The day Monica Seles met Nelson Mandela

It was 15 years ago today that Monica Seles became a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy. The tennis legend, winner of nine Grand Slam championships, describes it as “a very special day in my life”.
It was a special day for Laureus Sport for Good too, as Monica has been committed and passionate about her work to improve the lives of young people around the world ever since.
Monica recalls how it happened, back in 2005. 
“The Laureus World Sports Awards was the ‘it’ place to be. And, before becoming a Member, I got to attend once and I was just star struck. Seeing fellow athletes from all different sports at the height of their career was just, for me, an unreal experience. And when Chairman Edwin Moses called me to say that my fellow Academy Members accepted me to join, I just wish there was somebody filming me and hearing my screams of joy.”
Looking back over the last 15 years with Laureus, Monica highlights a moment in 2006 as one of the most defining in her life.
“I went to Johannesburg for a Laureus Academy Forum. We'd been in long meetings then out of the blue I learned that the Academy Members were going to meet Nelson Mandela.”
President Mandela was the first Patron of Laureus, and during the inaugural Awards Ceremony in 2000 he made a speech in which he said ‘Sport has the power to change the world.’ It sparked the creation of the Laureus Sport for Good movement which has improved the lives of more than six million young people to date.
Monica says: “I can't put it into words what he meant to me, even though until that moment I never met him, but what he stood for and just his gracefulness. The day I was meeting him, I did not know if he'd know who I am or anything. I was just in awe of his presence. 
“And when President Mandela told me to sit down next to him, and just really started talking to me about my career, my stabbing and my comeback, I had tears flying through my face, because I just couldn't believe that he followed my career.
“A few things that he told me I will always keep private, because it meant a lot to me how he felt about my situation. The words that he told me that day, forever have stayed with me and when I have a darker moment in my life I draw upon it, because what he has gone through, and the gracefulness with which he's able to handle it, is way beyond what I'm ever able to achieve. 
“So, for me, I will be forever thankful to Laureus for giving me that opportunity to meet President Mandela”.
The 69 Academy Members are among the greatest living sporting legends and Monica fitted in perfectly when she joined in 2005. She was the dominant player in women’s tennis in the early 1990s and became a tennis sensation in 1990 when she became the youngest ever winner of the French Open, at 16, beating Steffi Graf in straight sets. 
In her career she won the Australian Open four times, the French Open three times and the US Open twice.  She would have won even more, but in 1993 in Hamburg she was stabbed on court by a crazed fan and did not play again for over two years.
She says: “I'm very lucky to have had an amazing tennis career, really both in my junior days and in my professional days. As I tell young girls now that I mentor, it comes with a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, but also it's a lot of joy, because I always enjoyed playing tennis, so I was very lucky that I had very positive influences around me, like my dad, who was my coach too. 
“He never put that pressure on me of success or titles or anything like that, his priority was always making sure that I enjoyed playing tennis, and I truly, to this day, have a love relationship with tennis, I love the game, I love giving back, working with young girls, and really just helping them achieve their dreams like I was able to. 
“Now that I've been retired for quite a long time, a moment that will forever stand out is my 1990 French Open win, because that was the first Grand Slam tournament that I won as a 16-year-old. Until that moment, when you enter the pro tour, there are a lot of expectations, but deep inside you're essentially still a teenager and you're just trying to figure out ‘OK, am I really good at this’? 
“The other defining moment would definitely have to be the 1993 Australian Open, because up to that point, as a teenager, I was going through personal stuff, just figuring out what I wanted to do, being so young what you do is magnified, yet from your sponsors, everybody, you know, there's pressure to always perform, play tournaments, and I think that by January of ‘93 I had found the balance.
“That’s why for me it was even more difficult in ‘93, when I got stabbed, and my whole world collapsed. I had worked so hard internally and externally to find the balance, so it really threw me into what I call a vortex, at that moment. 
