The first time I saw Monica Seles she wasn’t playing tennis.
It was March 1988, and 14-year-old Seles, wearing a high school letter jacket, was sitting in the stands of the stadium court of the Key Biscayne tournament (then called the Lipton International Players Championships) watching a late-night battle between Andre Agassi and Aaron Krickstein.
Earlier in the tournament Seles had lost a second-rounder to No. 3 seed Gabriela Sabatini, 7-6, 6-3, creating a buzz on the grounds about how well this unknown girl had played in only her second pro tournament against an established star (Sabatini herself was only 17 at the time). For Agassi-Krickstein, Seles was watching with some friends on a chilly evening as her Bollettieri academy pal Agassi blew a two-sets-to-love lead and a match point in the fourth before retiring after one game of the fifth set. (Yes, they played best-of-five at that tournament for all rounds in those days.)
Two years later — she didn’t play the tournament in 1989 — I was sitting courtside (I had a press credential and the press seats were damn good back then) when 16-year-old Seles won the tournament with a devastating display in the final over the since-forgotten Austrian Judith Wiesner. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say the collective mouth of the press corps was wide open in astonishment for most of the match. No one had ever seen a woman crush the ball off of both sides the way Seles did. People looked at each other with a recognition that what we were watching was a fundamentally different sport, at least for the women’s game, than what we had seen before. It was so cool. There was the distinct feeling we were watching something big as it was just getting started. Think the Beatles playing a Liverpool club in 1961.
When Seles played the tournament you sometimes saw her parents around the grounds. I never met them, but they would go to her matches and applaud the opponent’s shots. Not merely to be polite. You could see the excitement on their faces, like: Wow, did you see that shot Wiesner just hit? Their thinking seemed to be that a really cool thing about being Monica Seles’ parents was that you get credentials to watch great tennis up close. They were so genuine.
Why am I explaining this? Partly as a lead-in to a few upcoming essays on biases in tennis. All fans and journalists have their biases. Not political or ideological, but personal biases. They’re usually innocent enough. For journalists, the biases can come from personal interaction with the players, both negative and positive. My Seles bias stems from watching her in person when she was breaking through, and from viewing her parents as the antithesis of the stereotypical tennis parents. From then on I always rooted for her. Steffi Graf was an all-time great, and best I can tell, an exemplary person. But I always wanted Seles to win.
Even taking my bias into account, I feel comfortable asserting that no event changed the course of tennis history more than Seles’ stabbing on April 30, 1993. This topic should be a separate essay, but the numbers around Seles’ career up to that point are mind-boggling. She was 19 at the time, No. 1 in the world, and had already won eight Slams. She had just won the Australian Open — for the third consecutive year — and she was about to go for her fourth straight French Open. Those are some crazy stats.
After her comeback, she won one more Slam. Obviously, we can’t know how many more she would have won if she hadn’t been stabbed, traumatized and missed two-plus years. Maybe she would’ve gotten bored and trailed off. But certainly there’s no indication that would have happened. Mary Carillo recently described Seles as the player she would choose if she had to pick one woman to play a match for her life. It’s certainly not unreasonable to think that if it weren’t for the stabbing, Serena Williams today would be chasing after Seles’ Slam record, not Margaret Court’s. Even if you take into account only what Seles accomplished as a teen-ager, she’s probably one of the six or so greatest women players of all time. I might be biased, but that’s fair.