“If you come to Germany, you’re next.” The message was clear for Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 24 summers ago. A crazed Steffi Graf fan, Gunter Parche had been let off lightly by authorities after stabbing Monica Seles during a match at Hamburg in 1993. Free, the tool maker had proceeded to threaten the Spaniard, she revealed on Thursday. “I’m next, means he wants to take me out,” she recalled talking to the Indian Express during an Idea Exchange in the city as part of Rendezvous Roland-Garros Masters talent hunt programme.
“That was the most shocking thing that I ever saw. Nobody expected something like that to happen in tennis. You felt that in the moment, it could be you,” she revealed about a torrid time of life for the top women on the circuit. Yet the fateful stabbing on April 30, 1993 wasn’t the first time Sanchez-Vicario, World No.3 then, had heard of Parche. She had long been aware of his violent capabilities.
“I knew it because I had some letters from him before,” she revealed. “It could happen to any tennis player, because there was a fan who didn’t want her (Graf) to lose the No.1 spot. And it happened to Monica,” she added. Sanchez-Vicario, along with Seles had become two audacious figures in the world of women’s tennis in the late 1980s, given that they were constantly challenging and overcoming the might of Graf. That fact itself drew the wrath of Parche, who was enraged that Seles was the top seed at the Hamburg event, as the world No.1 — where Sanchez-Vicario was also competing in the tournament. And so at the Rothenbaum Stadium, Parche jumped onto the clay court and stabbed the Yugoslav in the back with a 23 centremetre knife during a change-over. “Monica and I were the ones who could beat her (Graf), so it could have been me,” she recalls, describing the dread she felt. “It was a shock for me because I was thinking, next one was going to be me because he wants to take out anyone who can stop Graf from being no.1.”
The stabbing proved to be a distressing ordeal for Seles, who was just 19 at the time but already the winner of eight Grand Slam titles. She took a few weeks to heal from the injury, but returned as a pale shadow of herself, managing to win only the 1996 Australian Open title before retiring in 2008. She also never returned to Germany for a single tournament.
Sanchez-Vicario though, did return to the country, despite the repeated threats. The 45-year-old did however, make it a point to employ extra security measures for every trip. “It was the most important tournament so I had to go and play. But I had to have four bodyguards everywhere I played because they were afraid that this guy would show up,” she says.
“I knew this guy was around. So when I was playing, I would try and concentrate and not think about it. Fortunately nothing happened to me. But this guy always tried. I knew he tried different things but he could never do it (get to me).” The fear always remained, but there was never a question about cutting short her career. “Now you’re old enough to understand that, but not when you’re a young teenager. For you, in your mind it’s not easy to deal with that. But you’re new and you’re learning, you’re getting mature faster and you have to understand. But what’re you going to do? Stop playing tennis? No. It was my career,” she said. She turned visibly ultra-cautious thereafter. “You needed to have four eyes, not two. Because this guy (Parche) was coming from somewhere. So it wasn’t easy,” she recalled.
“So imagine, you already have pressure when you play, but you have to compete when there is somebody there who wants to take you out. It cannot be on your mind,” she remembers. The Spaniard had already won the 1989 French Open title beating Graf. She’d go on to meet the German in six more finals of majors, winning only the US Open title in 1994. In all, the Barcelona native would go on to forge a successful career, claiming 14 Grand Slams — four singles, six women’s doubles, and four mixed doubles. But the events of Hamburg1993 — Citizen Cup where she made the finals with Graf, still comes to mind. “It could happen anywhere, but I never thought it would happen in that tournament to Monica. And then him saying ‘you’re next.’”