This was an article written by Time magazine just before the beginning of the 2001 US Open. It discusses the popularity of the WTA back in a time when it was even more popular than the ATP and though it is extremely long, it is definitely a great read for anyone who was fortunate enough to be a fan of tennis at that time. One of the greatest WTA eras in history. Will it ever reach those heights again?
The Power Game
Monday, Sep. 03, 2001
Player haters. Maybe thatâ€™s the deal. Jealous people are always player-hating the Williams sisters, calling them arrogant or aloof or unfocused on tennis. Maybe itâ€™s sexism, the resentment of a dominant pro athleteâ€™s braggadocio, seen as unseemly in a woman. Maybe itâ€™s simple racism. Or maybe itâ€™s just that the Williams sisters, as good as they are, are kind of arrogant and aloof and unfocused on tennis. “People criticize me as being arrogant,” Venus said last Monday during a tournament in New Haven, Conn., her toy Yorkshire popping out of her Kate Spade bag. “Maybe because Iâ€™m a little smarter than the others. Maybe itâ€™s because when they ask me a silly question, I refuse to answer it and make myself look foolish.” There is a lot of silence at Williams sistersâ€™ press conferences.
The Williams sisters make up their own rules-thatâ€™s both the appeal and the repellent. They pulled out of junior tennis when Venus was 11, reappearing out of nowhere in 1994 and 1995, respectively. They rarely compliment or congratulate an opponent, and they turned down many endorsements until the stakes got higher-they raked in $17.5 million last year between them-and often ignore the media. When Venus won the U.S. Open last September and President Clinton made his congratulatory phone call, she asked for a tax cut, complained that his motorcade had held up New York City traffic for her and scolded him for leaving before her match. Imagine what the sisters will do to Bush.
This is normal behavior on the womenâ€™s tennis tour, where all the top players have a potent combination of talent, glamour and tennis-kid brattiness. Instead of keeping their rifts in the background, like most egomaniacal athletes, these women air their gripes and grievances on center court. It makes for great TV, which is one reason why, when the womenâ€™s tour arrives in New York City this week for the U.S. Open, it will be the womenâ€™s final, not the menâ€™s, that CBS airs in prime time.
In case the play isnâ€™t enough to captivate viewers-although with their mix of power and finesse, it should be-thereâ€™s plenty of drama to go around. Besides the marked Williams sisters, thereâ€™s No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis, who has morphed from the adorable Swiss miss into the tourâ€™s trash-talking queen; Jennifer Capriati, the seemingly washed-up teen prodigy turned fitness monster and this yearâ€™s dominant player; Lindsay Davenport, a California redwood, who squeezed her high school prom in around the tour and now fires shots at the other players from the safety of her elder-stateswomanship; Monica Seles, the once champion, who was knifed in the back by a lunatic eight years ago and is now playing with a desperate intensity. These women could make ice hockey popular.
The Williams sisters draw most of the unfriendly fire because they are the kids in class who never let anyone see them study but show everyone their straight Aâ€™s. They are huge women (Venus, 21, at 6 ft. 1 in.; Serena, 19, an even more muscled 5 ft. 10 in.) who learned the game at home in inner-city Compton, Calif., under an amateur coach, their father-not at the boot camp of coach Nick Bolletieri, where most promising kids are sent. They dominate through their athleticism. Venus, who can serve a ball at 127 m.p.h., is actually less powerful than her sister. But sheâ€™s faster, comes to the net more and chokes the court off from opponents, forcing them into more difficult shots. Serenaâ€™s game is still raw; she tends to blast away from the baseline. When sheâ€™s on, sheâ€™s unbeatable. When sheâ€™s not, the ball boys wear cups.
Between them theyâ€™ve won 28 tournaments and four majors, even though they choose to enter significantly fewer tournaments than most other players. They are up front about the fact that tennis is merely one aspect of their lives. They take the autumn off, for example, to attend a fashion design school located next to a strip mall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Because the ranking system of the Womenâ€™s Tennis Association (WTA) adds up the best 17 events over the previous 52 weeks, neither sister has a realistic shot at a No. 1 ranking. Still, Venus, who won Wimbledon in July, is ranked fourth, while Serena, who has played even less, is 10th. They are part-time players with a full-time presence.
