Perils for prodigies in trivial pursuit

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The Independent Online
MOST SPORTS fans tend to regard Wimbledon's equal-pay controversy as no more than an amusing tiff caused by one set of overpaid players complaining that the other set of overpaid players are more overpaid than they are. But the argument has taken on increasing seriousness since Tim Henman's outburst last week that the women are being greedy to demand prize-money parity at the world's oldest and most significant tennis tournament.

His views received support from other established players, notably Jim Courier, and it looks as if the men are starting to show solidarity on the subject and may want to maintain the differential; as the old trade union bosses used to put it. With the more militant women talking about a "girlcott" this hot-bed of capitalistic excess could be in for a workers' revolt that would not be unenthralling.

Since both sides are in muscle-flexing mood - and the girls have got more muscles to flex than ever before - it may be that a revolution is in prospect. And if ever an event needs one, it's Wimbledon.

Henman's point that the man's game is superior in crowd-pulling power is undeniably strong, and would be stronger if it applied to a pure and straightforward tennis tournament but Wimbledon has long outgrown that humble description. The words "Tennis Circus" were applied to Jack Kramer's breakaway professionals in the strict amateur days prior to the 1970s but they were tame inhabitants of the big top compared to the modern contenders for the high-wire act, most of whom seem to be female.

Indeed, if the girls were paid bonuses for the number of lurid column inches their names inspired, Henman and his fellows would be the ones seeking equality. When it comes to giving Wimbledon a boost, nothing would compare to what Henman could achieve if he restored a British name to the men's championship, but until that happy day the publicity surrounding the tournament seems largely to be feminine inspired and almost totally irrelevant.

It might not be the sort of publicity the All England Club either want or need but they do little to discourage it and seem happy to benefit from whatever has kept the event's fascination at a high level while Henman and Greg Rusedski have been emerging from the black swamps of British tennis history. Like it or not, Wimbledon's magnetism has been relying more and more on the off-court dramas created by and around the younger women players.

I've never seen an entry form for the Championships but it appears to carry the condition "young girl players admitted only if accompanied by problem parents". There is an element of the driven prodigy in many sports but in none is it more disturbingly obvious than tennis. They bring much colour and glamour but at a very high cost to themselves and the integrity of the sport.

The recent history of tennis is stained by the memories of young players whose adolescence was scarred by the pressures and the exploitation. But the lessons of Tracey Austin and Jennifer Capriati have been ignored. The situation has worsened. The media's contribution to these cruel pressures cannot be overlooked.

Some of the press conferences at Wimbledon last week were appalling. Martina Hingis suffered a defeat that must have been a nightmare for the world's top-rated player, but under a barrage of impertinent questions about her relationship with her mother she displayed tremendous dignity. An old hand at 18.

Anna Kournikova has endured similar interrogation about whether she has a boyfriend. There must be a limited number of us who care, but the trivialities are ruthlessly pursued none the less. We would be more sympathetic, however, if the young Russian's advisers concentrated a little more on protecting her innocent beauty than projecting it. A touch more modesty in the dress designing department would not go amiss.

Maybe our curiosity is so addicted to the finer details attached to these particular sportswomen - down to which side of the bed they sleep on, if you get my drift - that we can no longer do without it. That's sad because, apart from any other consideration, all this crap gets in the way of the tennis.

It is difficult enough to concentrate on all the games played in the first week without all these frivolous distractions. If the senior players could lift their eyes above the money question and examine the overall health of their sport they might see a case for persuading Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam events that one way to re-focus our minds on the game would be to bring in a minimum age limit of, say, 17.

That would mean that the older players would last longer at the top and the younger ones would be allowed to develop in a more homely and less damaging environment. It would not hurt the game, or the youngsters, if parents and other predators had to wait longer for their meal tickets to blossom.

Meanwhile, one way to solve the equal-pay dispute is to establish who is the dominant sex. We'd have to take the risk of what a month-long Wimbledon would do to the suicide rate but it would be an interesting experiment if instead of the men's and women's tournaments being staged simultaneously they were held one after the other. This would serve at least three purposes. The real fans would have more chance of getting tickets. We'd have a clearer and less hurried view of the tennis and we would see which brand of the game was more popular. In other words, which gender engenders the money.

But the only real answer is gradually to end the division between men and women. The women will suffer at first, of course, but the proposed changes to the ball will hasten the day when power gives way to skill and the game of the future will not distinguish between the sexes as emphatically as it does now.

Anyhow, the old argument about the weaker sex is losing strength year by year. Physical differences within the sexes are becoming almost as great as those between them. One day we'll all play together. Until then, there will be no such a thing as equality in sport.

THAT THE Government is to plunge pounds 60m of our hard-lost Lottery money into reviving the competitive spirit in school sports is a welcome sign that they might not be as blind to the wasted years as we thought. We have much catching up to do in that direction and schools need every possible encouragement to return to the days when they could play a dynamic part in laying the foundation of our sporting future.

But there was an odd touch to the function at which these new plans were announced last Tuesday by ministers Chris Smith and Tony Banks. The event was a one-day seminar entitled "A Vision for Sport in the UK" organised by the Institute of Public Policy Research, the centre-left think tank, and sponsored by Camelot.

The seminar was attended by 250 people ranging from PE teachers to coaches, sports development officers, headmasters and council chief executives - all of whom had to pay for the privilege. The fees ranged from pounds 176 (including VAT) to pounds 346 according to your rank. Obviously, the individuals concerned did not pay but the schools and local authorities did.

In other words the public purse coughed up again for an event in which the Government and the Lottery organisers preened themselves on their generosity. Among the most consistent benefits brought by the Lottery is the opportunity for the least deserving to get away with murder.