Monica Seles, who officially announced her retirement from tennis last week, had a special relationship with the Canadian Open. She won it four years running, 1995 to 1998. The first, which occurred with the eyes of the sports world on Toronto, was when she returned after almost 28 months away after her stabbing during a match in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993.
"It was amazing," recalled Jane Wynne, the Canadian Open assistant tournament director who became the tournament director a year later. "The ticket sales and the extra stands that had to be put up. The media attention was phenomenal. There were three or four times as many media people as normal."
Seles brought her own security, four guards, as Wynne recalls.
"I can't remember all the restrictions her security people put on her," Wynne said, "but she always stopped for a Starbucks on her way up to the tennis from downtown. I think she was frightened, but she really enjoyed herself."
The 1995 Canadian Open was a start-to-finish Seles lovefest as she defeated Kimberly Po 6-0, 6-3, Nathalie Tauziat 6-2, 6-2, Anke Huber 6-3, 6-2, Gabriela Sabatini 6-1, 6-0, and Amanda Coetzer 6-0, 6-1.
Seles had been stabbed by a crazed Steffi Graf fan, Gunther Parche, and that week Coetzer ended any chance of a Graf-Seles final by upsetting the German in her opening match on a wretchedly hot day, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6).
Three weeks later in the U.S. Open final, Graf beat Seles 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3 in a match that portended the second phase of Seles's career.
Her serve was better after the stabbing, but she was also heavier and that took something away from her deadly two-fisted (on both sides) groundstrokes and her movement. She won only one more Grand Slam, the 1996 Australian Open.
She was 19 when she was stabbed, and she had already won eight Grand Slam tournaments, including seven of the previous eight she entered.
Graf, 4½ years older, won 11 Grand Slam titles before the stabbing and 11 more in the years that followed.
The two had seemed destined for a Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova type of rivalry, but fate intervened.
Their most thrilling match was the epic 1992 French Open final. It was the supreme athleticism of Graf against the more plodding Seles and her almost manic intensity. On an unforgettable Parisian afternoon, Seles prevailed 6-2, 3-6, 10-8.
In hindsight, her career is a series of "what ifs?"
Graf wound up with 22 Grand Slam titles to Seles's nine. But Seles was clearly the ascendant player before the stabbing and those numbers could have been drastically different if not for Parche.
There is also the matter of the almost 28 months that reclusive Seles stayed away from tennis. She was traumatized by the deep knife wound near her shoulder blade and dangerously close to her spine, as well as the fact that unstable Parche had received only a two-year suspended sentence after his initial six months in jail.
Had she returned sooner, she might have more easily recaptured her former dominating form.
In 1998, there was more sadness for Seles when her father and coach, Karolj, died just weeks before the French Open. A fairy-tale tribute to him seemed possible when she upset defending Roland Garros champion Martina Hingis in the semi-finals. But in the final, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario simply retrieved one more ball too many times, blunting the Seles attack to win 7-6 (5), 0-6, 6-2.
Today, a slimmed-down Seles, 34, looks great and seems happy. Unfortunately, the chronic foot problems that have kept her off the tour for almost five years have led her to give up any hope of another comeback.
The first comeback, in Toronto, remains etched in many minds. Stacey Allaster, formerly with Tennis Canada and now the president of the WTA Tour, recalls that "seeing Monica walk down those stairs [onto centre court]in 1995 and seeing her dad cry when she won the tournament are at the top of my favourite memories in tennis."