by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

What makes one person take a chunk out of another? It is not a question we should have to ask. Yet for the second time this week, I find myself wondering. First it was Mike Tyson’s bloody chomp on Evander Holyfield’s ear during the weekend.

Then, Monday, it was Monica Seles making another early exit at Wimbledon, jogging sadly to the net, her head down, her tournament over. She has still never won this thing. The way she looked Monday, she may never win it. And the mind wanders back to that lunatic named Guenter Parche, who four years ago stuck a five-inch blade into Seles’ back — one person taking a chunk out of another — and who knows? Maybe he stabbed the career right out of her.

For sure, Seles has never been the same. It’s not just the two years of tennis she missed. It’s not just the tears that come on short notice now, or the shaky composure, the weight gain, the absence of her once-goofy conversation. It’s not even the losing — although she hasn’t won a tournament since last August.

It’s the way she’s losing. She zooms ahead, gets to the lip of victory, then collapses, as if afraid to return to glory.

This, for a player as gifted as Seles, is terribly disturbing. It would be like a boxer ahead on points dropping his gloves in the final round.

Last year at Wimbledon, Seles was within a point of 5-2 in the final set against a unknown player she should have crushed. Instead, Seles blew the lead and crashed and burned right there, in the second round.

Two weeks ago, at Eastbourne, she was up, 5-2, in the first set to Brenda Schultz-McCarthy. Seles lost the next five games and was swept out the door.

And Monday, on an outside court in a third-round match, she had a 5-2 lead in the final set against Sandrine Testud of France. Once again, on the brink of victory, the air gushed from Seles’ balloon. She blew match point at 5-3. She blew match point at 6-5.

In the final game, she was aced twice.

She gathered her rackets and left the court.

Such a delicate balance

“I let her come back,” Seles lamented after the 0-6, 6-4, 8-6 loss. “I got a little bit tight, missed a couple of shots…. I had the momentum and I let it go.”

“You say you got a little tight,” someone asked. “Do you mean mentally or physically?”

“Mentally,” she said.

Such a delicate balance, tennis is. You can have all the strokes, you can practice night and day, but your mind is like Jell-O on a stick. Start shaking with the wrong thoughts and you can’t help but topple over. For Seles these days, there are few places she can look that don’t inspire the wrong thoughts.

If she looks to the stands, she sees the shadow of the madman, Parche, who was not even put in jail for his brutal attack. The German courts, incredibly, gave him only two years’ probation, and Seles admits she fears he might attack her again.

If she looks to the locker room, she sees the faces of jealous peers, who voted not to protect Seles’ No. 1 ranking even as she lay in bed, wounded.

If she looks in the newspapers, she sees bloated photos of herself, under headlines such as “Fat’s The Spirit, Monica!” Last week an unflattering shot of her skirt flying up, revealing her thickened waist and her Nike underwear, was plastered on the back page of every tabloid in town.

And if she looks to the family box, all she sees is an empty chair where her father usually sits. Karolj Seles — who is also her coach — is fighting stomach cancer back in Florida.

“I try to talk to him a couple of times a day,” the daughter said, choking up.
“It’s not the same as having him here.”

A tennis tragedy

Monica Seles is nothing less than a tennis tragedy right now. Once she was giddy and full of brio. She played matches as if late for a bus, she grunted so loudly she shook the Coke in your cup. She was brilliant and fearless, whacking two-fisted shots to within a razor’s edge of the chalk.

Now she is slow and deliberate. She has trouble with easy things, such as the ball toss. Her shots often fall short of the line, leaving room for the opponent, often too much room.

She is only 23, but she suggests a young widow in some 18th Century village, old beyond her years. It would be one thing if she ruined her career with drugs or indulgence, the way Jennifer Capriati did. It would be one thing if she — like Tyson — were the one who did the biting.

But she is the bitten, the victim, she was breezing along as the best in the world, a happy if somewhat spacey champion, and now the world seems like a sideways ladder.

“The last five years,” she admitted, “have not been the happiest period of my life.”

Through no fault of her own. Yes, she’s had injuries, and yes, her father’s illness would have come anyhow and no, grass is not her best surface. But she might have overcome all this if the stuffing hadn’t been ripped out of her by a knife-wielding nut who is free to roam even as Seles leaves another Wimbledon unfulfilled.

People taking a chunk out of people. It’s a sin she keeps paying for, and it wasn’t even hers.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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