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Monica Seles Stabbing: Steffi Graf’s Legacy

Monica Seles

Monica Seles

On April 20th 1993, during a Quarter Final with Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, the World Number 1 of Ladies Tennis, Monica Seles was stabbed between the shoulders with a boning knife by Gunther Parche, a crazed fan of Seles’s main rival Steffi Graf.

The incident shocked the tennis world, as did the leniency shown to Parche who bizarrely did not end up in prison, instead receiving probation and a psychology treatment course as punishment.

The knife wound healed within a couple of weeks, but it would take a further two years before Seles was able to overcome the psychological impact of the attack and return to the sport.

It is now 20 years since Parche’s crazed attack, and in line with the 20th anniversary of the attack, there have been a numerous articles and commentaries reflecting back on the episode.

Many of those have queried what Monica Seles would have achieved if the attack had never taken place, reassessing her place in the game and the major tournaments she may have won.

The flip side is that much of the commentary has also focused on what Steffi Graf would or indeed wouldn’t have won, together with a reassessment of her open-era record slam count of 22 major titles.

Two particular quotes stood out. One attributed to Pam Shriver – “She [Seles] was dominating Steffi Graf, who, prior to Seles, dominated everyone else.” A second quote, regurgitated from back in 2001 courtesy of Sports Ilustrated’s Frank Deford, questioned, “Was Graf the best female player of all time? She wasn’t even the best in the heart of her career.

So how secure is Steffi Graf’s legacy?

Other commentators, bloggers, and fans have tried to analyse  Monica Seles’s career trajectory had the frenzied attack by Parche never occurred, thus sizing up the impact it would have made on the contents of the Graf trophy cabinet. So let’s take a look at the match-up between these two greats and analyze with a little more rigour, the major titles that Steffi Graf actually won during the course of her career.

Step 1: Breaking Down the Graf/Seles Head-to-Head

Let’s break it down and take a look at how Monica and Steffi fared in their individual head to head matchup.  Is Pam Shriver right? Was Seles the dominant player in this category?

Lifetime: Graf 10 v Seles 5
Before the stabbing: Graf 6 v Seles 4
After the stabbing: Graf 4 v Seles 1
During Seles years where she was year end #1 (91 & 92): Graf 3 v Seles 1
During Seles entire reign as World #1: (91,92, part 93):  Graf 3 v Seles 2
Matches in Majors prior to the stabbing: Graf 3 v Seles 3

Steffi Graf

Steffi Graf

Pam Shriver and the Urban Myth

However you analyse this match-up, Shriver’s analysis that Graf was being dominated by Seles is clearly inaccurate.

On the contrary, Graf had the edge in the Head to Head, before and after the stabbing, before and during Seles tenure as World Number 1 and over the course of their careers.

Monica Seles ascended to the top by dominating the rest of the field. No question. However, she did not dominate Steffi Graf.  There are similar parallels with the period where Roger Federer dominated the entire field but failed to dominate arch-rival Rafael Nadal.  In fact, Graf actually has a better winning percentage over Seles than Nadal has over Federer.

Inspecting the numbers exposes Pam Shriver’s take on the rivalry to little more than reaffirming an urban myth.

Step 2: The Steffi Graf Major Count

Steffi Graf finished with 22 majors, an open era record and second only to the great Australian Margaret Court when factoring in all eras. Monica finished her career with 9 major titles. In discussions online and offline a popular pastime among tennis fans and observers is to undertake some fictional re-assessment and revised slam counts for both players based on the What if… theory. Typically, these discussions can attract wild assessments – often revising Graf’s major count down significantly and awarding Monica hypothetical titles she never won on court.

So let’s take a look at each of Graf’s major successes and see if the count bears merit…

Steffi Graf had already won 11 grand slam titles before the stabbing including a golden grand slam (all 4 majors and the Olympic title) in 1988. She had also completed a career grand slam twice over (winning all four majors at least twice). These successes alone put her among the greatest players ever.

Banked: 11 Majors

So we are secure that at this stage, Graf already has 11 majors in the bank.

After the stabbing incident, she won an addititional 3 Wimbledon titles (1993, 1995 1996). I’d suggest these should be added to our bank without further question.  Seles was not a top grass court player and in her two grass court meetings with Graf she had been trounced 6-0, 6-1 and 6-2, 6-1. The latter drubbing occurred while Seles was ranked #1.

There is no relevant argument to be made in suggesting those titles would have been banked by Seles if the stabbing had never occurred.

Banked: 14 Majors

We now have a further 8 majors to dissect, so let’s continue with the least likely ones where a case to be made in favor of Monica Seles.

In my opinion, this begins with the 1999 French Open.

