Monica Seles: Triumph of Love

UPDATED: August 25, 2011
PUBLISHED: August 25, 2011

As a teenager, Monica Seles won some historic matches on the tennis court, dominating opponents and filling a room with trophies. Her greatest win, though, came years later.

Born in Yugoslavia in 1973, amid Cold War tensions and communist supply shortages, she started playing tennis with her father at the age of 5 “for a little exercise.” She quickly took to the sport. By 11, she was an internationally recognized phenom, and her family moved to the United States so she could develop her potential and grow her career. In 1990, at the age of 16, she became the youngest person ever to win the French Open.

Three years later, she was the No. 1 player in the world and reigning champ of the French Open, U.S. Open and Australian Open, and it appeared the opportunities were limitless for the talkative brunette. Then, just like that, everything changed.

Seles was competing in a tournament in Germany, when a spectator raced up behind her during a rest break and plunged a knife into her back. The man later admitted he was obsessed with Steffi Graf and wanted to injure Seles so Graf could regain the world’s No. 1 ranking.

“It was so hard to imagine,” Seles tells SUCCESS. “No one had ever believed something like that could happen. That moment changed so much for sports… and it changed me, too.”

The bizarre incident took Seles out of tennis for more than two years because of its physical and mental toll. When she finally returned in 1995, she quickly rose to the top again, winning the Canadian Open, her first tournament back on the circuit. But the next few years brought more heartbreak as her father and longtime coach was diagnosed with cancer and died.

The media praised Seles for handling these tragedies with grace and professionalism, but privately, she was facing a serious personal struggle.

A Private Battle

By the late 1990s, the face of women’s tennis was, quite literally changing—and Seles was feeling the pressure.

“In my business, in tennis, the girls were getting prettier,” she says. “There was so much more emphasis on how you looked, not just how you played tennis. It may seem hard to believe, but sponsors started mentioning it as we were negotiating deals. I was burning inside because I was never one of those tall, slender women. I was always, as some people said trying to be nice, ‘thicker’ than other girls.”

Suddenly, there was a new push to be both cover girl and monster on the court. With the likes of the fashion-forward Williams sisters storming the court with their unstoppable swings, and fresh-faced bombshell Anna Kournikova, who could also lob bombs over the net—sponsors were clamoring for a whole new package.

Seles first felt the market shift as she prepared to come back after the stabbing. She’d always enjoyed food, eating whatever she liked, and relied on her all-day practice sessions to burn off the calories and keep her body in check. But she’d put on weight in her recovery. Though she was just as skilled with a racquet upon her return, she didn’t have as sleek a look as before. She worked at slimming down her profile, only to find the weight creeping back no matter how active she was.

Things only got worse after she was sidelined by a foot injury in 2003. “I couldn’t walk and couldn’t play tennis,” she recalls thinking. “I was so worried, so panicked. I mean, I was 35 pounds overweight at that point and I thought, ‘I can’t work out five to six hours per day! Now I’m going to be really overweight!’ ”

Getting a Grip

Seles felt completely out of control as she realized that in her depression over the stabbing and her grief over her father’s passing, she’d allowed her appetite to rule her emotions.

“The hardest part, I think, for anyone who has battled weight or food addiction, is the emotional/mental side,” she says. “I had to realize why I was eating, because in my case… there was something eating me inside. For me, there were just a lot of emotional issues, how I dealt with stress, sadness—I had to work on that.”

In April 2010, she released a book recounting that struggle, titled Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self. In it, she explains how she finally came to terms with the pressures she felt from her sponsors as well as her own desire for health and fitness.

For Seles, it all boils down to a sense of personal responsibility and empowerment. “It was the mind/body connection that I finally got, because in the beginning, I always looked to other people. I always said, ‘Oh, if I just go on this diet, if I just read this book, if I just hire this trainer.’ And I always gave that power to someone else. But then I realized that that power really lay within me and that I had to make the decision for myself, not for my family or my career. This one thing had to be done for me.”

She isn’t unrealistic about the challenges of healthy living, though. “To live life without pasta or bread? It’s just not worth it,” she jokes. “I had to find a way to incorporate it, and that’s when I started winning the battle against the insanity.”

Looking Inside for Answers

Now, Seles takes a more thoughtful approach to food, with moderation as the key. She will allow herself a cookie or two, but if she wants a third? “Then I ask myself, ‘Why do you want more?’ ”She also walks three times a week, rain or shine, for at least an hour at a stretch.

“You have to find what works for you. For me, just being on a 1,200- calorie restricted diet didn’t do it.

I love food and I enjoy eating. If I didn’t, I probably never would have weighed that much because I definitely covered the exercise part with five to six hours per day of playing tennis. So that just goes to show that exercise or diet alone won’t do it. There has to be a balance. And it can be a slower way of losing weight, but it has to be a life-choice, a lifestyle.”

It’s a challenge, she admits, whether you’re a famous athlete or not; because even if you don’t have sponsors getting after you for a more chic image, you’ll still get that message from magazine covers and movie star photos. It’s a tricky line to walk between being fit for the sake of health and taking it too far. “At some point, you have to say, ‘I am going to be the best of me’ and not conform to somebody else’s body image,” Seles stresses. “It’s not about the scale. Each of us has a set weight. For me to be a size 2, I’d have to starve myself.”

Now, with her weight woes behind her, a fresh outlook on fitness, and a renewed self-confidence, Seles has found the energy to dedicate her time to a new set of issues: causes that help protect children and animals, the two groups closest to her heart.

She is also looking forward to spreading the word about winning the body-image war. She travels around the country, speaking to mostly female audiences about the challenges they all face.

Seles urges women, “You can win this big battle. Because that’s how I look at it—as a bigger battle than any tennis match I faced. And for a very long time, I didn’t think I’d ever win it. It’s nice to know, looking back now, it’s been some years since I won that battle.”