeks out those who might be otherwise ignored because of a lack of cuteness. Then, in the same breath, she is revealing that her "other big passion is talking about mental health. I struggled with an eating disorder that started right after my stabbing.”  

Seles' character and career are anything but simple, and yet both have been framed by that one terrifying incident in Hamburg in April 1993. Seles was taking a break on court in a match with Magdalena Maleeva when Günter Parche - an obsessed devotee of Steffi Graf, the Yugoslav's chief rival at the time - sprinted down to the front of the stand, leant over the advertising hoardings and stabbed her between the shoulder blades with a boning knife. 

Tennis: Citizen Cup: Yugoslavia Monica Seles sustaining injury after knife stabbing during Women's Quarterfinals vs Bulgaria Magdalena Maleeva at Am Rothenbaum Tennis Club. German citizen Gunter Parche stabbed Seles in the back. Hamburg, Germany 4/30/1993 CREDIT: Norbert Schmidt (Photo by Norbert Schmidt /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X44297 ) © Getty Images Tennis: Citizen Cup: Yugoslavia Monica Seles sustaining injury after knife stabbing during Women's Quarterfinals vs Bulgaria Magdalena Maleeva at Am Rothenbaum Tennis Club. German citizen Gunter Parche stabbed Seles in the back. Hamburg, Germany 4/30/1993 CREDIT: Norbert Schmidt (Photo by Norbert Schmidt /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X44297 )

The grainy video footage of Seles, then only 19, slumping to the ground, clutching her back, while spectators wrestle Parche to the floor in the background, has lost none of its shock value in the intervening 26 years, and yet nobody who saw it at the time - least of all Seles, who added only one more grand-slam title to the eight she had won as a teenager - could have guessed its impact. The physical wounds may have healed relatively quickly - miraculously, Parche's weapon only penetrated 1½cm - but the psychological scars are still red raw.

Speaking to Seles, now 45, is at times akin to a therapy session. There is a desperate vulnerability to her, particularly when she discusses her struggles with an eating disorder and depression in the years following the attack. But there is also a determination, the same steel which drove her to return to tennis in 1995 and, more recently, devote much of her life to speaking to other female athletes who have battled insecurities.

Seles' own battles with self-worth started in the aftermath of her attack, when the child prodigy found herself cast aside. “I went from training five, six hours a day and having all these people around me and they all just disappeared,” she says. "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. I realised who my true friends were and learnt a lesson in human nature.

Gallery: Athletes who came back from devastating injuries (Espresso)

“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. There were a lot of unusual circumstances, it didn’t happen before that and it hasn’t happened since.”

Seles is still uncertain as to whether her subsequent binge eating disorder - when she would gorge on junk food at times of high stress - was brought about by the attack or the intense pressure of being one of the most visible sports stars of the Nineties. 

“So much of tennis is about body image, about sponsorships and endorsements and how you look," she says. "When I gained a lot of weight, I realised people just looked at me kind of like, ‘How could she do that to herself?’

“Sponsors would say to me, ‘Gosh, look at you, what has happened?’ and I wanted to say: 'I am still the same person. It shouldn’t matter.’ With our generation, we couldn’t talk about it. It was swept under the rug and to realise it is a disease like any other one, food is there every day as part of your life.”

It is this experience that led to a period of intense loneliness. This was a time when open discussion of mental health issues was largely taboo, a situation amplified for Seles by the fact that everyone in her support team were men. 

(Original Caption) Monica Seles, Yugoslav teenage tennis profession in action. © Getty Images (Original Caption) Monica Seles, Yugoslav teenage tennis profession in action.

“I lived a very insulated life. It was strange because from the age of 16 you employ people, you become a corporation. Yet at 16 what the heck do you know? You are struggling, as a teenager to even know who you are or what hair colour you want this week.

“It was very lonely and especially with that generation, it was so male-dominated; all the agents, coaches were all male. I had very deep depression but as someone who was a very strong competitor and had a very strong game face, it was very difficult to admit to myself let alone to the outside world and my agent. I was dealing with all men who didn’t understand feelings, it was all about facts, and so it took a long time."

