Mention the name “Monica Seles,” and what is the first thing which comes to mind?
Oh, she’s the player who got stabbed. Yes, that’s one primary answer.
Steffi Graf. Yes, that’s the other main answer.
The first answer affected the nature of the relationship with the second answer. Had that stabbing not occurred in the spring of 1993, the nature of the Seles-Graf rivalry, and with it, the larger course of tennis history, would have been profoundly different. This is not to say or assume that Seles would have won a lot more than she did, although many would have felt comfortable making that assertion. The bigger point is that without the 1993 stabbing, Seles and Graf would have been able to play each other in their primes for many more years, lending new dimensions to how we perceived those players then… and how we would perceive those players today, roughly 20 to 25 years later.
The stabbing and Steffi — those are the two things which immediately come to mind for a vast majority of tennis fans when Seles’s name is mentioned.
It is therefore important to offer the reminder — as a new Australian Open begins — that Seles’s life and career didn’t stop after her stabbing. Yes, she endured extraordinary trauma. Yes, she was not the same player — and no one should have expected her to remain the same player. Yes, a life and a career are two different things, and quality of life comes before and above everything else.
Nevertheless, Seles did have a few pronounced moments in the sun after the attack which changed the course of her tennis career, and two of the very best moments came in the same place: Melbourne, Australia.
Steffi Graf was not part of the 1996 Australian Open. She was recovering from surgery to remove bone splinters from her left foot. Nevertheless, Seles had not won a major tournament since the 1993 Australian Open, the last one before the stabbing. She was the No. 1 seed in Melbourne, but she still had to cross that threshold.
She not only won the 1996 Australian Open; she conceded only 22 games in six of her match wins. Her one big scare was a three-setter in the semifinals against Chanda Rubin. She lost the first set in a tiebreaker but battled back to win 7-5 in the third. Given how profoundly Seles’s career was altered by a vicious attack, the ability to win even one major after that unfathomably traumatic event represents a tremendous triumph. Tangibly and symbolically, the 1996 Australian Open showed how resolute Monica Seles was as a person and a tennis player.
That is not the end of this story.
If you think of women’s tennis at the start of the 21st century, you think of Venus and Serena Williams. You think of Justine Henin. You think of Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport. It would take you several names before you might associate Seles with this decade, and you wouldn’t be wrong to put her at a lower place on a list of early-21st-century tennis notables.
Yet, at the 2002 Australian Open, there was Seles — nearly nine years after the event which changed her life — making her way to the semifinals in a stacked field.
Seles drew a young Patty Schnyder in round one, not an easy assignment. Schynder was a third-round-level player at the majors, more or less, in 2002 and 2003.
Seles drew a young Francesca Schiavone in the third round of the 2002 Australian Open. She defeated Venus in the quarterfinals after losing the first set in a tiebreaker. It took Martina Hingis to beat her, 6-4 in the third, to finally knock her out in the semifinals. Seles was “only” 28 years old, but she had lived a few lifetimes in relative terms, given how much time and trauma had swept through her life in those nine years since that horrifying day in Hamburg, Germany. She could still play top-tier tennis.
That 2002 Australian Open, along with the 1996 championship run, said a lot about how well Monica Seles could play tennis in all sorts of circumstances. The reminder that she could still bring a big-league game to the court in 2002 is an overlooked but very real example of how durable her career could have been had a knife-wielding madman not broken through lax security in 1993.
The Australian Open bursts into color once again this January, but as many people in tennis will tell you, this event didn’t become a true “fourth major” until the move to Melbourne Park in 1988, which was accompanied by a move to the 128-player, seven-round format. Previous fields were much smaller and had first-round byes for high seeds.
Since the 1988 “arrival” of the Australian Open, few moments were more poignant than Monica Seles’s 1996 title. Few non-championship-winning achievements are more overlooked than Seles’s 2002 run to the semis. Take note of that as you appreciate the Australian Open’s place in tennis history.