Valley of the Dolls
On a cold morning last november, as a reporter rode an elevator in a Manhattan hotel, the doors opened to admit Anna Kournikova, a vision in jock-chic with a black leather jacket worn over navy sweatpants. She was in town for the Chase Championships, the last stop on the 2000 pro tour.
Attempting, however weakly, to make conversation, the reporter offered, "The downtime between matches must be the worst part of being a pro tennis player." Kournikova tossed her blonde hair in such a way as to let it settle perfectly about her face. "Please," she said. "We are not tennis players. We are stars."
A few years ago the women's tennis Association was an oatmeal-bland collection of baseliners scrapping for fans and respect. Back in 1995 Martina Navratilova dismissed the circuit rather neatly with the phrase, "Steffi and the Seven Dwarfs." But by last season, only five years later, the WTA had shaken off its dowdiness and combined equal parts attitude, athleticism, fashion and sex appeal into a gossipy and combustible brew. It worked. In 2000 the women set records for attendance and prize money, drawing television viewership that equaled that of the men's events. And it's no wonder that people are intrigued, considering the larger-than-life personalities involved. The WTA boasts a cast of characters that might have been sketched by Darren Star. You have Venus and Serena, two proud athletes who learned the game in an L.A. ghetto and who battle skepticism, scorn and perceived racism under the smothering watch of their Svengali father. And Martina, an undersized, acid-tongued Eastern European, who grimly clings to her No. 1 ranking. Then there's Lindsay, the affable but tough-talking California girl, who just wants to be a jock in a sport that increasingly rewards sex goddesses.
Let's not forget the supporting cast either: Monica, the fallen star, who was stabbed by a deranged fan and still struggles to regain her touch; and Anna, the group's Lolita, who hauls in endorsements but has yet to win a tournament. The world of sports has no shortage of soap operas, but few in history have matched the catty machinations of last year's WTA tour, where the winners mocked the losers, the losers slagged the winners and just about everyone pummeled Anna.
Martina Hingis takes her game seriously -- last year she earned nearly $4 million in prize money and roughly another $4 million in endorsements -- but when asked where she lies on the continuum between Lindsay the Jock and Anna the Pinup, she takes a pen and draws a line:
"I like being recognized," says Martina, who still mentions her GQ cover (the coverline: "The Champ is a Vamp"). "You feel it's respect. I like getting my picture taken. I don't think I'm so ugly, do you?" she said laughing.
In 2000, 19-year-old Martina was ranked the No. 1 female player in the world. She's blessed with a fiendishly clever game and an uncommon tactical sense, especially as a doubles partner. Heading into the 2000 season, she had 26 career doubles titles -- as many as she had playing solo. Since turning pro she has also taken on and discarded partners the way some people change long-distance carriers. "It's like how Anna treats her men," Martina joked.
For the better part of 1998 Martina had a fine run with Jana Novotna, but they parted company, Martina declaring that Novotna, at the age of 30, was "too old and slow." (Novotna shot back by calling Martina "stupid.")
Martina played well with Anna for most of 1999, but dumped her after the two won the year-end Chase Championships. She actually made Anna cry on the court. When the Russian sided with a line judge's opinion against Martina during a singles exhibition, Martina asked icily, "Do you think you are the queen? Because I am the real queen."
Regardless of how Martina treats her partners, there will always be a queue of ready suitors; she wins money. Anna won $325,205 in 1999 mostly playing alongside Martina -- nearly as much as she won playing singles. Martina's most recent fling was with Mary Pierce, who, although never mistaken for a standout vol-leyer or strategist, slugs the ball at a blistering pace. In Australia the two cruised to the final where they met Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs.
Raymond and Stubbs have been partners since 1995 and have won more than a dozen titles. Their strategy before the match was simple -- hit every ball to Pierce. But when Martina unaccountably proved the weaker partner that day, they altered the strategy to exploit her game. Pierce and Martina lost in a dramatic third set, during which Martina chucked her racquet in frustration. As she approached Stubbs after the match, Martina was wearing her usual wry smile. "Can you believe how bad I played?" she said. "Have you ever seen me when I've returned so badly?"
Stubbs has been known to bark profanities at Raymond midmatch, but on this occasion she was dumbfounded. She simply stared at Martina and said, "Well, now you know how us mortals feel."
