I rewrote this article several times after the attacks in Boston. Security at sporting events would be a tangential part of a story that focused on what ifs. What if Günter Parche could tone down his Steffi Graf obsession. What if security at the Citizen Cup was able to prevent one of the defining moments in tennis history from taking place on April 30th, 1993.
Security theater was made for sporting events. The act of waiting outside of stadiums for pat downs and a jaunt through the metal detector was a ritual most of us – save for the nervous 17-year-old with a mickey in his sock – paid no mind. We were safe because a group of part-time employees took a course over the weekend. Their presence did not ensure protection. It wasn’t about that. Seeing a police car on the street late at night – those officers could be dirty cops. Observing an accused murderer finally being caught – he could be innocent. We rely on aesthetics for reassurance. The bombings in Boston changed that, just like the bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Before Atlanta and Boston was Hamburg. An event marred not by a terrorist attack, but an unhinged, knife wielding man who would alter the future of women’s tennis.
Monica Seles made it clear early on: she was going to be one of the greats. After playing in her first professional tournament as a 14-year-old, the daughter of Eszter and Károly joined the tour, full-time, one year later. She would take Steffi Graf to a third set in a 1989 French Open semifinal.
In 1990 Monica battled Graf at Roland Garros once again, this time in the final. Graf was on an incredible run, reaching 13 consecutive Grand Slam finals. Seles triumphed in straight sets, becoming the youngest French Open Champion in history. At 16 years and six months Seles had officially arrived. What came next can only be described as pure dominance.
Over the course of 25 months (January ’91 to February ’93) Seles won 22 titles, reached the final of 33 of the 34 tournaments she entered and had a ridiculous 98% winning percentage in Grand Slam tournaments. Heading into the 1993 season she had surpassed Graf as the person to beat on the women’s tour. Seles would cement her place at the top of the game with a win over her German rival in the Australian Open final. Graf fans had reason to be concerned. After that match in Melbourne, Seles had defeated Graf in three of the four Grand Slam finals they contested.
Manic devotion to individual athletes isn’t just a tennis thing. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were teammates and rivals. By the end of 1989 there was no in between. You had to choose one or the other. When Senna tragically passed on May 1st, 1994, Prost remarked a part of himself also died that day.
While the Prost-Senna rivalry saw two drivers inflict direct harm on each other, including Senna’s decision to clip Prost at 160 miles per hour on the first turn of the Suzuka Circuit in 1990, it was an outsider that would dictate the future of tennis’s brightest stars.
The Seles-Graf rivalry was forever altered by a 39-year-old unemployed lathe operator, a fact that remains incredibly strange today. During a changeover, Günter Parche leaned over a three foot high barrier and stabbed Seles from behind. Parche, obsessed with seeing Graf regain the number one ranking, took it upon himself to make his vision become reality. At the ensuing trial, Parche’s lawyer argued his client lived in a fantasy world. Experts told the court Parche had a personality disorder. The judge ruled the attack as attempted assault and Parche received a two-year suspended sentence. Seles, unable to comprehend the lenient sentence, has never gone back to Germany.
Few remember that Graf went on to win the tournament, a cruel twist of fate that seemingly validated Parche’s delusion. Security at future events was beefed up. The damage done to Seles mentally, however, was irreparable.
The attack led to depression and binge eating. Seles returned to the tour in 1995. She went on to win one more slam – the 1996 Australian Open – before finally retiring in 2008. Parche suffered a series of strokes that put him in a nursing home to ride out his remaining days.
I was stabbed on court, in front of thousands of people,” she wrote in her autobiography. It is not possible to talk about distancing yourself from that. It changed my career and irrevocably damaged my soul. A split second made me a different person.
We’ll never know what could have been. Monica Seles could have been the greatest female tennis player of all time. She could have broken Steffi Graf’s record for grand slams. Among Williams, Evert, Graf and Navratilova, Seles could have stood above.
Thanks to the actions of a man that needed help in the most literal sense, we are left with what could have been. Twenty years ago today, the sport Monica Seles devoted her life to failed to protect her.