Tennis: Money takes all in the sex war: Phil Reeves in Las Vegas sees dollars minted on court as Jimmy Connors overwhelms Martina Navratilova

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The Independent Online
PURITY, a weary-looking Jimmy Connors told us all, has long gone out of tennis. These days the idea is to be entertaining. It's time to open up, find new specialised markets, and wean people away from watching all those oldies playing golf.

The five-times US Open champion delivered these views at a post-match press conference on Friday night with the conviction of a man who must have felt he had done a very good day's work. The dollars 500,000 winner-takes-all prize money which he had just pocketed was testimony to that.

The difficulty with his argument, however, was that he had just completed a game which did very little to advance his cause. His triumph in a much-hyped challenge match against Martina Navratilova, broadcast to a US pay-per-view television audience, was the sort of event which might have had you flipping through the channels searching for Raymond Floyd and Arnold Palmer.

Connors and Navratilova met at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, as a peach-coloured sun was setting over the desert mountains. A capacity crowd of 13,832 turned out and thus became, as the master of ceremonies announced with gusto, the largest number of people to witness a game of tennis in the history of Nevada.

On paper, it looked promising: a contest between two of the world's all-time greats. Both are advancing in age (Connors is 40, Navratilova 35). Both are former world No 1 players who hold record numbers of singles titles. Both are still wonderfully fit and talented performers. The punters, thousands of whom had flown in for a weekend at the tables, liked it, too. The oddsmaker at Caesars Palace said he took more bets than for all previous Grand Slam events put together.

Connors arrived looking chirpy and relaxed. But it quickly became clear that, despite being 5-1 on favourite, his task would be unexpectedly tricky. After lengthy negotiations in the months before the match, he agreed to only one serve and to allow Navratilova to play into a court expanded by half the width of the doubles alleys. Initially this disorientated and exhausted him, and he struggled to take the first set 7-5. 'I would have to think long and hard before giving away that much space again,' he conceded later.

But Navratilova, nine-times Wimbledon champion and still one of the world's top women, was not on her best form, and the game overall was surprisingly subdued. She failed to exploit the extra ground, and afterwards admitted that she had spent too much time worrying about what Connors was doing, at the expense of watching the ball. She lost the second set 2-6, even though she felt Connors generally hit the ball less hard than either Steffi Graf or Monica Seles. She said later that she suffered from the worst nerves of her life. 'I felt more that I lost the match than Jimmy won it. Monica would have eaten me up for breakfast.'

Las Vegas, the city where fortunes are made and lost in the space of a sigh, was an appropriate venue. Here, in this world capital of vulgarity, public relations people can really let themselves go. 'With 1992 being hailed as 'the year of the woman', Navratilova will have the chance to prove that skill may overpower strength,' trumpeted one of the many pre-match press releases.

This was one of several doomed attempts to equate the Connors-Navratilova clash with the very different encounter between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King 19 years ago. In 1973, King was genuinely fighting for the future of women's pro tennis, then in its fledgling stage, when she agreed to a challenge from the sex-baiting 55-year-old Riggs. She had been infuriated by Riggs's victory over the Australian Margaret Court earlier that year, seeing it as ammunition for those who sought to argue that the women's professional game was not to be taken seriously.

When King beat Riggs in straight sets before a record 30,000 crowd in Houston, much of the world sincerely rejoiced. It was, as almost every headline pointed out, an important victory in the battle of the sexes. Loud-mouthed, chauvinistic, Riggs had asked for it - he even arrived for the game accompanied by a pig.

But, unlike Billie Jean King, who watched Friday night's match, Martina Navratilova had little to prove. The war of the sexes has now largely been won in women's tennis. So what was the point of this latest challenge? Perhaps it showed that mixed singles are viable with certain handicaps, and - on another occasion - could even be enjoyable to watch.

But, above all, it was about cash. Connors made dollars 500,000 in 88 minutes (passing Nevada's average annual per capita income in the first five minutes of the game). Both players also took home hefty, undisclosed appearance fees. And the promoters were able to charge cable television subscribers dollars 25 a piece to watch them in action. 'We had a lot of fun, and made a lot of money out of it,' said Navratilova. That just about summed it up.

(Photograph omitted)

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