Other players have chided them for not playing more, the suggestion being that theyâ€™re not doing their fair share for the sport and that the grind might get to them. The players should be careful what they wish for. Both sisters say next year they will play a full season. “I want to play tournaments and get my ranking better,” says Serena, sitting with her pit bull Bambi in the home she shares with Venus in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I want to be the No. 1 player. So I decided not to go to school this fall.” Then she immediately starts to hedge. “Maybe Iâ€™ll be able to take one or two classes instead of six. Itâ€™s going to take me forever to finish.” And two days later, Venus, still vowing to sit out school next year, says the day she gets her diploma “is going to be the most exciting day of my life.” She is going to be disappointed by anyone the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale scares up for a graduation speaker.
Along with Anna Kournikova, 20, who may be the most photographed woman in the world, the Williams sisters are celebrities as much as they are tennis players. “Weâ€™re two sisters. Thatâ€™s new and exciting,” says Serena, sounding very much like a younger sister. And they act like sisters. Really close sisters. Besides living together, they usually share hotel rooms at tournaments. They sit next to each other in their classes. They want to start a clothing business together. When Venus loses her wallet, which is surprisingly often, Serena often finds it. Venus even sticks her nose in Serenaâ€™s mouth to find out what she ate. They make the Jolie siblings look estranged.
So it makes good drama when they face each other, which in the U.S. Open, owing to the draw, could happen only in the finals. Fifteenth-ranked Magdalena Maleeva, 26, who lost to one of her two older sisters at four separate majors, says, “To play tennis you need the killer instinct. Itâ€™s hard to have the killer instinct with your sister.”
Apparently itâ€™s not so hard for Serena. “Sheâ€™s too competitive. That could be her weakness. She takes it to an extreme,” says Venus. Isha Williams, a law student at Georgetown University and one of the five Williams sisters, nods her head. “Wow, Serena is really competitive. We used to think it was funny because she was too emotional. But I guess itâ€™s not funny anymore.” Even Serena admits itâ€™s a problem off the court. “Itâ€™s not fun because no one wants to golf with me,” she says.
Like the equally driven Jackson and Wayans families, the Williams sisters are Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses. Despite their arrogance about tennis, once they are off the court and off the subject, they are polite, well rounded and better educated than most of their competitors. They never curse. Serena, in fact, buys her rap albums at Wal-Mart because the bad words have been excised. For women known for their brashness, they are sensitive to coarseness. They lecture the kids in their fashion class about the negative influence of foul-mouthed cable-TV shows like South Park.
Besides their outer toughness and the sister stuff, their appeal lies in the fact that theyâ€™re the newly admitted blacks in the country club-much like Tiger Woods in golf-and theyâ€™re handily beating the white folks. Their presence has expanded the tennis fan base. Blacks are now more than twice as likely to identify themselves as avid tennis fans as whites.
Adding some color to the mix hasnâ€™t been smooth. Just ask the Williams sistersâ€™ father Richard. Actually, donâ€™t bother asking. Just stand within shouting distance of him, or listen to the outgoing message on his cell phone, on which he is always angry about something, usually race. Serena says their only friends on the tour are Chanda Rubin and Alexandra Stevenson, the only other black women near the top 100. The other players, who admittedly donâ€™t like one anotherâ€™s white butts either, find the Williamses off-putting. And many think they play the race card when it suits them. “Being black only helps them,” says the Czechoslovakia-born Hingis. “Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, ‘Itâ€™s racism.â€™ They can always come back and say, ‘Because we are this color, things happen.â€™”
Martina Navratilova, a lesbian who has fought her own discrimination battles, agrees. “I think theyâ€™ve been treated with kid gloves,” she says, citing a display by Richard Williams after Venus beat Davenport at last yearâ€™s U.S. Open final. “If Mr. Williams had been white and done that victory dance in front of Lindsay Davenport, he would have been reprimanded much more. People have been afraid to criticize them because they donâ€™t want to be called racist.”
