10. Gerulaitis gassed to death, Long Island, NY, USA, 1994. Former World #3 Vitas Gerulaitis always lived life to the edge. Known for his liking of various indulgences, it has been reported he came close to death several times before he finally departed this world. But it wasn’t alcohol or cocaine that killed him. On Sept 17, he was holding a coaching clinic in Long Island, when he decided to take an afternoon nap. He never woke up, fatally poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty heater.
9. Borg’s alleged suicide attempt, Milan, Italy, 1989. For years Swedish player Bjork Borg was known as the cool man of tennis. So composed and dispassionate was he on court that the press nicknamed him “Ice Borg”. Imagine the shock in 1989 when he was rushed to hospital in Milan after what newspaper described as an attempt to take his life. His publicist’s tried to play down the affair, claiming that the 5 times Wimby champ was suffering from food poisoning. But hospital doctors revealed they’d found 60 sleeping pills in his stomach. The truth was never discovered.
8. Korda tests positive, London, England, 1998. When the Czech Republic’s Aussie Open champ, Petr Korda, tested positive for Nandrolone, his subsequent ban, fine and lengthy appeal process sent shockwaves throughout the tennis world. The main problem was that no one really knew what was going on. In July Korda was tested after his QF defeat at Wimby by Henman. After his samples proved to contain Nandrolone, his prize money and ranking points from Wimby were withdrawn. Then followed a confusing series of court decisions and appeals that eventually led to a playing ban and an ostracism of Korda by his fellow players. He still maintains his innocence.
7. Henman kicked out of Wimby, England, 1995. Never in the 117 years of the Championships at Wimby had a player suffered the ignominy of being disqualified. So when it proved to be a British player who stained the record, the shock was all the more colossal. During a doubles match with Jeremy Bates in the inauspicious setting of Court 14, Henman lost a crucial point in the 4th set TB. Frustrated, he picked up the ball and, in anger, whacked it down the court. It proved to be the last ball he ever hit that year at Wimby, for, to his horror it connected hard and fast with the ear of 16 yrs old ball girl Caroline Hall who was running across the court at the very same instant. Caroline hit the deck, the umpire immediately disqualified Henman and Bates, the future British #1 was forced to slink off court with his tail between his legs and a 2000 fine looming.
Tim, ever the gentleman, made a public apology the next day of the poor ball girl and tried to make up for his terrible blunder with a gift of flowers. Interestingly, Wimby disqualifications proved to be just like buses. You wait for 117 years and then suddenly 3 come along at once. Indeed four days after Henman’s gaffe, Jeff Tarango was booted out of the All England Club as was Murphy Jensen 2 days after that.
6. Career cut short in riding accident, San Diego, USA, 1954. At the age of 19 Maureen Connolly had already achieved more in tennis than most top players do in a lifetime. With 3 US National, 3 Wimby, 1 Aussie Open and 3 French titles to her name, she was already one of the sport’s greatest, and she was still only a teenager. ‘Little Mo’ as she was known, recalled her tragic horse-riding accident that cut short her career at 19: “The driver swerved the truck towards me. As he started to thunder by, my horse wheeled. I remember sharp stinging pain and I fell. I rolled up my trouser leg and saw my leg slashed to the bone, the flesh lying open”. This meant the end of her tennis. Even more tragically, she died of cancer at the age of 34.
5. Line judge dies on court, Flushing Meadows, NY, USA, 1983. Future Swedish great Stefan Edberg was playing the Aussie Simon Youl in the final of the USO boys’ event. Suddenly, out of the blue, one of the line judges, 60 yrs old Dick Wertheimer, received a direct hit from a tennis ball in the nether regions. He immediately fell off his chair, cracked his skull on one of the Flushing Meadows’ hard courts and suffered a heart attack on his way to hospital. Tragically, just a few days later, the poor man passed away.
4. Ashe contracts AIDS, NY, USA, 1991. The 3 times GS champ who had struggled so long and so hard for black players to be accepted into the sport of tennis, was diagnosed as having AIDS, a cruel result of infected blood transfused during a heart operation.
3. Jewish player commits suicide, Germany, 1933. It was one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of tennis, especially when you consider that, at the time, virtually everyone involved in the sport simply sat back and let it happen. The setting was 1930s Germany. Hitler ordered that all Jews should be ousted from public service and professions. The German tennis federation, like other sports governing bodies, yielded to the Nazi order and immediately ruled that “non-Aryans” were banned from representing Germany or serving on tennis committees.
Unfortunately, 2 of Germany’s best players were Jewish. Daniel Prenn, who had served his country magnificently in Davis Cup, and Nelly Neppach, the German women’s champ of 1925, suddenly found themselves persona non grata, despite having been considered national heroes for many years. But more shocking was that other international tennis governing bodies made no complaints at this terrible injustice. Only British players Fred Perry and Bunny Austin decried the action, writing a letter of protest to The Times newspaper.
Prenn was forced to flee the Nazis and ended up exiled in Britain. Neppach was not so lucky. She was so depressed by her misfortune that she took her own life.
2. Billie Jean sued by ex-lover, NY, USA, 1981. The fledging sport of women’s professional tennis was rocked to its foundations when the sport’s leading star and activist, BJ King, was sued by her former lesbian lover, Marilyn Barnett, who demanded 50% of King’s assets after the relationship cooled off.
The media went berserk because King was the first female tennis player to be ‘outed’, and it was the first ever case of palimony between same sex partners. In the end the court threw out Barnett’s case, but King suffered heavily on lost endorsement and sponsorship contracts. Sponsors dropped her in droves bcos none wished their products to be associated with a gay lifestyle. And King, who was already 37 at the time, continued to play on the pro tour until she was well past 40 bcos she couldn’t afford to retire.
1. The stabbing of Monica Seles, Hambury, Germany, 1993. The day Gunter Parche plunged his dagger into Monica Seles’s back during a change of ends at the Citizen Cup on April 30, 1993, was the day tennis ‘s innocence died. During the change over, Seles felt a searing pain just below her left shoulder blade and screamed out as Parche, a 38 yrs old unemployed lathe operator from Gorshach in eastern Germany, sunk a knife into her back.
Seles wasn’t seriously injured, but the blade had entered perilously close to her spinal cord. More worrying was the psychological damage that affected the then Yugoslav player for the next few years. “In the first moment I didn’t realize what had happened,” Seles recalled, “I couldn’t breathe. The pain came when someone pressed their hand on my back. It was like fog, somehow unreal, and I thought maybe I would be dead. I remember looking around the stadium and seeing the people with their mouths open, gasping. I only saw the man’s face for a split second. I turned and saw him as he raised the knife again.”
Seles was immediately rushed to hospital, her back bleeding profusely. Parche was wrestled into custody, his arm broken from being twisted so tightly behind his back by security guards. The infamous knife lay on the clay court where he had dropped it.
Parche turned out to be a crazed and obsessive Steffi Graf fan who stabbed Seles so that the former might be able to regain the World #1 spot. He was put on trial where he admitted causing grievous bodily harm. Bizarrely he was released from custody with a 2 year suspended sentence on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Seles has never played tennis in Germany again.