- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - Monica Seles figures she bought every self-help book on the market. She felt sure that if she just found the right diet, if she just hired the right trainer, she’d lose weight and reclaim her tennis career.

Instead Seles would gain it back as quickly as she dropped it, sneaking off on late-night supermarket runs and bingeing on junk food in secret. Seeking refuge from the pain and confusion of dual tragedies, she put on more than 35 pounds.

“When I started on this journey, I had all the diet books, I knew what to do, I worked with the famous trainers,” Seles said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. “But yet I couldn’t get it.”

Now the 35-year-old Seles has written a book of her own: “Getting a Grip on My Body, My Mind, My Self” will be released Tuesday. It’s technically a memoir, chronicling her rise from a tennis-loving kid in the former Yugoslavia to the No. 1 player in the world.

But she hopes it can also be the book she needed to read in her darkest days and never did, a lesson in conquering the demons of food without that dreaded word diet.

“I’ve tried every single one of them; I could recite them for you sitting here,” Seles said. “But until I realized that I held that power _ not my trainer, not my coach, not my family, but me _ that’s when I think I started to shift in the way I thought.”

In April 1993, Seles was 19 years old and had already won nine Grand Slam titles. Her whole world made sense: hard work transformed into victory on the tennis court, the support of her family at home.

That life shattered in a second during a match in Hamburg, Germany, when Seles was stabbed by a spectator. Weeks later, her father was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1998 after a long battle with the disease.

Seles returned to tennis and won one more Grand Slam, the 1996 Australian Open. But her mind and body weren’t the same. It took her more than nine years, her weight and emotions constantly yo-yoing, before she fully grasped the connection between the two.

“I hired some fantastic trainers, some fantastic nutritionists,” Seles said. “But unfortunately no one paid attention to where these emotions were coming from.”

She weighed more than 170 pounds at the peak. Seles’ fitness level was a frequent topic of conversation at her tournament news conferences during those years. Still, the depth of her struggles wasn’t something Seles was going to talk about publicly.

“I felt weird that I couldn’t control a simple thing like eating,” she said. “I was so in control when you’d watch me on the tennis court, but yet what I put in my mouth I had zero control (over). I was kind of embarrassed by it, because everybody viewed me as a super strong mentally athlete.”

She’s certain that carrying around all that extra weight led to the string of injuries that eventually ended her career. The food problem that eventually sidelined her for good in 2003 was also the spark that redirected her toward a healthier life.

Her 30th birthday approaching, unable to work out because of her foot, Seles panicked that she would gain even more weight. Instead, without any trainers or nutritionists to tell her what to do, she started to relax about food. No more calorie-counting. No more bingeing out of guilt after eating something deemed off-limits.

She thought about why the women she saw in Asia and Europe seemed to be thinner than Americans, and she realized it helps that they walk so much. She found she would walk outside because she enjoyed it, not because she felt she had to.

“If I don’t see a treadmill in my life again, I’m a very happy person,” Seles said. “I had to be honest with that. As an athlete I was always told what to do. I worked out for an hour six days a week on a treadmill or an elliptical, and I hated it, no matter what music I played.”

After all those years of wanting more than anything to lose the extra weight, Seles accomplished it only after she stopped really trying. She’s learned to savor food and listen to her appetite, to eat because she’s hungry _ not just because something is in front of her. She tries to stick to natural foods, to avoid preservatives and processed fare, but nothing is off-limits.

“I always loved to eat,” she said. “Anyone around me knows. I love new restaurants; I love trying out new foods. For a long time while I was playing professionally, I was always restricted or I had to hide. Life is not worth living if I cannot have pasta or bread again.”

Seles cringed at including photos in the book of herself during her heaviest days. Yet she knew it wouldn’t be complete without them.

“Part of me wants them to go away,” she said, “but they’ll never go away because they’re part of me.”

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