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Monica Seles – Head of the Class

Monica is “head of the class” of the 2009 group of inductees in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She won nine major singles titles in her career – including four titles at the Australian Open. Her classmates are super agent Donald Dell, former French Open champion Andres Gimeno and Dr. Robert “Whirwind” Johnson. Bud Collins, himself a 1994 inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and the author of the definitive tennis encyclopedia THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, summarizes Seles and her career in this excerpt from his book.

How could anybody stop her? An all-time prodigy, a unique No. 1 with her double-barrelled fusillades—both hands on both sides—Monica Seles was a 19-year-old tearing up tennis until that fateful day in Hamburg, April 30, 1993. An allegedly demented German spectator, Guenther Parche, stopped her, struck her down with a knife in the back as she sat beside the court on a changeover.

The quarterfinal match against Maggie Maleeva ended at that abrupt moment, and so did tennis for a kid who seemed des­tined to be the greatest of all. She had won eight majors (three French, three Australian, two U.S.). After taking the U.S. of 1992 over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-3, 6-3, she was the youngest ever to hold seven of them (18 years, eight months), undercutting Maureen Connolly by three months. (Curiously, Connolly, who wound up with nine, had been cut off, too, as a teenager, in a traf­fic accident.) Breaking Steffi Graf’s four-year hold on the No. 1 ranking in 1991, Seles had held off Steffi in her last major appear­ance before her stabbing, to win the Australian, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

But putative assassin Parche intervened, claiming he knifed Seles to restore Graf to preeminence, a story the Seles family doubted. It was 28 months before Monica was seen on court again. The psychological damage had been more severe than the physical. She, like everybody else—except, apparently, the judge in Parche’s trial and re-trial—wondered why he was not incarcer­ated. “He’s still out there walking the streets,” she worried.

Attempting to put it behind her, Monica re-emerged in August 1995, beating Martina Navratilova in an exhibition at Atlantic City, content with the co-No. 1 ranking with Graf granted her by the WTA. Then acting as though nothing had changed, she was back in business—electrifyingly so. Opponents at the Cana­dian Open in Toronto acted as though they were seeing a ghost. They were—a ghost of championships past—as she marched to the title on a loss of no sets, 12 games in five matches, ripping Amanda Coetzer in the final, 6-0, 6-1.

On to the US Open, where she’d won 14 straight matches. The opposition continued to melt until the final, where Graf ended the streak at 20, fitter in the third set, 7-6 (8-6), 0-6, 6-3. At 6-5 in the tie-breaker, Monica groused at a call of fault on her bid—a frac­tion wide—for a set-point ace. She lost her composure momen­tarily, and may have missed the title by a smidgen of an inch.

Her return to Australia, where she’d never been beaten, was triumphant. She won Sydney from match point down over Lind­say Davenport, 4-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-3, then the Open (Graf was absent) over Anke Huber, 6-4, 6-1, a ninth major title. However, after that, the 1996 season didn’t go as well as she and her fans had hoped. Knee and shoulder injuries were bothersome. Her conditioning was suspect; she pulled out of several tourneys. Though she did win three more tournaments and help the U.S. regain the Federa­tion Cup, there was disappointment at the French and Wimble­don. Jana Novotna clipped her Paris streak of 25 in the quarters, 7-6 (9-7), 6-3. More painful perhaps was losing the last four games and a second-rounder at the Big W to an unknown Slovak, No. 59 Katerina Studenikova, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4. “I’m playing too defensively, not attacking the ball the way I used to,” Monica said accurately. She was a finalist again at the U.S. Open but was pushed around by a charged-up Graf whose superior quickness showed, 7-5, 6-4.

Seles, a left-hander who has grown to nearly six feet, was born Dec. 2, 1973, of Serbo-Hungarian parentage, at Novi Sad in what was then Yugoslavia. Getting her started, her father, Karolj Seles, a professional cartoonist and keen student of the game, drew faces on the balls for her to hit. He and her mother, Esther, felt her future lay in the United States They moved to Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy at Bradenton, Fla., in 1986 when Monica was 12, and headmaster Nick oversaw her early development. Papa took over the coaching again at their Sara­sota residence until his death in 1998. Monica became a U.S. citizen in 1995.