“And then coming out of it about two and a half years later, really the victory that I think will probably be the most special would have to be the Australian Open in 1996, because it was my first Grand Slam coming back after my stabbing, and it was the last Grand Slam that my dad really got to watch me in a way, being healthy and not going through treatment.”
As a firm believer in the power of Sport for Good, Monica has visited several of the more than 250 sports-based programmes around the world that Laureus supports. She particularly remembers one in New York City which she visited on the very day she was announced as an Academy Member.
“I went to the Bronx for the Fight Back project, and this is really teaching ladies through martial arts, and if anybody has watched my game over the years, with the grunting and the way I breathe, it's because I practised martial arts from a young age until now. So, for me, this project was serendipity in a weird way, that Laureus and I picked it as my first one.
“I was really just reiterating how much martial arts has helped in my life and how much it could help the participants in Fight Back. I hope I gave them some decent tips back then, which they could use in their life. Once again a very special day in my life.”
In addition to her work for Laureus Sport for Good, Monica has enjoyed several very special moments at the Laureus World Sports Awards.
“For me, the Laureus World Sports Awards will always be very special. When I learned that I had the amazing honour of presenting the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award to Roger Federer, and then the year after to Novak Djokovic, it was one of those moments where, again, I was screaming in my room. 
“They are both athletes I just admire so much, and what they have achieved on the tennis court and off the tennis court, is just fantastic. And to be able to be in that position where I can share just for a mini-second that Laureus World Sports Award with them just meant so much to me. 
“One of my regrets is that Laureus wasn't around when I was playing, because I would have loved to have been the Laureus Sportswoman of the Year.”
In terms of sport she thinks tennis has been enjoying a classic period with Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal all playing at the same time. She calls them the ‘greatest of the greatest’. 
“It’s absolutely amazing, they’re all going for who's going to be potentially the greatest male tennis player in the history. It’s hard to believe that this moment could ever be replicated, and all these amazing champions, that they have achieved already so much, but they still have that drive and willpower to go out there. 
“I always thought, between Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, [being the greatest] was anybody's game. I think it’s whoever is going to be able to stay healthier longer. They each three play such different styles of game, the way they approach the game. I think it's just great for young players to see that there's not one way to get to be a champion.
“The greatest of them all? I don't think any of us know. I mean, you can't say it's a coin toss up because all of them are working so hard for each Grand Slam title, and just trying to stay injury free. And, obviously what has been going on in the world it has not been easy in terms of training schedules, tournament schedules, preparations and mentally to handle it.
“Truly they're all three the greatest, because will it be one or two Grand Slams differentiating them. As a fellow player, to me, it won't make a difference, because I will view all three as the greatest, and Rod Laver and obviously Pete Sampras in there, as the greatest of the game.”
On the women’s side, Monica is a massive fan of Serena Williams, who has won five Laureus Awards in her spectacular career and is just one Grand Slam short of matching Margaret Court’s record 24 wins.
Monica says: “Serena is really the last player from my generation that I played, so, in a weird way I still have some connection. I think once she retires it will be a little harder for me to relate. 
“I've always admired Serena so much, I'd met Serena when she was probably ten and her work ethic, her determination, and just really her heart, always inspired me in so many ways. I know she always puts it that I inspired her, but she has inspired me just as much. 
“I'll never forget the day when I was No.1 in the world, and I was playing her in Chicago, and I think she was 17, her first tournament, and she creamed me. 
“I remember that evening, going back to my hotel and just calling my agent, and saying ‘my days are numbered’. As a fellow player I could sense that, even at such a young age that she was then. And  obviously the next year she wins her first Grand Slam. 
“As we all learned, and as I played against her many times, you never count Serena out. Physically I think she's getting in better and better shape. And look at what she has been able to do, win the Australian Open become a mum and to want to come back, and put in the training, the hard work, while raising her daughter, and to go out there and compete and put herself on the line.
“She has come so close over the past years and she just hasn't been able to clinch it. I also realise the pressure of that on her, I can't even imagine what that is, but as I said earlier, never count Serena out.”

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