Not Navratilova. “They have made excuses and not given credit to their opponents. Theyâ€™re afraid to show any kind of humility. Humble doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™re weak.” Given that Navratilova, about to turn 45, is sitting outside a private court after running drills as self-flagellation for losing a doubles match at the French Open, itâ€™s understandable sheâ€™s disappointed in their refusal to devote themselves fully to the game. “You can be a clothing designer later, but you have only so many years to be a tennis player at the top level.”
The World Wrestling Federation has to script this kind of bad-mouthing. On the womenâ€™s tour, itâ€™s as common as a backhand down the line. Part of the fun of womenâ€™s tennis, besides the fact that players are better than ever before, is the fact that itâ€™s a soap opera in which everyone gets to play Alexis Carrington.
“These players for the most part donâ€™t get along. Thatâ€™s what makes it so interesting,” says third-ranked Davenport, 25, the 1998 Open winner. And sheâ€™s right. Try to get the women to pose for a magazine cover en masse and you wonder how VH1 pulls off that diva show every year. “Serena is a lot more friendly than Venus, but Martina [Hingis] is not talking to either of them,” said Davenport in May, before Hingis and the Williamses reached a detente. “Anna and Martina were both going for the same market, and that didnâ€™t work. They got in a huge fight in Chile. They were throwing flowers at each other and screaming at each other. They were best friends and doubles partners,” Davenport said as she sat with her boyfriend and her Rottweiler on the deck of her huge Laguna Beach, Calif., house overlooking the Pacific.
What seems like catfighting, though, is just a sexist take on what happens in big-time sports-though you can be forgiven for thinking catfight after the flower-throwing incident. But, really, didnâ€™t Shaq and Kobe say some pretty awful things about each other? And didnâ€™t manager Lou Piniella wrestle one of his players in the locker room? Didnâ€™t the Portland Trailblazers self-destruct arguing over playing time? And these were all teammates.
In most womenâ€™s sports, including, until recently, tennis, the women are all huggy and super supportive and special to one another because they are struggling to gain legitimacy. But when a womenâ€™s sport starts to make serious money, poison darts start looking for targets. “In the Billie Jean King era, they were missionaries,” says WTA COO Josh Ripple. “Now the players are more difficult to deal with.”
That is a sign of the womenâ€™s power and popularity. A recent USA Today poll showed that 75% of tennis fans prefer the womenâ€™s game. Its TV ratings are routinely higher than the menâ€™s. Forbes Celebrity 100 list, which tabulates fame in America, includes five womenâ€™s tennis players: Kournikova, No. 54; Venus, 57; Hingis, 65; Serena, 71; Davenport, 72. No other sport, male or female, has as many on the list. Non-tennis fans know Hingis, Kournikova, the Williamses, Capriati, Seles and maybe Davenport. The No. 1-rated male player is named Gustavo Kuerten. Seriously.
The menâ€™s game has great players, but it has suffered from a lack of interesting personalities and gripping rivalries. The Top 20 list is clogged with Spanish clay-court matadors and nondescript Europeans. Goran Ivanisevic, who won Wimbledon with a thrilling five-setter, was ranked 125th, but who wants to memorize 125 names? Names like Gustavo Kuerten.
While the men serve ace after numbing ace, the women have a powerful game that still allows for some volley. CBS commentator and former player Mary Carillo says of a recent tournament, “They were playing a brand of tennis that I was totally unfamiliar with. The pounding was so concussive and the running back and forth so athletic-everything about that match was so much more ballistic than I could have scared up. I played another sport.”
When it comes to business matters, the sport is still very much the same. Some women have been disappointed by the WTA, which cedes most of its power to the individual tournaments and hasnâ€™t run a very sharp operation. Even as the womenâ€™s game was flourishing, the WTA was unable for two years to find a lead sponsor for the tour. After losing Virginia Slims, it rejected Tampax for being “too feminine,” instead teaming up with a Canadian software company named Corel. For U.S. tournaments, it went with lucy.com which has folded. After another sponsorless year, the WTA finally signed with Sanex, which is some kind of European soap. “Places were selling out, and they still couldnâ€™t get a sponsor,” Davenport says. “Players were getting fed up. As far as a leader of womenâ€™s tennis, theyâ€™ve totally failed us. Nobody has helped us get there except the players. The success is pure luck for the WTA.”
