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L. Jon Wertheim
May 06, 2002
A golden age of men's tennis is being overshadowed by a wacky women's tour
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May 06, 2002

Drama Queens

A golden age of men's tennis is being overshadowed by a wacky women's tour

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When the Tennis Channel launches next fall, it would do well to air a reality-based show from the seriocomic world of the women's circuit. Last week alone provided a treasure trove of compelling programming. The Williams sister were sued by a Florida promoter claiming that Venus and Serena had reneged on a promise to play in an exhibition titled Battle of the Sexes: Part II, against likely opponents John and Patrick McEnroe. (The Williamses say they never agreed to the event) Meanwhile, Anna Kournikova, the sport's prima donna nonpareil, suffered a crisis of confidence after losing five straight matches and abruptly pulled out of two European events to play a pair of rinky-dink tournaments—this, as her agents threatened to sue Penthouse for publishing topless paparazzi photos of a woman alleged to be the star. (Kournikova says the pictures are not of her.)

To cap off those sudsy events, Jennifer Capriati and U.S. Federation Cup team captain Billie Jean King got into a heated and painfully public squabble. After King made it clear that team rules required practices to be closed to anyone other than team members, Capriati went ahead and scheduled a practice with her omnipresent father, Stefano. King booted Capriati off the squad, and the U.S. team, despite having five of the world's top seven players, went on to lose to unheralded Austria. Said King afterward, "I don't know if Jennifer will ever play [Federation Cup] again. I don't think so as long as I'm captain." As Johnny Carson used to say, weird, wacky stuff.

Cameras rolling on the men's circuit captured a remarkably different story. The resurgent Pete Sampras defeated Andre Agassi in a gripping match at the U.S. Clay Court Championship in Houston. Then teenage phenom Andy Roddick blitzed Sampras in a high-powered final. Roddick later described how "honored" he was to have beaten his former idol. Yet how can mere tennis compete for our attention when King and the House of Capriati are locked in a battle royal?

Herein lies the problem facing the men's game. With no overbearing dads, no world-beating siblings raised in Comp-ton, no sharp-tongued divas and no Anna factor, the ATP is judged as being more boring than a test pattern. Never mind that the on-court product has never been better. The players, more athletic than ever, lace the ball with unprecedented power and accuracy. Not long ago the Chicken Littles divined that the men's game would devolve into Toughman Contests in which any brute with an elephant gun for a serve (read: Mark Philippoussis) would reign supreme. The opposite came to pass; laserlike groundstrokes have become the coin of the realm. Ironically it is the WTA Tour that's ruled by percussive hitters, whose matches are comedies of unforced errors but whose raw power can't be answered by lower-ranked players.

Yet so long as the women have a monopoly on melodrama, they will be prime-time fare while the men are relegated to the infomercial hours. "I'm not saying we're cool with it, but it seems like being a good player isn't enough anymore," says Roddick. "I guess it's our challenge to be more entertaining." Say, any of you guys eligible bachelors?