Monica Seles on Surge of Attention After First French Open Win: ‘If I Cut My Hair, That Would Make News’

by Stacy Lambe 10:55 AM PDT, May 19, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

Only 16 years old when she won her first Grand Slam (the French Open), Monica Seles became the youngest tennis player to earn a title in 1990. It would kick-start a successful career that included seven Grand Slam titles in two years, making Seles the No. 1 female player in the world by the time she won her eighth at the Australian Open in January 1993.

“I mean, just being in Paris, winning the title, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I didn’t realize how much my life would change,” Seles tells ET, reflecting on her first Grand Slam title win ahead of the 2016 French Open, which starts on May 22. “A month later, if I cut my hair, that would make news.” She was far more “innocent” at that time, she says.

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Then, on April 30, 1993 during a quarterfinal match in Hamburg, Germany, a deranged fan with a boning knife ran out onto the court between games and stabbed Seles in the back.

“I try to live in positiveness, so obviously for me, I try to not revisit one of the toughest moments in my life,” she says of her attack, which over 20 years later was back in the news after a young fan ran onto the basketball court to hug New York Knicks player Carmelo Anthony. Following the incident, the arena security was forced to watch a video of Seles.

Monica Seles shields herself from the rain with the trophy after defeating Steffi Graf in the final of the 1990 French Open. Photo: Getty Images

While she quickly recovered, the attack effectively stalled Seles’ career, which was later plagued by injuries, an eating disorder, and the death of her father and coach, Karoly Seles. After the stabbing, the tennis star took two years off, during which time she also battled with binge eating disorder -- something that she’s faced most of her career. Seles eventually made a brief return to the sport two years later, adding one more Grand Slam title, the Australian Open, to her collection in 1996.

“My last Grand Slam title was totally different,” Seles says. “After the stabbing, to come back and know that to a certain degree I could still play at that level, it was special.”

Though, she eventually lost ground on the competition, unable to keep up with Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Justine Henin, all of whom were quickly coming up the ranks. Seles' last appearance at a Grand Slam final was in 1998 at the French Open, just days after her father died.

“I was very close to my dad, not only was he my coach, but really my best friend,” Seles says.

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She played her last match during the 2003 French Open before officially retiring in 2008. “It was a wonderful journey -- I love the game of tennis -- but I needed a break from it,” she says. “I needed to move onto other journeys, other passions.” After tennis, Seles first appeared on Dancing With the Stars, which saw her eliminated early in the competition.

“It was just the polar opposite of anything I’ve ever done,” Seles says, finally agreeing to do the show after being courted by ABC for multiple years. “It was a great experience. I realized that I had zero rhythm and all that stuff, but it was still a lot of fun.”

Now, she’s focused on sharing her personal journey with binge eating disorder, which she first documented in her biography, Getting a Grip: On My Life, My Body, My Self, to raise awareness for mental health and eating disorders. “It's very hard to talk about your own struggles, but then I thought, ‘Boy, I can help a lot of adults out there so they don't feel alone,’” Seles says, explaining why she teamed up with Shire for Mental Health Month.

“I was very lucky that I liked my sport because I wasn't pushed by my parents or anything like that, and now it has given me a platform to talk about binge eating disorder and really help people out there who might be suffering from it,” Seles adds. 

--Additional reporting from Kristen MacDonald