Peripherally watching the NBA playoffs this year, PDXWD has often thought about Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, now retired and relegated to the sideline (read: couch), from where they are forced to watch Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, their on-court successors and the league's two brightest stars. What must it be like, we wonder, for once-infallible athletes, now barely into middle age but ousted, to have to watch a new generation take over the sport they once dominated?
Contemplating your own athletic obsolescence is hardly an enviable situation, megastar or not. Add in early and unmatched success, an ongoing and debilitating battle with food, a freak and psychologically-paralyzing occurrence, and an attempted comeback, and you have a glimpse of the story Monica Seles tells in her new book, Getting A Grip: On My Mind, My Body, My Self.
Tennis prodigy of the 1990s, Seles won the French Open at 16 (the youngest champ ever), and has now, some 20 years later, written this autobiography to coincide with her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer. That honor is complicated, of course, by the fact that in 1993, when Seles was at the top of the ranks, a deranged fan stabbed her in the back during a match in Germany. After the bizarre incident, Seles was out for two years, and never recovered enough emotionally to contend again. (And the assailant never served jail time.) “It’s a horrible thing that happened in my life,” Seles writes in the book, “and it irrevocably changed the course of my career and inflicted serious damage to my psyche. A split second of horror fundamentally changed me as a person.”
Still, Seles said in an email recently to PDXWD, “as a girl growing up in the former-Yugoslavia I never imagined I would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. It is a dream come true. Knowing that I will be a Hall of Famer is a great honor and a great way to celebrate my tennis career.” Asked if she studied any other athletes’ books or autobiographies before writing her own, Seles professed to having read athletes’ and non-athletes’ alike, including the work of Howard Hughes, Coco Chanel, Dara Torres, and Julie Krone. An autobiography of her own, she explained in her email, would help “spread the message to people out there who were struggling with their weight, like I did for nine years, and take control of it and win that battle in life.”
Last year, Seles agreed to appear on the sixth season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” an episode she details in her book. She was the first female celebrity contestant eliminated. “While staying out of the public eye" since officially retiring, she writes, "I’d been able to rebuild and fortify my core and I decided to put it to the ultimate test: ballroom dancing in front of millions of people. If I was going to test my newfound inner strength, what better way to do it than by risking total and complete public humiliation on reality television?” True enough.
After following Seles through these travails outlined in Getting A Grip, you begin to gain a fuller if sadder understanding of the pressures society puts on professional athletes, a fragile situation indeed considering the heaps of pressure athletes already load upon themselves. “Who was I without tennis?” Seles asks about halfway through her book, and the question reverberates because the answer is so simple: just a normal person. Unlike you and me, though, Seles — along with the Jordans and Birds of our world (and the Roman gladiators before them) — had to age, compete, struggle, and remake herself in front of a passionate audience that was always watching.