Friday, December 08, 2006

BACKSPIN REPOST: What If... Monica Seles was Never Stabbed?

The following is a report of a March 17, 2004 edition of WTA Backspin, which was the original (and, so far, only) in the "What If?" series. I know it's a sure sign of the apocalypse, but, yes, there will indeed soon be a SECOND "What If?" column in the coming weeks. So, to "fertilize the soil" a bit, here's a look back at the original:

(first in a series)

Ah, something a little different here at Backspin. Just for kicks (and maybe a teeny bit of "enlightenment"), this speculative Backspin Special begins a series of periodical ponderings about how reality might have changed for women's tennis had one small thing happened differently.

So, while we may later wonder what it would have been like had Anna Kournikova been an unattractive girl with a killer instinct, we're going to start out this series with the biggest "what if" scenario of the past dozen years... what would have happened had Monica Seles never been stabbed in Hamburg?

>>>>"WHAT IF" DATELINE: April 30, 1993<<<< HAMBURG, GERMANY-- World #1 Monica Seles of Yugoslavia, eight-time grand slam champion, suffered a scare earlier today when a fan attempted to stab her in the back during a changeover in the 2nd set of her QF matchup with Magdalena Maleeva in the Citizen Cup in Hamburg.

A spectator identified by police officials as Guenter Parche, 38, of Germany was wrestled to the ground by stadium security personnel as he attempted to reach over a partition to stab Seles in the back while she sat. A knife was confiscated from Parche, and officials later confirmed reports that he was a self-confessed fan of world #2, and fellow German, Steffi Graf.

After a short delay, Seles went on to win the match 6-4/6-3.

During a post-match press conference, Seles expressed gratitude toward the quick-acting stadium and WTA security officials. "They did their job, which is to keep us safe out there," said the 1993 Australian Open champ.

After her characteristic giggle, the 19-year old added, "I think maybe I should buy them all big dinners tonight... maybe a couple nights, actually."

Asked if she would withdraw from the tournament, Seles said she'd give it a day to be certain, but said she feels fine and doesn't fear for her safety. "I'm a little shaken up, sure. But I expect to play tomorrow or whenever I'm scheduled to go. I've never won here before, and I really want to. Steffi's won the title here, what, six years in a row? I think I'd like to change that."

With a quick smile, Seles was gone. Safe, sound... and still the best female tennis player in the world.

>>>>"WHAT IF" DATELINE: Nov. 3, 2003<<<< LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA-- Tennis legend Monica Seles, 29, officially announced her retirement at the conclusion of this week's WTA Championships.

The end of the Yugoslav-born American's legendary career closes the book on a player who it could be argued is the greatest female player the game has known.

If numbers are a large identifying characteristic, Seles has the goods to back up the notion. While not matching all-time WTA title-holder Martina Navratilova's 167 career singles titles, Seles did trump the other most lethal female lefty in total grand slam championships. Her final slam title, at the 1999 Roland Garros, was the 20th of her storied career, making her only the second woman with 20 or more slam crowns. Margaret Court won 24 in the 1960s-70s, but Seles' total rates higher than her more contemporary rivals for the "best-ever" title: Navratilova (18), Chris Evert (18) and Steffi Graf (16).

Fittingly, Seles defeated Graf in that '99 Roland Garros final, the 15th slam final matchup between the two. The long-running rivalry consisted of the two trading the #1 ranking often between 1991-98 and participating in a series of memorable matches reminiscent of the Navratilova-Evert era that preceded their's.

Additionally, it was at Roland Garros where Seles had her most time-honored moments. Before winning her 20th slam there, she became the youngest RG winner (16 years, 6 months) in 1990 and her three straight titles from 1990-92 made her the first woman to accomplish the feat in 55 years. The 1999 title was her eighth in Paris, moving her past former all-time leader Evert's seven.

The "best" or not, Seles' vaunted place in history is bound to be argued for years to come... but those who saw her in her prime will always have their own unwavering opinion.

>>>>THE REALITY<<<< So much was lost on April 30, 1993 that it's still painful to think about it. Of course, Seles WAS stabbed... and she was never the same. Parche wanted to return Graf to the #1 position in the rankings by injuring her top opponent, but Seles was actually far more than just Steffi's top competition.

The teenager's double-sided, two-handed game led the charge of power tennis in the early 1990s. The power, combined with a remarkable ability to create angled shots on the court and an eerie immunity to feeling the pressure of big-point situations, helped Seles end Graf's record 186-week stay at #1 in March 1991. Before Martina Hingis topped her mark in 1997, Seles was the youngest player to ever become the world #1.

Before the Hamburg incident, Seles had won 32 of the 62 tournaments she'd entered (an amazing 52%!), was the youngest to win 30 titles in a career (1992), sported a record of 253-29, had made the finals of her eight previous grand slams played (winning seven), and won five of the last six slam titles (advancing to the finals of all six).

