On the Baseline Tennis News
July 13, 2009
NEWPORT, RI—On Saturday, July 11, Monica Seles was surrounded by family, friends, and thousands of fans as she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
In a career that spanned 15 years, she grunted and grinded her way to the top of the tennis ranks to earn a spot among the greatest champions in the history of tennis. Despite the highs and lows of her career, she managed to get through it all with integrity, sportsmanship, and grace.
Monica’s close friends, Betsy McCormack, wife of the late Mark McCormack of IMG, and Mary Joe Fernandez, served as the “tag team” of presenters during the induction ceremony. Each of them shared personal memories of their 20+ year friendship with Monica, both on and off the court.
Mary Joe had this to say about Monica as a competitor: “No matter how badly she would beat me in a match, she always had a kind word to say. It was usually something like, ‘Don’t worry Mary Joe, it was a great match. I got a little lucky today.’ “She got lucky about 15 times in a row!”
Mary Joe also reminisced about having Monica as her team-mate on the US Fed Cup team in 1999, along with Venus and Serena Williams (Monica became a US citizen in 1994). Nerves were running high before the matches, but after a few days of practice, Serena said to Mary Joe: “You know Monica is my favorite. She’s my idol. And wow! She is so nice!”
Monica started on her tennis path as a 6-year-old in her hometown of Novi Sad, in the former Yugoslavia. “I never imagined where this magical sport called tennis would take me, and how much fun I would have.”
Monica and her family moved to the United States in 1987, when she was just 13. A meeting with Betsy McCormack led her to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Monica turned pro one year later. “On the court, Monica was fearless,” said Betsy. “She was one of the first players to take a return of serve and turn it into a weapon.” One of Monica’s other weapons—a double-handed forehand AND backhand.
“When I joined the tour at age 14, that was my home,” said Monica. “I grew up on the WTA Tour. And what an amazing place to grow up. I had to grow up very fast, under the media spotlight.”
All seemed to be going very well for Monica during the early years of her career, until a tragic incident on-court changed her life. During a 1993 quarterfinal match in Hamburg, Germany, a fanatical fan made his way onto the court and stabbed Monica in the back. She was just 20 years old.
After her stabbing, Monica spent the next 27 months off the WTA Tour to recuperate. Upon her return to the game, she was granted a co-No. 1 ranking alongside Steffi Graf. Looking back, we all probably wonder how many titles Monica could have won if she hadn’t suffered the physical and emotional toll of being stabbed. “Monica is never one to dwell on what-ifs,” said Betsy McCormack. Monica credits Betsy for giving her great strength during a very difficult time of her life. “I probably wouldn’t have come back [to tennis] if I didn’t hang around Betsy and her joy for the game,” she said.
Monica came back and won her ninth Grand Slam title in 1996, but personal battles and injuries plagued her, and she eventually retired from the WTA Tour in 2008.
The list of Monica’s accomplishments is staggering. She won nine Grand Slam titles (eight before the age of 19). She is the youngest player in history to win Roland Garros (at age 16), and she held the No. 1 ranking for 178 weeks (non-consecutive). She also helped the US Fed Cup team capture the Cup in 1996, 1999, and 2000.
During Monica’s induction speech, she let out her infamous “grunt” for all of her fellow competitors, “just for ol’ time sake.” Mary Joe Fernandez commented earlier that Monica’s grunts were “more like a whisper compared to other grunts on the Tour.”
Monica saved her most personal thank you’s for her family. “My mom never played any tennis, but she was the best coach I could ever have,” she said. She also thanked her older brother, Zoltan. “He was the one who I always wanted to beat. I always felt if I could only beat my brother, I thought I could actually have a shot to be a professional one-day. It took a very long time to beat him, but that challenge kept me going.”
Lastly, Monica thanked her father, Karolj, who passed away in 1998. “I owe my tennis career to my father, who spent countless hours on a tennis court [with me], but most importantly, he always made sure I had fun. Without my Dad’s support and knowledge of the game, I would not have won all those titles, and would not have played such an aggressive game.”
An entire room at the Tennis Hall of Fame’s museum has been dedicated to Monica Seles and her illustrious tennis career.
It is an honor well deserved. Thanks for the memories, Monica.
Monica Seles' new book, Getting a Grip On My Body, My Mind, My Self, is available at Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.