The memory is chilling. Just think of the attack by a spectator against an elite tennis player in a professional competition to reach a simple conclusion: it is impossible. But reality sometimes laughs at fiction. It happened. And the last week 28 years have passed since that fierce attack that would change tennis history forever.
Everything was going with a certain normality that April 30, 1993. Monica Seles, the young number one in the world, held a 6-4 and 4-3 advantage against the Bulgarian Magdalena Maleeva on the center court of the Hamburg tournament, in a match corresponding to the quarterfinals. All that calm that usually reigns in tennis events, suddenly, completely crumbled: a member of the public bypassed the security controls during the change of sides and stabbed the Yugoslav in the back, who was waiting for the resumption sitting on the bench.
The images of that moment of terror they were not captured by the transmission, although it could be appreciated how a guard captured from behind and grabbed the aggressor by the neck, recognized as Günter Parche, a 38 year old German whose sick fanaticism for Steffi Graf would be confirmed some time later. Seles, the jewel of tennis that was called to twist history, emerged that afternoon as an escapist: was saved from death by the reflex action of having leaned his body forward.
Seconds later he got up, took a few steps towards the court and she collapsed on the people who attended her in the middle of a nightmare. Why did you beat death? Because that fleeting movement caused the knife to barely penetrate about three centimeters and will not affect more than some muscles. “I moved my legs when changing sides because I felt cold and, suddenly, that cold entered my back”Seles recalled years later.
In those days the whole world appreciated what must have been a paradigm shift in tennis. Seles accumulated 32 titles of the circuit and wore nothing less than 178 weeks ahead of the ranking WTA World Cup. On March 11, 1991, at just 17 years old, had displaced Graf from the top, who in turn had remained at the top since August 17, 1987 -186 weeks. The handover of command was underway. And Parche, obsessed with the German regaining the top, put a historical brake on her.
Before the attack, at just 19 years old, the fantastic Yugoslav player already held eight Grand Slam trophies: she had won Roland Garros in 1990, 1991 and 1992; the Australian Open in 1991, 1992 and 1993; and the US Open in 1991 and 1992. Three of those grand finals had been snatched from Graf herself, who in turn won the 1992 definition at Wimbledon, the only Slam that Seles would ever win.
After the attack, Parche was imprisoned for six months until, in October 1993, the final judgment was issued by a Hamburg court: two years of ineffective detention, on probation. The Yugoslav, who decades later admitted to being plunged into a depression, came out at the crossroads because of the ruling: “Patch acknowledged having stabbed me and will return to his normal life while I still recover from an attack that could have killed me “.
Seles was so talented that when returned to the circuit in August 1995, with more than ten kilos of being overweight from eating problems that caused the attack, won the first official tournament he played: it was in Montreal, Canada, with victories including, by case, against the French Nathalie Tauziat (12th), the German Anke Huber (7th) and Gabriela Sabatini (6th).
That same year he only returned to perform at the US Open, where he fell in the final against Graf, and in the third contest since his reappearance. He would win his ninth and final Slam: the 1996 Australian Open. The legendary Martina Navratilova would assume, decades later, that Seles should have ended her career with the record of titles of Grand Slam in singles, above the 22 of Graf and the 24 of the Australian Margaret Court: “I have no doubt that this guy changed the history of tennis. “
Sabatini and the human factor
In his autobiography, called “Monica, From Fear to Victory” and published in 1996, Seles would tell part of what happened just a week after the event in Hamburg. Gerard Smith, then president of the WTA, met at the Rome tournament with 17 of the top 25 players the world to ask them to vote and define if the Yugoslav ranking should be frozen while going through the rehabilitation stage.
“The result was almost unanimous against the protection of my ranking. All the players voted along the same lines, with the sole exception of Gabriela Sabatini. I was disappointed that Steffi Graf voted against. We had cried together when I was in the hospital in Hamburg, “she acknowledged.
The bond between Sabatini and Seles grew stronger and, a long time later, in March 2015, they would play an exhibit at Madison Square Garden from New York. That game meant the return to tennis of the best Argentine player of all time, who hadn’t touched a racket in years.
In the previous match, the Yugoslav was consulted about that event that changed her life and praised Gaby’s human gesture: “She was the only one who supported me, I appreciate her very much. He thought as a person and not because of the ranking and the business. Gaby is different from the rest of the players: she is very human and has values. When they called me to play this game, I didn’t hesitate for a second. “