Seles had begun to break and demoralize Graf, too, a fact somewhat lost to history eleven years later. Her ability to fearlessly raise her game in pressure moments only further confounded a formerly-dominant Graf who'd finally found an opponent she couldn't routinely blow off the court with her magnificent forehand. While she was still finding herself on grasscourts at the time, Seles sported a 4-2 record against Graf in the last six pre-Hamburg matches between the two on hard or clay courts, and her best moments came on the biggest stages. She won a tight 7-6/6-4 final at RG in 1990, a 10-8 3rd set in the '92 RG final and had won in three in the '93 Oz final just three months before the fateful trip to Germany for, ironically, Seles' first action after a viral infection had forced her withdrawl from four WTA events following the Paris indoors that February.

As it turned out, Parche got his wish as Graf soon returned to #1 while Seles, nursing mental and psychological scars long after the stab wound had healed, didn't play for two years and three months.

She returned to the tour in August '95, made the US Open final less than a month later and won a final slam (her 9th) the following January in Melbourne. After that initial adrenaline-fueled spurt, though, she only advanced tojust two more slam finals ('96 US & '98 RG). After the 4-2 pre-Hamburg mark, she went 1-4 in her remaining matches against Graf. After winning 32 titles in 52 events over five years, she won 21 of 113 events from 1995-03... still a great number, but far off the torrid pace the teenage Seles had set. She remained a Top 10 player through 2002, but never was again a true challenger for #1.

Seles never showed the ability or commitment to get back in top shape after the layoff, but maybe more striking than the lack of conditioning was the intrusion of the big match shakiness that had been foreign to Seles' fearless game during her original incarnation.

The #1 weapon that dethroned Graf wasn't in evidence during Seles II, whether it be the result of the prolonged absence from match play, a natural aging process or the lingering psychological effects of Hamburg (as well as her father Karolj's long illness before his death in 1998) that never allowed her the same single-minded focus that once powered her dominance of the game. Though she made cameo appearances at times, the nervy (old) Seles was never rediscovered. She was gone forever, lost to time and the lunatic actions of a German lathe operator.

Now 30, Seles has not played a match since Roland Garros last May. It was in Paris that Seles, suffering the effects of a long-running foot injury, experienced her worst slam loss ever, a 1st Round 4-6/0-6 dismantling by Nadia Petrova which had come on the heels of her previously worst slam result at the Australian in January (a 2nd Round loss to qualifier Klara Koukalova). She finished the season at #60, her first year out of the Top 10 (and without a title) since her season-long absence in 1994. Still walking with a medical boot on her foot following surgery, Seles is hoping for a return to the tour that it must now be concluded is far from a certainty. If she does make it back, it will simply be for the final moments of a still-great career looking for a soft spot to land and walk away with the dignity worthy of someone of her stature. 2003 was not it, so the search for a better end is destined to continue.

Graf, of course, won 22 slam titles (#2 all-time behind Court's 24), including six of the nine slams held during Seles' absence. After going 1-3 against Seles in slam finals before the stabbing (excluding their Wimbledon matchup, which Graf won), Graf was 2-0 after Hamburg (both at the US Open). After winning her last slam title at the '99 Roland Garros (after 33 slam title-less months), an injury-battling Graf retired two months later. Now 34, she's married to former men's #1 Andre Agassi and has two kids.

While Seles was obviously robbed of so much because of Hamburg, in an odd sense, so was Graf (and not just because of her unfair linking to Parche).

Graf's Hall-of-Fame credentials have never been in question, but her overwhelming dominance of the tour in the post-stabbing period prevented her from seeing the need to become an ever greater all-around player than she already was. Other than Seles, the only other player (the expected Graf-Sabatini rivalry never materialized) who truly pushed Graf was a late-in-career (well, singles, at least) Navratilova in the late 1980s. Graf had legs that could run forever and good touch at the net, but never felt the need to further develop her game much beyond the baseline setup that proved so successful.

Graf would have still won her fair share of slam titles even with Seles in the picture. But win 22 titles? Never. More likely, it would have been somewhere around 15. Seles' slam victory parades wouldn't have continued their 5-of-6 slams frequency, but they wouldn't have slowed enough to allow Graf the free reign she enjoyed much of the time. If nothing else, the two would have developed a long-running rivalry akin to Navratilova-Evert and Sampras-Agassi.

So, in truth, the tennis fans were robbed of quite a bit, as well. There's nothing better than a great athlete being tested by a true equal and forced to raise their game to an even higher level. Graf could, and likely would, have done so. But we never got to see it. Poor us.

Only the emergence of another Martina (Hingis) finally pushed Graf out of the picture, but by then Graf's body was breaking down. Still, her last stand '99 RG comeback win over a petulant Hingis in the final might be the German's brightest career moment.

Just think, a little better security that April afternoon and the course of women's tennis history might have been oh so different (and even greater). Seles will still be an easy Hall-of-Famer when her career officially ends, but Hamburg and its aftermath forever altered what might have been the most decorated career in WTA history.

As for Parche, he never served a day of jail time for the actual stabbing and was released when a German judge felt he was unlikely to repeat such a crime. Seles, for her part, has stood by her post-trial vow to never play in Germany again, going so far as to skip the 2001 WTA Championships held in Munich.

Thus, Hamburg produced disappointment for all (save Parche), and justice for none. Oh, what could have been...

All for now.


COMING SOON: The 2007 Intriguing Questions begin soon, and they'll include the long overdue second edition in the "What If?" series. Check in to see which player's career is the subject of speculation this time around.


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