The people of Toronto, where Seles came to play in her first tennis tournament since she was stabbed 28 months ago, were more than friendly. They were in love. At the center court of the National Tennis Centre on Aug. 15, the standing-room crowd of more than 10,000 fans clapped and screamed "Monica!" for so long, it seemed they might be fined for delay of play. And Seles, 21, did not disappoint. Not only did she win the Canadian Open, she wielded her racket like a scythe, losing just 14 games—and no sets—in five matches.
Despite Seles's efficiency at eliminating opponents, the other players gave her an enthusiastic welcome. "Monica's coming back is good for tennis, but it's also good for Monica," says another top player, Mary Pierce. "It means she's happy, and she's mentally and physically well. That's important." To veteran observers, Seles's triumphant return—just before the U.S. Open, which starts this week—helped lift the gloom that has been hovering over the sport since her departure. "She was the greatest player in the game when she left," says NBC commentator Bud Collins. "It's marvelous having her back. I think she's like a spring rain."
But for Seles, who won $7.4 million by the time she was 19, a hard rain had to fall before she could bring herself to perform in public again—and risk the possibility that someone else might try to hurt her. On April 30,1993, Günter Parche, a 38-year-old German lathe operator and a professed fan of Seles's rival Steffi Graf, stuck a kitchen knife half an inch into Seles's back as she sat in a chair during a changeover at the Citizen Cup in Hamburg, Germany. That attack, for which Parche was given a two years' suspended sentence, had a traumatic effect on Seles. "I still cannot say, 'Okay, now I'm just going to think about the ball and not have all these feelings and thoughts going,' " she admits. "I have these flashbacks. They start coming back, and I say, 'No, no, no—you can't come back. Just focus, focus, focus.' "
Indeed, Seles found herself fending off an attack of nerves at the start of her first match in Toronto, against the 133rd-ranked Kimberly Po. "I couldn't feel my legs," she says. "But the worst was hitting overheads. I missed four or five into the net, and I just felt the sky was moving. I said, 'I can't do this.' Then I said, 'You have to calm down, because there is a match to be played here tonight.' "
Seles did calm down. She began cautiously, but was soon pounding the ball with her old two-handed power. After beating Po, she breezed past four more opponents, concluding with Amanda Coetzer, whom Seles demolished, 6-0, 6-1 in the finals. After it was all over, Seles, who was born in Yugoslavia but moved to the U.S. in 1986 and became a citizen last year, allowed herself a moment of reflection. "The whole week has been very amazing to me," she says. "A lot of mornings I woke up and said, 'Wow! It's really happening.' After those dark days and dark thoughts, just to be out there playing was great. I had to go through a lot of stuff to get my mind to be where I wanted it to be."
After the stabbing, Seles concentrated on healing her body. The wound restricted mobility in her left shoulder, and she wasn't able to hit a ball for months. But while undergoing physical therapy at the Steadman-Hawkins clinic in Vail, Colo., for six months, she began working out with track coach Bob Kersee and started talking about rejoining the tour. Then, during the Christmas holidays in Sarasota, Fla.—where Monica lives with her parents, Karoly, 62, and Ester, 55, and her brother Zoltan, 30—Seles took a break from rehab and had time to think. Suddenly, she says, "I had to deal with emotions I didn't even know existed in my mind." The slightest things set her off. A fan would come up to her at a restaurant and say, "We miss you," and she would run to the bathroom in tears. When she was alone at night, she would replay the attack in her dreams and wake up shivering with fear.
In February 1994, Karoly insisted that Monica get help. Soon afterward she began traveling to Reno almost every week to see sports psychologist Dr. Jerry Russell May, who treated her for posttraumatic stress disorder. "I worked so hard with Dr. May for a long period," she says. Working with him, Seles discovered that Parche had wounded her not merely physically, he had damaged her spirit as well. He had violated her in the one place she felt safe—the tennis court. Before the attack, she says, "my theory was that when I stepped on a court, I could forget about every problem I had outside. And suddenly that was taken away from me. I could no longer go out in front of 10,000 people or even sign a simple autograph."
Seles turned to Mark McCormack, the powerful head of International Management Group, which handles her career, and his wife, tennis pro Betsy Nagelsen. Nagelsen, 38, became her surrogate big sister. They spent time waterskiing and tubing and shopping the malls together in Orlando. "It was a very non-tennis-oriented friendship," says McCormack, 64. "It made her look forward to her life."
During her long recovery, Seles began studying French and the guitar. She played tennis a few times, just for fun, with friendly rival Martina Navratilova. Her parents didn't push her to play again. Karoly subscribes to a laissez-faire philosophy of parenting. "For me it's not important that Monica wins this tournament," he said at the Canadian Open. "It's that Monica comes back and Monica smiles."
McCormack was a little less patient. This past March he finally asked her to make up her mind. "I went to a meeting with Mark," says Seles, "and he was asking me questions like, 'What do you see in your future?' And I said, 'Well, I love to play tennis. That's what I wanted to do all my life.' He said, 'Why don't you try it again?' And I said, 'Okay' " Seles remembers thinking, after they settled on her comeback tournament, "Wow! What did I get myself into?"
For Seles the next step now is the U.S. Open in New York City, and this time she may be tested more severely by Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, both of whom were knocked out early in Toronto. Moreover, Seles is concerned about tendinitis in her left knee, which has kept her from running and caused her to gain a few pounds. But as long as she is playing well, she says, she isn't going to worry about her figure.
Tennis, though, is just one side of this delightfully giddy ingenue, who is likely to break out laughing at any moment—just as she did during a press conference in Toronto, when she took a swig of a new electrolyte-replacement drink and made the face of a 5-year-old forced to take some very nasty medicine. "Oh, that tastes so terrible!" she said, erupting in giggles.
Now more than ever, Seles is determined to hold on to her lightness of being. "Because," she says, "for a long time after the stabbing, everything was so serious—just dark colors and hard decisions. I said to myself, 'Monica, you can't let this experience take away the kid side of you, because that's what life is about.' "
DON SIDER in Toronto and Sarasota