March 1991: Monica Seles Takes the Throne
In 1991, Steffi Graf had sat atop the women's tennis rankings for more than three years. Then Monica Seles came on the scene, and things got interesting.
Flickr user C Thomas
One-thousand-three-hundred-and-two-days constitutes a considerable length of time. It's enough time to start and complete a medical degree. Give or take a couple months, it is the entirety of the U.S. involvement in World War II. A great deal can be accomplished in 1,302 days – three and a half years if you're into the Gregorian thing. It's a hell of a stretch.
It's also how long Steffi Graf sat atop the WTA rankings during her record-setting 186-week streak. Graf's domination began on 17 August 1987 and lasted until 11 March 1991 when the 17-year-old comer Monica Seles seized the top spot, becoming the youngest woman up to that point to reach the peak of women's tennis. Seles may have still needed a parent, or guardian, to see R-rated films like Silence of the Lambs – Buffalo Bill et al were that week's biggest box office draw – but she didn't emerge from the shadows. She arrived loudly and with authority, and not just because of her legendary grunting.
"We all saw Monica coming. Her ascent wasn't a fluke thing, it was earned," says pre-eminent tennis broadcaster Mary Carillo. "Seles is the greatest match player I've ever seen. Big and bold on everything, absolutely fearless, and the first woman who featured a big return game. Seles literally never took her eye off the ball and made so few errors. Just incredible."
In 1990, Seles won her first major, becoming the youngest ever French Open champion at 16. On a rainy Parisian afternoon, she stunned the world's number one. As the New York Times described it, in prose that harkens back to the Helen Wills era:
Monica Seles, the teen-age terror whose two-fisted ground strokes have spelled a special kind of double trouble ever since she burst upon the scene here last year, became the youngest women's champion in French Open history when she ran roughshod over top-seeded Steffi Graf, 7-6, 6-4.
Seles would close out 1990 with three more tournament wins, but it was merely a warm-up. Starting in January 1991, she would go a two-year tear, winning seven Grand Slams, with a match record of 55-1. Her only loss came in the '92 Wimbledon Finals to Graf. Over that time period, however, she beat Graf head-to-head in in the '92 French finals and then again behind seven aces in a highly-entertaining '93 Australian finals showdown. Her win in Oz made it eight of nine in Major Finals in under three years.
During this stretch, the women's division belonged to these two intense competitors – Seles, who had elbowed her way into the G.O.A.T. conversation, and Graf, who thoroughly commanded it. Both were under the age of 25. Just a few years after the end of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry, a powerful symbiosis was developing between two new dominant world-beaters.
"I'm not saying they would have played each other 80 times like Martina and Chris, but Monica was Steffi's biggest rival," says Carillo. "A lot of players had no answer for Seles. Graf had to play out of her shoes to beat her."
On court, Seles and Graf weren't exactly polar opposites, but they were contrasts in styles. Graf, a.k.a. "Fraulein Forehand" (R.I.P. Bud Collins) was so-nicknamed because of what was arguably the greatest weapon the game's ever seen; she also had a semi-viable slice backhand, deft footwork, and a wicked serve. Seles, for her part, had the two-hander from both sides, a heavy ball, a legendarily great return game, and impeccable shot-making abilities. Graf was the golden girl, the regal tennis queen; Seles the guttural upstart pummeling opponents on her quest to usurp the throne. The Federer/Nadal rivalry was, in many ways, a 21st-century reboot of this dynamic.
Off the court, both were known to be gracious, and respectful of one another, but neither woman was the life of the party. "Steffi and Monica were both private players, you weren't going to find them yukking it up in the locker room," says Carillo.
Seles, however, was just coming into her own and did not yet have a fully formed persona; Graf, who turned pro at 13 and had been around for a decade, was much more self-possessed, and more of a known quantity. There was an air of mystery to Seles, the fast-talking giggly young Yugoslavian with a penchant for disguises and missed appearances. As the top seed in 1991, the Seles camp faxed the All England Club 72 hours before their little tournament was due to start informing them she wouldn't be playing in it due to a "minor accident." She actually had shin splints, but apparently that standard tennis ailment wasn't a sufficiently cryptic excuse. Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times described Seles as "equal parts teen tennis superstar and Greta Garbo clone, probably few would be surprised if she showed up for a match wearing phony glasses and a rubber nose."
Going AWOL on Wimbledon didn't affect the ranking Seles earned in March of '91, but she and Graf went back-and-forth bumping each other from the top spot throughout the summer. Once Seles took hold on September 9, however, it was hers alone for the next 91 weeks.
She would reign supreme until June of 1993, five weeks after that fateful match break in Hamburg, Germany. It's been nearly a quarter century, but the fact that Gunter Parche, a deranged, unemployed German Steffi Graf fan, waltzed down onto the court and plunged a nine-inch blade between Seles's shoulder blades is still terrifying. Adding to the insanity: Parche's motive was to get Graf back to number one.
It was a singular moment of sports horror, and the brutality of it was only the beginning. Parche was declared to be of diminished mental capacity and never spent a day in jail. Seles was completely devastated. Although her physical injuries were minor – mercifully, the blade missed her spinal cord by centimetres – Seles would be out of tennis for more than two years. The WTA returned to Hamburg in 1994, and Graf won the German Open. Seles never set foot in the country again.
After returning to the game, Seles had her moments, reaching four Grand Slam finals, even winning her ninth at the '06 Australian Open, but two of the finals losses came against Graf. The parity between them was gone. Prior to the attack, Graf held a slight overall head-to-head advantage of 6-4, but Seles would only beat her once after her comeback, in the quarter-finals of the '99 Australian. Final tally: Graf 10, Seles 5.
"I called Monica's comeback, it was a cheesy exhibition in Atlantic City against Martina Navratilova," Carillo says. "She was so vulnerable. I just wanted Monica to be okay. Even if her game was never the same. It's one of the most tragic things that's happened in sports... Everything was robbed from her."
It was such a horrific act that the question of "what if?" feels facile. But in a strictly sporting sense, fans were denied the chance to see what the Graf v. Seles rivalry could become. For two years, it was clear that they had something special. It's obviously not a mark on Graf's phenomenal career that she didn't get to compete year-in-year-out against an on-court equal, but things obviously went her way after Seles was attacked. It's hard to imagine Graf reeling off another 87-week run atop the WTA – or retiring with yet another record, 377 weeks in total – and winning her 11 additional majors with a healthy in-her-prime Seles to battle. As great as the rivalry was during its brief zenith, Graf and Seles (and tennis fans) never truly got the rivalry they deserved.
The awful afternoon in Germany has become the first thing for which Seles is remembered, which is unfortunate. She was one hell of a ball-striker, and deserves better than to be coupled with her deranged assailant in the popular memory. Seles was greatness personified, and greatness unfulfilled. She didn't get the run she deserved, but 25 years ago, Monica Seles came at the queen and did not miss.
"Steffi Graf is one of the best of all-time. There's maybe three people on the list, but Monica is never mentioned at all and it bothers me," says Carillo. "I think Seles was on her way to being the greatest tennis player we've seen. She was extraordinary."