Monica Seles’ memoir Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self, published by the Avery Books imprint at Penguin Press, tells the story of the unluckiest tennis champion. The nine-time Grand Slam winner writes about the difficult emotional journey she endured during her playing years. The appearance of the book in early 2009 is an attempt to capitalize on her recent appearance on the TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”
Seles retired from professional tennis in early 2008. She branched out into show business via the show the same year. She didn’t get far in the competition, but in her book, she considers her ability to take such a step as evidence of a newly-found self-confidence.
“I was a different person now, and it took only a few days of moping around before I realized I was fine,” said Seles. “I’d faced my greatest fear, performed despite a case of nerves that was worse than any I’d had before any of my Grand Slam finals, subjected myself to the judgment of total strangers, and taken criticism without falling apart in front of millions of people.”
But as tennis fans know, Monica Seles isn’t known primarily for her dancing, or, unfortunately, for her two-handed forehand.
The appearance of her book is as good a reason as any for readers to reflect on the unfairness of what happened to the player in the wake of her on-court stabbing.
To recap, Seles was playing Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, Germany, on April 30, 1993. She was ranked number one at the time. A fan of her rival, Steffi Graf, plunged a knife into her back during a change-over. Seles lost two-and-a-half years of playing time at the peak of her career and what she estimated to be more than $10 million in prize money and endorsements. Even worse, she lost her confidence and sense of who she was.
And as the icing on the cake, her attacker was only sentenced to two year’s probation. Understandably, she appealed the decision. She lost that legal challenge and ended up paying what she said was $1 million in court fees.
Is this grim enough? It gets worse. During her rehab period, Seles developed what was in the scheme of things, a relatively mild eating disorder. Still, for a woman athlete in the public eye carrying around what was, at its worst, an extra 30 or 40 lbs., it was no picnic.
Just when she had managed to overcome enough of the physical and psychological barriers that had prevented her from competing, Seles was hit with another blow—the death of her father, Karoli Seles, who had been her first coach and who functioned as an irreplaceable support system.
As she tried to make her way back onto the tour in the late nineties, Seles also struggled to keep up with a new generation of rivals on the court, Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin, and Martina Hingis. Except for the latter, the first three players exemplified a new trend of power-hitting that Seles had to adjust to. She never made it back to number one, but she was able to reestablish herself in the top 10.
Seles’ book is worth reading for the story of her struggle to overcome her personal demons. Caught up in the whirlwind of the pro tour from an early age, it is no wonder that her emotional development suffered. Self-image problems connected to one’s physical appearance strike women in all walks of life. Nor is the problem confined to women.
But Seles’ story has a larger significance in addition to her victory over binge eating. Sadly, every time a tennis fan attends a pro event, there is a grim reminder of the worst moment in her career. You just have to observe the guys, usually in some kind of uniform, who stand between the player’s chairs and the crowd during change-overs to understand that what happened to her in Hamburg in 1993 changed things in the sport of tennis.
The attack on Seles was part of the loss of trust in safety in the tennis world and the larger world overall. It wasn’t as bad as Sept. 11, nor as bad as John Lennon, although had the wound been a few inches closer to her spine, there wouldn’t have been any Monica Seles comeback on the tour, still, what happened to Monica Seles will always be a marker for a decline in public life.
Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self is her mature response to that role in history. And although it can be overlooked, let’s close with a nod to her playing accomplishments. Nine Grand Slam titles, a unique style, a pioneer in grunting, it’s only fair to remember Monica Seles the player. Her book only contributes to that legacy.