Seles' career took downturn after 1993 stabbing By Dick Heller The opponents sat in their chairs during the changeover, toweling off and planning tactics. One of them, Monica Seles, was the world's top-ranked female player, and deservedly so. Spectators turned their eyes away from the court, discussing the match. The scene was peaceful at Rothenbaum Tennis Club in Hamburg, Germany, a genteel, tree-lined venue. Then, without warning, disaster struck. A stocky, balding man wearing a plaid shirt and jeans and carrying a green plastic bag slipped down an aisle onto the court, paused behind Seles and from the bag withdrew a 9-inch boning knife. A fan nearby screamed, and Seles twisted around slightly. Too late! The man plunged his knife into her upper back at an angle. Seles shrieked, leaped from her chair and stood with her hand clasped to the back of her neck as blood spread over her white tennis shirt. Another man jumped over the barricade and attempted to aid her. Sobbing, she collapsed against him, and he lowered her gently to the ground while police collared her assailant. The date was April30, 1993, and Seles had been playing Magdalena Maleeva in a quarterfinal match of the Citizen Cup tournament, winning the first set 6-4 and leading the second 4-3. At 19, Seles was Steffi Graf's only rival as the best women's player in the world. Grunting loudly on nearly every return, Monica had collected 32 singles titles in four years, including seven of the last eight Grand Slam events she had entered, and her tennis future appeared limitless. Until, that is, an unemployed German lathe operator named Gunther Parche appeared on the scene with his knife. One thrust and a marvelous tennis career was virtually over. Seles spent two days at Hamburg Hospital though she could have left sooner. That Saturday, she received an emotional visit from Graf, who told reporters, "I would say she is very depressed. ... This hurts me, too. It hurts me to know that it happened in Germany, that guy is German and that apparently he's a fan of mine." More than two years later, with Seles absent from the court for 27 months, her father, Karolj, stated the sad truth candidly: "[Until the stabbing,] Monica was a girl who was laughing all the time, having fun. All that is now gone." The crime brought into the open a fear that haunts all famous people: Will someone try to gain notoriety at my expense? Sometimes celebrities are stalked. Sometimes they receive anonymous death threats. But rarely has an athlete suffered as much as Seles. At first, the attack seemed political in nature given the ethnic wars in Seles' homeland, the former Yugoslavia, although she had lived in Florida since 1986 and became a naturalized American citizen. She and her family are ethnically Hungarian but often are mistaken for Serbs because they come from Novi Sad, a village near Bosnia controlled by Serbs. But, no, Parche had a much different reason: He was indeed a huge fan of Graf and wanted to "help" her regain the No. 1 ranking. And for Seles, the aftermath was nearly as painful as the assault. Parche was charged merely with "causing grievous bodily harm" rather than a more serious charge, such as attempted manslaughter. When his first trial ended Oct. 13, 1993, Parche received only a two-year suspended sentence because Judge Elke Bosse found his promise not to hurt anyone again "absolutely believable." One German press report indicated the judge had shown "disturbing sympathy toward Parche and his orgiastic fantasies about Graf." After 19 months, there was a new trial and Judge Gertraut Goring upheld the verdict, saying Seles' refusal to testify was a determining factor. In 1995, Seles was attending the opening of a tennis center in Williamsburg, one of her very few public appearances since the stabbing, when she was told Parche had been released. Falling into the arms of her mother, Esther, she began sobbing uncontrollably. "How can anyone say it's OK to do what this man did to another human being?" she said. Why hadn't she testified against Parche? "How can they have expected me to go back [to Hamburg]?" Seles said. "I mean, I would have had to sit in the courtroom with my back to him." Parche's obsession with Graf did not lessen after he returned to his hometown of Gorsbach, in the former East Germany. He continued to write her letters and send her money on her birthday. He later admitted sending a threatening letter to German track star Heike Dreschler but added, "I'm not nearly as fanatical as I used to be." For Seles, that was small consolation. After two years as a virtual recluse, Seles tried to resume her tennis career during the summer of 1995. She won an exhibition against Martina Navratilova in Atlantic City, N.J., then captured the Canadian Open in Toronto without losing a set. In the U.S. Open, she reached the final -- against Graf -- before losing. Then she won her fourth Australian Open in 1996, and people started saying the old Seles was back. She wasn't, of course. Monica started to experience multiple injuries from shoulder to knee. Worst of all, the memories never left her. "There are flashbacks [to Hamburg]," she once said. "I tell myself, 'You're in a match -- just go out and play great tennis.' But the reality is still there, and I can't forget it. The reality is that it happened. It will always be there." When Parche went on trial, she sent a letter to be read in court: "I only want proper justice. This attack tremendously and irreparably damaged my life and stopped my tennis career. ... He has not been successful in his attempt to kill me, but he has destroyed my life." At 31, Seles is a tennis has-been today, but many wonder just how good she might have been. Navratilova, one of the greatest female players ever, put it this way: "Never mind the life-altering event it was -- the stabbing changed the course of tennis history. We'll never know how many more tournaments, how many more Grand Slams she would have won." Surely unfulfilled promise is the saddest specter in sports -- especially when it is caused by someone else.