Graf faced off against Seles in the semi-final and prevailed 6-7 6-3 6-4. This was six years after the stabbing and a match Seles went into as not only favorite, but carrying a higher ranking than Graf. Steffi was playing out her last year on the tour and made history by becoming the first player in the open era to defeat the first, second, and third ranked players in the same Grand Slam tournament.   This one belongs to Graf who defeated her younger rival during her WTA swansong.

Banked: 15 Majors.

Steffi Graf

Steffi Graf

This leaves 7 majors on the list:

Four of these took place when Seles was out of the sport following the stabbing:
1993 French Open, 1993 US Open, 1994 Australian Open, 1995 French Open

Another three took place after Seles had returned to the sport.
1995 US Open, 1996 French Open, 1996 US Open

Looking first at the US Opens, it’s fair to say, Monica Seles was a superlative player on hardcourts, in particular on the slower hardcourt surfaces such as the Rebound Ace at the Australian Open. However, the faster the court got, the more it suited Steffi Graf.

During the 1995 and 1996 US Open Championships, Graf actually beat Seles, and this — compounded by the fact that during their career rivalry, the German never lost a match to Seles on faster hardcourts — makes it very difficult to lean toward the Serb.

Did the 1995 and 1996 US Opens reflect the real Monica Seles?

She ripped through the field as in her best years without dropping a single set in either tournament only to have to square off against her main rival Graf in both finals. She had won her previous US Opens in similar fashion, but without having to face Graf in final.

The judgement is that these US Opens stay with Graf. If Graf had not made those finals (as had been the case during Seles’s rise to prominence) then Monica would have won 3 majors in just over a year (including her Australian title) – not unlike her major  gathering rampages during 1991 and 1992.

The 1993 US Open also remains with Graf on the same basis. Monica never beat Steffi Graf at Flushing Meadows or on a fast hardcourt during their career – before or after the stabbing. There is no hard evidence to support Monica Seles beating Steffi Graf in a US Open Final.  Not enough at least to give them hypothetically to Seles.

Banked: 18 Majors

This leaves us with the 1993 French Open, 1994 Australian Open, 1995 French Open and the 1996 French Open.

Monica was #2 seed going into the 1996 French Open but suffered a surprise exit in the Quarter Finals. She also struggled throughout the earlier rounds. The background to the story was that she had suffered a shoulder injury in Tokyo shortly after winning the Australian Open. This severely hampered her preparations for Roland Garros.  Indeed, she only started playing tennis a week before the French Open began and there were concerns she’d not be be able to play at all. In a nutshell, she was both coming back from injury and rusty. Needless to say, this had nothing to do with the stabbing three years earlier.

Again, this is Steffi Graf’s title.

Banked: 19 Majors

This leaves us the final three tournaments –  The 1993 French Open, 1994 Australian Open and the 1995 French Open.

These, I would suggest are the only three titles that should really be up for discussion; tournaments where a genuinely justified case for Monica Seles could be made.

Personally I’m loathe to even consider hypothetically taking titles away from a great champion like Steffi Graf, particularly since they were won on court rather than via conversations on message boards, bars and commentary booths, but if I had to tip a wink to Monica Seles, it would be here.  So therein lies the question…

Banked: 19 Majors + ?   or 22 – ? 

Monica Seles Career Trajectory

Many commentators, analysts, fans make a dangerous assumption that Monica Seles would have continued her superb form for years thereafter.  This is freezing time and entering the realms of a parallel universe.  If John McEnroe had been stabbed in 1984, people would have given him a bunch of hypothetical titles thereafter.  Likewise, Nadal at the end of 2010.  The real winners would never have got their real kudos.  Mats Wilander is another prime example of a player who in 1988 won three majors in a single year.  He never won another.

Monica’s weight gain and future injuries are additional oversights. In her book, she acknowledged her biggest battle was with her own weight.  Another major event occurred in Monica’s life with her father and coach passing away to cancer.  Monica highlighted a spiraling depression and subsequent weight gain.  At one point she had put on 40 lbs.  This was another telling factor in her decline following the comeback.

Conclusion

Monica Seles’s stabbing at the hands of a crazed Graf fanatic robbed us of a great player at her best.  It robbed her of two prime years, and interrupted a rivalry that was going from strength to strength.  It  probably robbed her of some additional majors.

This piece has been written more in relation to the legacy of Steffi Graf.  Of course, Monica may have added to her silverware at Graf’s expense, but I think upon further analysis, the opportunities were far less than casually reported.

She probably would have also added additional titles from competitions where Graf wasn’t a factor.

In short, she would likely have won more… but it doesn’t take much away from Graf’s overall legacy.  Both were great players and well deserving of their places in the Hall of Fame.

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About Owen Gigg

Owen Gigg was one of the original co-founders of the Tennis Frontier and is an avid follower of the sport.
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