On the 2000 wta circuit the most eagerly attended streak in women's tennis was Anna Kournikova's string of tournaments without a victory. When 19-year-old Justine Henin dispatched Anna at the U.S. Open, extending her streak to 78 losses, even the security guards were gleeful.
"She lost! She lost!" one guy shouted to his colleague, who stood watch outside the women's locker room. "All week she and her mom have been acting like they're God's gift. Now they're both outta here."
Henin -- a talented Belgian who would make the 2001 Wimbledon final by beating Jennifer Capriati -- viewed the match not as an upset but as a perfectly logical result. "She likes her look, and everybody likes her look," she said. "But I am here to play tennis, and I think that's most important. I am not here to do cinema."
Yet Anna's wildly successful packaging of herself reflects the financial and social revolution of the women's game. For several years the WTA tour has ranked and paid players based on their marketability, a so-called Commitment List. The top 16 singles players automatically make the list (Lindsay, Martina and Venus were each eligible for $400,000 in 2000), as well as four other players, but a committee of international tournament directors determines their rankings. So while Anna collected $100,000 in 2000, players with superior match results but lower Commitment List rankings received less. Pierce, for instance, finished 1999 ranked seven places higher than Anna, yet she was eligible for only half as much as the Russian. "Certain players sell tickets and others don't," said Bob Arrix, who runs the Amelia Island tournament and is a former WTA tour board member.
So fixated is the tour with image that at larger tournaments, it offers "photo calls," at which players pose for photographers away from the court. Olga Barabanschikova, a marginal player (but one with a pierced navel), who reportedly turned down a six-figure offer to bare all for Playboy, was asked to recline in a bikini poolside at Indian Wells. How this relates to tennis is unclear.
"We're never going to stop selling sex," said Jim Fuhse, the tour's director of player promotions. "If anything, I'd like to see us be more risqué and take more chances. Look, if a player doesn't sell tickets because of her tennis, she has to do something else to contribute."
Given all the hype that the glam WTA players generate, said Lindsay Davenport, "Why doesn't prize money go up?" (It increased less than 5% between 1999 and 2000.) "They say tournaments aren't making money. Bullshit they're not."
The one adjective invariably used to describe Lindsay is "sweet." She writes thank-you notes to tournament directors, is punctual, proofreads her e-mail for spelling errors and hates riding in limos. A 25-going-on-35-year-old, she takes to putting on makeup the way a cat takes to a bath. But is she sweet? No.
Lindsay stands nearly 6'3". She has won three Grand Slams over the past three years (only Venus Williams has won as many in the same amount of time) and is the best American player since Chris Evert. Her opinion of Anna? "A circus act." The Williams sisters? "At least Serena can bring herself to say 'hi.' Venus can't -- or won't -- even speak. Venus likes to give the impression that she's so great, that she's 'Da Bomb' or whatever. She can say it all she wants, but that just means she doesn't have it."
It's hard to blame Lindsay for her touchiness. Despite her abundant skill, she's the type of player who remains largely unknown to the public. (No Maxim covers for Lindsay.) In 1999, having just beaten Martina in the final of the Australian Open, Lindsay tried to board a plane carrying her overstuffed Wilson racquet bag, but a Qantas agent stopped her at the gate.
"You'll have to check your racquets," the attendant said. "They're too big to take on board." Lindsay calmly pointed out that only moments earlier Martina, who was also on the flight, had carried her racquets on board, no questions asked. "Well, that was Martina Hingis," the attendant whispered. "She needs them for her matches."
Perhaps the least sexy venue on the WTA tour is the IGA Superthrift Tennis Classic in Oklahoma City. Somehow players find it much easier to carve out the time to show up in, say, Palm Springs, Calif. Last year both Venus and Anna backed out at the final moment, which left Monica Seles as the event's main draw. Her appearance at the backwater stop was freighted with poignancy. Her new coach, Bobby Banck, was in Florida with his ailing father. Her mother, Esther, was home in Sarasota, Fla., tending to the dogs. There was something vaguely heartbreaking about seeing a former world No. 1, nine-time Grand Slam champion playing a small event, alone on a Tuesday, before retiring to a nondescript room at the Marriott. It was hard not to cheer for the 26-year-old.
