Stalker sends volley of fear onto tennis' genteel courts


In the aftermath of the Monica Seles stabbing, officials are tightening security at tennis matches everywhere. And while that's fine, it obscures the main point.

The lesson of the Monica Seles attack is that no woman is entirely safe.

This is not really about tennis. And it's not even about security. It's about a crazed stalker who was obsessed by one woman tennis player and, in a fit of madness, stabbed that player's chief rival.

It's so crazy you can't believe it.

It's so crazy it scares you half to death.

And what's truly frightening is that something very much like it could happen at any time.

When Seles, the bubbly teen-ager and top-ranked woman's player, was stabbed the other day in Germany, your first impulse was to guess that the assault must be related to the Balkans and their peculiar tragedy.

Seles is an ethnic Hungarian born in what is now Serbia. As a high-profile figure, she has predictably been the target of many threats. If her attacker had been a revenge-driven Bosnian who stabbed Seles as political statement, that would have been one thing.

It would have been nuts, but it would have been almost logical. Let's just say we could absorb the illogic. You'd put it under the this-is-an-awful-world category and shake your head.

But the truth in the Seles case is worse. Much worse.

There's no logic here. And the inescapable conclusion is that if a woman can be stalked on a tennis court, where is anyone safe?

You've probably heard some of the details of the attack. The man who stabbed Seles was a Steffi Graf fan. Graf is the No. 2 women's player and Seles is No. 1. The attacker said that if he could injure Seles, the path would be made clear for Graf to re-establish herself as the top-ranked woman.

And so he comes out of the stands to lunge at Seles with the knife that missed her spinal cord by a matter of inches. He had been prepared to follow -- stalk -- Seles until he got his chance.

This is no isolated incident either.

A few years earlier, another Graf "fan" sliced his wrists in front of her. It was his way of saying he loved her.

And then there's the story of the New York tennis coach-turned-stalker. He became obsessed with a 17-year-old student. Sent her cards, flowers, gifts. When her parents fired him in light of his behavior, he began stalking her.

Eventually, he attempted to kidnap her. The girl's mother fought him off, and the man, a few days later, killed himself.

That's when the police found his cabin in upstate New York. He had sealed off all escape routes. He had installed banks of TV monitors. He had purchased surveillance equipment. And he had outfitted the place as a torture chamber for his young ex-student.

If this is the so-called genteel world of tennis, imagine what it's like everywhere else.

Maryland just joined the many states that have passed tough anti-stalking legislation. We've all heard these stories, particularly of scorned boyfriends and husbands who harass and threaten and sometimes kill. There was even the New York judge who threatened his former mistress and her child.

Will the legislation help? Certainly, it can't hurt. But where have we gotten to as a society that we finally need such laws?

It's a society where women are buying Mace and pepper spray and whistles and personal attack alarms in record numbers. With each incident, the fear factor grows. And with the fear factor comes the attendant loss of innocence.

In the case of Seles, that's a particular tragedy.

To spend any time with Monica Seles is to be enchanted. She is the ultimate teen-ager -- a blonde one day and a brunette the next. She's a Madonna fan and a Letterman fan. And she tends to talk in one long, run-on sentence, punctuated only by a string of you-knows. She's smart and enthusiastic.

She's a free spirit. Or was.

At a news conference Wednesday, Seles talked of the incident. Her left arm hung limp at her side. The wound was called superficial, and although muscle was torn, she will almost certainly recover completely. At least physically.

When can she expect to recover emotionally?

"A long time will pass," Seles said. Much too wisely, much too young.

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