Monica sounded the alarm in 1989 as a 15-year-old by spoil­ing the last final of Chris Evert’s illustrious career in. Houston, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. “She’s the next,” exulted an overwhelmed witness, his­torian Ted Tinling. Soon after, “Moanin’ Monica” took her bubbly grimacing-and-grunting act to Roland Garros to show Parisians noisy tennis nouvelle: rip-roaring groundies, bludgeoned from. anywhere in a baseball switch-hitting style (the backhand cross-handed). She constantly went for winners, seemingly off-balance and out-of-position but buoyed by excellent footwork and antici­pation. Graf barely escaped in the semis. But she wouldn’t a year later, in the final, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4. Seles became a major player. She bounded into the world’s Top 10 in 1989 (No. 6) and was there through 2002, 13 years, (except for non- ranked 1994): No. 2 in 1990; No. 1 in 1991-92; No. 8 in 1993; co-No. 1 in 1995; co-No. 2 in 1996; No. 5 in 1997; No. 6 in 1998; No. 4 in 1999-2000; No. 10 in 2001; No. 7 in 2002.

For two-and-a-half years Monica was nearly invincible as the titles piled up and her ball-impacting shriek—“Uhh-eee!”—was heard across the globe. She charmed the public with girlish elan and mystified people by vanishing before Wimbledon in 1991 and then resurfacing to win the U.S. Open. She may have been psyched out of a 1992 Grand Slam when complaints about the grunting from Wimbledon victims, Nathalie Tauziat and Martina Navratilova, (leading to a warning from the referee) muted her in the final, where she was destroyed by Graf, 6-2, 6-1. Still, she was the first to win three majors in successive years since Mar­garet Court (three and four, 1969-70), a feat equaled by Graf in 1995-96. Among her souvenirs was the 1991 U.S. final, when at age 17, she defeated Navratilova, 34, a singular generation gapper, 7-6 (9-7), 6-1. Her brightest seasons of 10 singles titles each were 1991 (winning 74 of 80 matches) and 1992 (70 of 75).

At the close of 2003, after 12 pro seasons, and portions of two others, she had played 177 tournaments and won 53 singles titles with a 595-122 won-loss record (.836); 180-31 in the majors (.861). She has also won six doubles titles with a 89-45 won-loss record and earned $14,891,762 in prize money. She won a singles bronze at the 2000 Olympics, and won her last title, Madrid over Chanda Rubin 6-4, 6-2, in 2002. She was inactive after 2003, and announced her retirement in 2008. An exemplary figure who has coped well with much adver­sity, including several injuries, she was not the player she might have been, yet is clearly, constantly upbeat, saying, “Tennis will never end for me because I love it so much. When my profes­sional career is over I will continue to play all my life.” Monica has put an indelible signature on the game with her style, per­sona and championships, a woman doubtless on a journey to the Hall of Fame.

MAJOR TITLES (9)—Australian singles, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996; French singles, 1990, 1991, 1992; US. singles, 1991, 1992.

FEDERATION CUP—1995-96, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002

SINGLES RECORD IN THE MAJORS— Australian (43-4), French (54-8), Wimbledon (30-9), U.S. (54-10).

Joachim “Pim-Pim” Johansson To Call It Quits

Joachim JohanssonYesterday, another injury-plagued player said goodbye to the ATP tour. Sweden Joachim Johansson announced he is retiring from the tour at age 25 due to lingering shoulder problems that have troubled him over the past few years. Although he can train pain-free for a few weeks and play one tournament at a time, he realized over the past month or so that he would be unable to return to the tour full-time and ultimately decided to call it quits after having had three surgeries; he has been told that having more surgeries will not fix the problem.

Johansson is probably best remembered for knocking out World #2 and defending champion Andy Roddick in the 2004 US Open quarterfinals in a 5-set night match. The following January, he played a memorable match with Andre Agassi, in which he served a record-tying 51 aces in a four-set loss. Then in February, Johansson made it into the top 10 for the first time, reaching a high of #9. He also won three singles titles, in Memphis in 2004 (which we remember for the ‘perfect’ 100% serving set he played against James Blake in the second round), and in Adelaide and Marseilles in 2005.

Looking back, Johansson’s last professional matches came in his home, Sweden, at the 2007 Stockholm Open last October. He won his first round match against Carlos Berlocq and was then forced to withdraw before his second-round match, only to never play professionally again. Of course, Johansson says he will always play tennis and that it will always be a part of his life. Word from the Swedish press is that he hopes to be a coach or trainer to youngsters in Sweden. Always nice to see a retired star give back to the sport, especially in a country like Sweden, which has a long and decorated tennis history but has experienced somewhat of a decline in recent years.

Known for his huge serve and forehand, Johansson played an aggressive style that was particularly potent indoors, where he won two of his three singles titles. He got injured when he was in the prime of his career and playing his best tennis, and many believed he would achieve great success and remain in the top 10 for a long time. Although none of us called him one of our favorite players, as fans of the sport, we will miss another player whose career is unfortunately forced to end prematurely due to serious injury and we wish him luck in whatever endeavors he pursues in the next chapter of his life.