It's been 71/2 years since Guenther Parche stabbed a nine-inch boning knife into Monica's back during a changeover in Hamburg, Germany. The knife missed her spine by millimeters, and the incision on her right shoulder blade was a half an inch or so wide. At his trial Parche told a German court that he had originally planned to give Seles a bouquet of flowers and then sever her hands, thus ensuring future victories for his obsession, Steffi Graf.
At the time of the attack Monica was as dominant as any player tennis had ever seen, having already unseated Steffi as the top player in the game and on her way to becoming the best female tennis player of all time. When she finally returned to the tour in the late summer of 1995, however, the avatar of power tennis was being outslugged by a younger, bigger, faster generation. Six months later she learned that her father's stomach cancer had metastasized. Shortly after he passed away in the spring of 1998, Monica, clad in black, wearing his wedding ring on a chain around her neck, reached the final of the 1998 French Open. But she played an uneven match and lost to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. She has not seriously challenged for a Grand Slam since.
As Monica struggled something funny happened: She became enormously popular. "A part of me wants to see Monica win -- and I'm the one who has to play her," said Lindsay, one of Monica's few friends on the tour. "I hate playing Monica," Martina said. "Not for the tennis. It's the fans. Wherever we play -- the States, Europe, Asia, Australia -- they are always for her and against me."
Venus and Serena
Twelve hours before 2000's historic Wimbledon semifinal, Venus and Serena Williams were lying on adjacent beds in their rented house in Wimbledon Village. They had come miles since they shared a bunk bed in their modest house in Compton where they listened to an urban symphony of car horns, sirens and occasional gunfire.
"Venus," Serena would whisper.
"What is it?"
"Don't go to sleep before me."
"I'm tired, Serena."
"Well, I'm scared."
Venus would sigh, but she would force herself to stay awake until Serena had drifted off. "Same thing every night," Venus recalled, shaking her head. "That was Serena, getting her way."
"My responsibility in life is to be the annoying little sister," Serena said. "And I've always taken that responsibility seriously."
How do you get motivated to thrash an opponent with whom you share a bedroom? History tells us that it's virtually impossible. The Williamses' predecessors -- Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena Maleeva, whose careers overlapped in the 80s and early 90s -- were notorious head cases when they had to play each other.
The Centre Court crowd of 14,000 was uneasy, unsure of whom it should support. The cheer of "Let's Go, Williams!" was greeted by peals of laughter. The spectators wanted either sister, it didn't matter which, to elevate her play and take control of the match. Beset by anxiety, neither played with passion. But one person had to win, and Serena, overwhelmed, was beaten before she took her first step on the grass: 6-2, 7-6. The crowd responded nicely, cheering Venus even as the sisters hurriedly packed up their bags and hustled from the court. Venus, determined not to let the press descend on her sister, lightly tapped Serena's shoulder and said, "Let's get out of here."
If the sisters feel somewhat harassed by the press -- which admittedly seems to revel in the psychodrama of their professional lives -- they also feel walloped at times by their peers on the tour. Antipathy for Venus and Serena runs deep. One player reported that as Serena stumbled through the early rounds of the Australian Open on the 2000 WTA tour, "girls who had barely met before were giving each other high fives."
A year before, at the 1999 Porsche Grand Prix in Filderstadt, Germany, Lindsay had pulled out of the tournament because of an injured wrist. Martina said to her, "You gotta hurry back. I can't play the Williamses on my own." Not surprisingly, word of the conversation got out. The two players said that it was all said in fun and had been blown out of proportion. But Oracene Williams, mother of Venus and Serena, was outraged.
"There's so much jealousy on the part of the other girls, it's not even funny," Oracene said. "They can't compete with Venus and Serena."
Venus had wanted to vent to the media about the whole messy affair, charged as it was with the bitchiness, drama, preening and competition that defines women's tennis these days (and which WTA officials love). Instead, a tour staff member had told her to ignore it. Venus wasn't happy about that. "Why do I always have to be the one to take the high road?" she asked.
But when quizzed about the incident the next day by a reporter, Venus was ready. The WTA, she said with a laugh, "it's getting like the WWF."