Furthermore, Davenport feels the WTA hasnâ€™t used the womenâ€™s success to build the sport. “Tennis isnâ€™t fun for teens to go to,” she complains. “Thereâ€™s no music, no excitement. At halftime in the NBA, they throw out T shirts and play rock music. The WTA should be doing more to bring in young people.”
And the tour hasnâ€™t been able to persuade Wimbledon or the French Open to give the women prize money equal to the menâ€™s. While some of the women, like Davenport, make an issue of it, many donâ€™t. Of the discrepancy, Kournikova says, “Women get better ratings, but men play five sets, and itâ€™s tougher for them. Men work really hard and play five sets and everything.” But John McEnroe, who spent decades dissing the womenâ€™s game, now thinks they deserve the cash. “Itâ€™s irrelevant if they play best of five or best of three,” he says. “If the women entertain people just as much, and youâ€™re playing at the same time, we should forget about that issue, get it over with, have equal prize money and start trying to improve the sport even more.”
Even though the women players have better Q ratings than the guys, they still arenâ€™t getting the same kind of sponsorship deals. And, according to Forbes, none of the women-not even Kournikova-gets as much in endorsement cash as Andre Agassi. “Whoâ€™s running the game? Men,” says Navratilova. “How many men are going to step up to the plate for women? Not very many. Itâ€™s Madison Avenue. The money will first go to the men, and if money is left over, it goes to us.” Itâ€™s more complicated than that. “Thereâ€™s not too many women who really sell product,” says Claus Marten, an Adidas marketing executive. “Men move more merchandise. Men have a different buying attitude. If four men go on a tennis court and they all have the same thing on, they laugh. Itâ€™s not like that with women. Women want to be different.”
The women are getting closer, and they have been given a gift that every sport is trying desperately to create: drama. This week the back story will be whether Capriati can use her booming serve and aggressive baselining to peel away the top ranking from Hingis, the last of the chess-playing, smaller players, who hasnâ€™t won a Slam since early 1999.
Hingis has kept her title by being consistent and avoiding injury. Capriati, a prodigy who made the French Open semifinals at 14, dropped out of tennis, gained weight, got a nose ring and then was arrested for shoplifting and pot possession. But, like a Lifetime movie producerâ€™s dream, she came back with a chiseled bod and became the dominant woman on the tour, storming through the Australian Open and winning the French before losing in the Wimbledon semis. “I think sheâ€™s the greatest story in sports in the last 20 years,” says McEnroe, who believes sheâ€™ll do very well at Flushing Meadows. “This court is good for her; sheâ€™s going to have a lot of support from the fans. I think sheâ€™ll meet Venus in the semis. It will be a hell of a match.”
The Slam wins have given Capriati plenty of confidence, which she needs, since her game is based on not holding back on her second serve and aiming right at the lines. “I wanted to show the world that Iâ€™m not this has-been or this burnout or this total, like, rebellious teenager,” she says. When she talks about her past, she still tenses up. “I had to learn to like myself, to love my family. Now I enjoy playing, and itâ€™s shown up in my results.”
This being the WTA tour, sheâ€™s also learned to enjoy sparring with the Williamses. After Serena blamed her quarterfinal Wimbledon loss to Capriati on yet another ailment, Capriati could barely contain herself. “Every time I play her, Iâ€™m pretty much used to something going on there. I think I know the truth inside. I think most people do,” she said.
Every one of these tabloid-TV press conferences is good for the sport. And despite the fact that some lessons in sportsmanship may go absent, these are great role models for young women. This is the first womenâ€™s sport in the U.S. to become more popular than its male counterpart that doesnâ€™t involve doing pretty leaps on a mat or an ice rink. Itâ€™s far better to be filled with arrogance and aloofness and tension than to flash a saccharine Dorothy Hamill smile. If people turn to sports for real-time Aristotelian catharsis, then perhaps the womenâ€™s tour-with its grudges and crying and accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia-is the most interesting drama of all. Weâ€™ve had decades of hypotheticals about whether, if women ran the world, there would be no war. Now itâ€™s cool to see that women make the most interesting wars of all. Wars in which women hit cross-court bullets and then throw flowers at each other.