As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the US Open, we look back at the 50 champions who have left an indelible mark on this inimitable event.
Monica Seles hasn’t struck a tennis ball in tour-level competition in a decade-and-a-half, her last match a forgettable 6-4, 6-0 first-round loss to Nadia Petrova at Roland Garros, an event she thrice won between 1990 and 1992. It marked the only time the Yugoslav-born baseliner ever lost an opening-round match at a major.
It took another three years for Seles – a 2009 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee – to officially announce her retirement. But a decade later, her impact on the sport is still being felt. Her two-hands-off-both-wings, grunt-and-grind power game simply isn’t one to fade with time. Just ask all-time Slam queen Serena Williams. She may have spent her career chasing down Steffi Graf’s numbers, but it’s Seles that she reveres most.
“She was my favorite player,” said Williams. “When I passed Seles for number of wins in Grand Slam tournaments, I figured I achieved something important in my career. I grew up watching her on TV playing against the great players of that time, thinking it was incredible. To be at her level for me is unbelievable. I never thought one day I would manage to do that.”
April 30, 1993, serves as a dividing line in Seles’ career. One of the darkest days in tennis history, that’s when an unemployed lathe operator named Gunter Parche, an obsessed Graf fan, emerged from the crowd and stabbed the No. 1-ranked Seles in the back during a match in Hamburg. More than two years would pass before Seles returned to match play; two years of Seles’ prime erased from the record books. She won eight Slam titles before the incident; just one after it. But her achievements speak for themselves: 53 career singles titles; only player in the Open era to win her first six Grand Slam finals; youngest-ever winner of Roland Garros at 16; 178 weeks at No. 1 (sixth overall); bronze medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Seles, who was born in Novi Sad and introduced to the sport at the age of five by her father and coach, Karolj, was a Wimbledon title away from a calendar-year Slam in both 1991 and 1992. She proved unstoppable at the US Open, going back-to-back in Flushing Meadows with trophy-clinching victories over Martina Navratilova, 7-6, 6-1, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-3, 6-3. She returned to reach consecutive finals in 1995-96, with five quarterfinal finishes in her next six appearances.
We can only guess at the numbers Seles might have put up had her career not been disrupted by a crazed man. Regardless, her place in the upper echelons of the sport is secure. Asked to create a fictitious tennis cyborg, longtime journalist and broadcaster Joel Drucker said he would opt for Pete Sampras’ serve, Rafael Nadal’s forehand, Jimmy Connors’ backhand, John McEnroe’s volleys and Seles’ competitive demeanor.
“I was a normal person in some extraordinary circumstances,” reflected Seles upon reaching the Hall of Fame. “At 19, to get stabbed on a tennis court also was very unusual. Never happened before, never happened since. It totally changed the course of my tennis career. Coming back to tennis at 21 also was a big decision for me to do, then a year later losing my father. It was just a lot of highs and a lot of lows. But one thing that always kept me going really was that I loved the game.”
50 Fact: Seles won her first pro title at the age of 15 (1989), defeating Chris Evert in the Houston final.