She pauses, and there is a note of defiance in her voice when she speaks again. “But it was one of my proudest moments because I did the work myself to figure things out because I didn’t have anybody to turn to. It gave me a strength that I don’t think anyone else could take away.”

Gallery: The most difficult challenges in sport (Read Sport)

That said, these issues have not entirely gone away. “Sometimes, even now when I look at my friends' photos and we have been at the same event, I think: ‘Oh her photos look magical, why can’t I make myself look like that?’ and I have to take a step back.

"I've learnt over nearly a 10-year period to have a positive relationship with food. When I started talking about it, so many athletes reached out to me some from my own sport. Just looking at them, you never would have thought, I realised it doesn’t matter how we look or what image we project, I just hope another young lady coming into sport would know it is OK if they struggled with their weight or eating disorder and to open that dialogue.”

Seles believes that the answer to improving mental health in young female players could be to have more female agents who would empathise with the pressures that women in particular seem to face. 

SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 21:  WTA Legend Monica Seles enjoys fresh Coconut juice and poses for a photo at the Courtside by the Bay at Marina Bay Sands on October 21, 2018 in Singapore.  (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images for the WTA) © Getty Images SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 21: WTA Legend Monica Seles enjoys fresh Coconut juice and poses for a photo at the Courtside by the Bay at Marina Bay Sands on October 21, 2018 in Singapore. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images for the WTA)

“Even now when you a look at the support team in players' boxes, you see mostly males," she observes. "It is still a struggle; we have to take small steps. It would be really nice to see more female agents and trainers."

Often in team sport players speak of supporting each other via sisterhood. That was far from the reality for Seles in the notoriously gladiatorial world of the tennis court, although she is grateful that former rivalries have thawed in the passing of time.

“The really important thing is women helping other women, but when I was playing, it was so competitive. It was very difficult to be friends when you are competing for a grand-slam title. I am very proud that when we retired, a couple of the players that I competed against - and where there would have been a sense of ‘I don’t like her’ - have now become my friends. Now we have almost a sisterhood - we've realised we had a lot in common because we never went to a normal school or college.”

One of Seles' friends - albeit one she never played against - is two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, their relationship forged after the Czech was stabbed in the hand by an intruder to her home in 2016. “It is a bond that probably neither one of us would like to have,” Seles admits. "I hope maybe when we are old that we will be able to share more.”

Meanwhile, Seles' own healing process goes on. She has competed in the US version of Strictly Come Dancing, is a spokesperson for a drugs company that develops treatment for binge eating disorder and is an ambassador for the Laureus Foundation on their Sport for Good programmes. 

It was through working for Laureus that she met Nelson Mandela, an encounter that put much into perspective. “There have been very few times in life when I was in awe of somebody. There was something about him, his grace, his smile - and how serene he was. He spoke to me about staying involved in sport and that meant so much.”

Laureus World Sports Awards - Salle des Etoiles, Monaco - February 18, 2019  Monica Seles poses as she arrives at the ceremony  REUTERS/Eric Gaillard © Reuters Laureus World Sports Awards - Salle des Etoiles, Monaco - February 18, 2019 Monica Seles poses as she arrives at the ceremony REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

And what of tennis? Seles keeps a low profile in her old sport, although she still plays occasionally for her own enjoyment. “I have always loved tennis - I was never pushed by my parents, so playing was a positive experience. Some athletes never want to play after retiring but I still love to play recreationally.”

It would be easy for Seles to have sunk into recriminations over the career that was snatched away from her in Hamburg - the grand-slam titles she missed out on, the records that would have surely tumbled. Instead, she seems utterly at ease with both her past and her future. There are, after all, plenty of battles left to be won.

“Young ladies in tennis have always been judged on how they look and it is still the reality," she says. "It is better than 10 and 20 years ago but it still has a long way to go."

Monica Seles was speaking at the MUFG ‘Power to Inspire’ hub at the Laureus World Sports Awards  

Gallery: When athletes and fans clash (Read Sport)

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Telegraph

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon