WIMBLEDON, England — God has been very involved with sports lately — at least if you believe the newspapers here.
“God Had A Hand In This!” read one London headline after England lost in overtime to Argentina in the World Cup.
“Hand of God, II!” read another tabloid.
And a British journalist actually penned the following: “This was football the way God invented it …”
Funny, I don’t remember God inventing football. Maybe that was on the Eighth Day. Anyhow, I doubt He had anything to do with England vs. Argentina, for two reasons. First of all, if it concerns God, it ought to at least concern Man. And yet, at the same time that game was being played, millions of Americans were watching “All My Children.” I don’t think God is playing second fiddle to that.
Besides, if the Almighty really wanted to jump into sports, He would have intervened not on the soccer field, but Wednesday on the grass courts of Wimbledon, where a heavy-hearted Monica Seles tried gamely to keep her comeback alive but failed in straight sets to Natasha Zvereva, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.
Now here was a divine opportunity: Seles, having lost her career to a knife-wielding madman, having lost her form to depressed overeating, and having lost her father to cancer just seven weeks ago, was clawing steadily through Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam tournament she has never won, and was one point from taking the first set of the quarterfinals.
And then it all fell apart. Zvereva fooled Seles with a disguised drop shot, which Seles had to race in and lunge for, leaving her vulnerable. Zvereva whacked the ball to the open court to knot the score.
On the next two points, Seles hit wide and into the net. The match was tied. And you could almost see her star go dark.
Seles scored just four points in the ensuing tiebreak, lost the next set quickly, and was out of the tournament. She nodded to the applauding crowd and tried to hide her disappointment.
Yet, did she feel that fate deserted her storybook ending?
“I don’t think God is going to get involved with a tennis match,” she said.
“It’s simply who’s better that day, that’s all.”
Stabbed in the back — by envy
Now, the fact is, few stories beg for divine intervention more than Seles’ does. Just a few years ago, she was virtually unbeatable. As the youngest champion in French Open history, she captured eight of her next nine Grand Slam events, grunting and giggling, living large, hanging out with movie stars and generally cruising through life.
Then one day in Germany, her life hit the brakes: A madman named Gunther Parche — who claimed he was driven by his love for Steffi Graf — knifed Seles in the back as she sat between games of a match.
The puncture itself, which doctors said was less than an inch from paralyzing Seles, eventually healed. Her brain and heart were another story.
First there were the nightmares, which she still endures. Then there was the sting of her peers. Despite the heinous act, no players came to visit her in the hospital (except for one perfunctory visit by Graf).
Even worse, the other players initially voted not to let Seles keep her No. 1 ranking. Seles, always blissfully ignorant of what others thought of her, was suddenly faced with the ugliness of envy, and was paralyzed to fight it.
On top of that, her father, Karolj, a popular cartoonist who had been her coach, mentor and guiding light, was hit with stomach cancer. As he battled gamely to return to normalcy, so did his daughter.
It took several years. Like many of us, Seles ate food as a diversion to heartbreak, so when she did come back to tennis, she was heavier and slower-footed. Critics whispered “fatso” loud enough for her to hear. Meanwhile, her concentration was often interrupted by the dwindling time with her father.
When he died in May, she put on a black tennis dress and entered the French Open.
“I’m doing this for him,” she said then. “He loved to see me play. I wish he were here to see this part of my career.
“But each of us has a purpose. What I can control, I will.”
She’s older, sadder and wiser
It amazed me to hear Seles talking like that. I keep seeing her years ago, maybe 1991, at a U.S. Open in New York. Back then, in the press conferences, they had dictation experts who typed as the players spoke. But Seles was so giddy, giggly and happily scatter-brained, the typist could barely keep up. Finally, when she left the podium, he nearly collapsed. He said he had never heard anyone speak so quickly in his life.
Now here was Seles on Wednesday, after her loss, seeming so different. She spoke slowly. She was very realistic. She is still only 24, but an older, wiser 24, and for tennis, a very mature 24. Here’s all the proof you need:
When I asked if she felt sad, as many in the media did, that a Wimbledon championship would not be coming as payback for her suffering, she smiled and shook her head.
“If that’s how life worked,” she said, “then a lot of people should be getting more than me, because they’ve suffered more than I ever did and they still haven’t got anything.
“Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.”
And with that, she left the stage.
There was a time when few of us thought Monica Seles would teach us anything. But times change, and athletes do, too. In a week of sports pity, in a country seeking God in a soccer match, Seles seemed, more than most of us, to have her feet on the ground.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.