Fame & Fortune: Monica Seles

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It didn’t take the world long to see the potential that Monica Seles would have on the tennis world. A young girl from Yugoslavia, Seles was ranked No. 1 in the world for girls under 18 when she was just 13. It was at this time she was invited to attend the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where her family soon moved so she could pursue her career. In 1990, Seles became the youngest woman to win the French Open and continued on her winning streak, earning eight Grand Slam titles before she turned 20.

In 1993, Seles was still dominating women’s tennis, until it all came screeching to a halt. While in a Hamburg, Germany, competing in a quarter-final match, she was brutally stabbed in the back by a deranged fan. Depression, headaches and nightmares followed this bizarre, terrifying event, and she lost her No. 1 ranking and many powerful sponsorships.

Still competitive, she appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2008 and became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. Her new book, “Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self,” is an honest look back on her highest highs and lowest lows. Here’s what she said when Bankrate caught up with her recently:

Bankrate: You have experienced big accomplishments in your own life. What do you consider your first major accomplishment?

Monica Seles: Probably when I won my first Grand Slam title, which was 1990’s French Open. I was 16 years old, and everyone kept telling me I was a great tennis player. But until I actually did it, I believed in myself that I could compete with the best players in the entire world.

Bankrate: You actually played tennis on concrete back in Yugoslavia. So did you come from humble beginnings?

Monica Seles: Well, I came from a normal background because both my parents worked. But we lived in a city where they had only four tennis courts, and at that time, tennis was a very elitist sport. You could only play in a white outfit, much like what goes on at Wimbledon. And they said no kids under age 10 were allowed on tennis courts. My dad played tennis, but unfortunately we were not allowed to play together. He felt it just wasn’t right and said, “My daughter wants to play tennis, so we’ll make this happen.” He put a string between two cars in the parking lot and that was our tennis court.

Bankrate: How did you envision your life changing as a result of mastering this sport?

Monica Seles: I turned professional at age 15. I kind of knew I was good at this sport, but to me, it was just still really fun. I never imagined it would be my career — how I would make a living and get all this fame. Probably when I was 16 or 17, I realized that even if I cut my hair, it was big news. I realized that this could be my career as long as I wanted it to be, and that’s why I’m so thankful for my parents who never put any pressure on me.

Bankrate: What has proven to be the greatest single personal challenge in your life?

Monica Seles: I think (being) in my own brain. It’s just been coming out and winning the battle against my fluctuating weight. Just figuring out a plan that worked for me and living life, living life more than worry about what I would, or wouldn’t, eat. A whole new life opened up for me after nine years of a lot of darkness and my emotions based upon that. I had to do that by myself and I’m very proud that I was able to come out on top. That was from 1994 to 2003.

Bankrate: Do you think your 30- to 35-pound weight gain was mostly due to stress, emotional problems, or what?

Monica Seles: I think a combination that you mentioned. When I would stress, I would turn to food. Food was my best friend; it was always there. If I was playing in Tokyo, at my home in Florida, or Australia, or wherever, there was always food and I could count on it. When I would go back to my hotel room, a lot of times I was lonely and I would just eat. And from the pressure of waking up every morning, of knowing I was going to win or lose the match. So I guess while I’m saying all this, it was my coping mechanism. It just showed that no matter how much you worked out, if you’re not careful about your food intake and keeping your stress levels down, it’s very hard to win that battle.

Bankrate: How do you think the 1993 attack on you altered your views on people?

Monica Seles: I think what happened to me has never happened in sports before, or since. It’s one of those things you wonder why me? As a 19 year-old kid struggling with my own mind, body and waning independence from my parents and suddenly to have such a brutal thing at a place where I really felt safe, which was my office, it definitely altered my outlook on a lot of things. I took time away from the sport for two and a half years when I didn’t play, and I wasn’t sure if I would go back to school or what I wanted to do. It came back to me finally though that at the end of the day, I just love tennis.

Bankrate: Where did you find the strength to return to tennis?

Monica Seles: It was the love for the sport; I simply missed it. If you let one person change your life like that, it’s not a good thing. I said, “You know what, this person was never in jail for stabbing me in front of 5,000 people in broad daylight.” So many injustices happened but this is what I love so I picked up the racket. I mean, when I was 6 or 7 years old in Yugoslavia, it was a hobby for me. … Sadly, that innocence in sports has been lost over the last 7 to 8 years.

Bankrate: In your book, “Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self,” which took you the longest to get a grip on?

Monica Seles: Great question (laughs). I think the mind and body are so together. So for me, those two were really huge because they are so connected yet so separate. If you watched one of my matches, you’d see a very strong-willed tennis player. I had a laser focus on the tennis ball, no matter what. Yet if you saw me at the dinner table, you would see the total opposite. I couldn’t figure out why I had such extremes in my personality.

Bankrate: Looking back, when you first turned pro, what was your first big splurge?

Monica Seles: My first big check was when I was 15 years old and beat Chris Evert in the finals of the Virginia Slims in April 1989. I remember that date because it was my first tournament win and I won $50,000. For me, I wanted a dog so badly because I always have loved animals, but my parents would always tell me I traveled too much. This time, I said, I’m 15 years old and I really want a dog, so I bought a little Yorkie named Astro. That dog traveled around the world with me and became my best friend.

Bankrate: What does financial security mean to you?

Monica Seles: It means I don’t have to stress about money. Growing up, I’d see my mom working full time, come back home and cook us lunch, and go back to work … She worked for 36 years of her life and raised my brother and me. My dad had to work extra jobs, but we were lucky because he could work internationally so that helped us out. Still, tennis is very expensive, so my parents had to give up on a lot of luxuries to support my brother and my careers. When I started making money, my father always told me to put some aside because you never know what’s going to happen. … After I gained all that weight, every single sponsor except one left me within two months. I had to again earn it back.