A great triumph of spirit

THE world of sport is a world that is rich in metaphors. A great tragedy is often a goal conceded a few seconds before the final whistle or a dropped catch in the 49th over of a one-day international.

THE world of sport is a world that is rich in metaphors. A great tragedy is often a goal conceded a few seconds before the final whistle or a dropped catch in the 49th over of a one-day international.

A terrible disaster is often nothing more than a missed putt on the 18th green of the Augusta National or a 13-second pit stop in a Formula One race.

In truth, there is nothing tragic about such tragedies and the tragedy itself is a sort of a metaphor. There is nothing terrible, too, about such disasters.

It is in this world that, on the odd occasion, we come face to face with real tragedies, we struggle to deal with events that are at once terrible and shocking. Death, life threatening injuries, stabbing...

Ah, stabbing. Who can ever forget the back stab that practically brought an end to one of the greatest chapters in the history of women's tennis?

Who can forget April 30, 1993, the day Gunther Parche plunged a meat cleaving knife in Monica Seles's back as she sat during a changeover in the Hamburg WTA tournament?

As tragedies go, the world of sport has seen nothing quite like this before, or after. Not only did it change the course of the history of women's tennis but also it opened our eyes to the sort of dangers that nobody might have foreseen.

Yes, worse things have happened in the sporting arena. People have actually lost their lives while performing. Formula One racing has seen more death that any other sport.

In fact, exactly a year after the Seles stabbing, the greatest driver of all time, Aryton Senna, died following a crash on the Imola circuit in Italy.

Boxing too has had its share of tragedies and several so-called "extreme'' sports have cost practitioners their lives. But the big difference is, when you choose to become a Formula One driver or a boxer or an addict of some sort of extreme sport, you do so with the knowledge that you are getting into a dangerous business.

But you don't expect parents of girls stepping out to play a game of tennis to caution their wards with the words: "Hey, watch your back during changeovers!'' Maybe they do, after April 30, 1993.

That dark day changed the course of the history of the women's game. Seles, playing some of the most authoritative tennis any woman has ever played, had won eight Grand Slam titles while still in her teens, including the Australian and the French three times in a row and the U.S. title twice in two years.

No woman had dominated the great Steffi Graf as completely as did Seles whose only weak moments came at Wimbledon where Graf's experience and skills prevailed.

In the event, it appeared that Seles had the world at her feet and would go on to rewrite all the records in the women's game.

Then came the madman with the knife, seeking to put an end to Seles's dominance and allow his idol Graf a second innings as a world beater. And he accomplished just what he wanted and got away with a two year "suspended'' sentence on the grounds of mental imbalance!

The physical wound healed in time. But, for Seles, life had changed once and for all. The mental scars left by that incident never really healed. In an exclusive interview to Tennis magazine's Peter Bodo (see page 12) Seles says she does not want to revisit Hamburg.

Ten years is a long time and time heals many a wound. But the few years immediately after the stabbing were years of agony for Seles.

There was a time when she considered quitting but finally decided to resume her career.

She came back strongly too, making the U.S. Open final in 1995 and winning her fourth Australian Open in January 1996. But that turned out to be a false dawn. For the great lady never again scaled the heights in her career.

How many Grand Slam titles would Seles have won if Parche had not intervened in her life and career?

She was only 19 when the stabbing happened and even if she had managed to remain at the helm for five or six years after that, until age 25, she might have won at least 20 Grand Slam titles, perhaps a lot more.

On the other hand, there is no doubt at all that Steffi Graf would not have won anywhere near the 22 that she did if the Seles tragedy had not taken place.

Then again, that's life; that's sport. Ten years on, the great lady is still around and still in love with her sport, competing hard and offering us great moments of watching pleasure. And this is as good a moment as any to salute the Seles spirit.