Tennis: The Lucic set ahead of their years

Chris Bowers studies a women's tour in crisis off court but in good health on it
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PARADOX rules in women's tennis. As the latest hyped teenager prepares to make her debut on the Grand Slam scene and the on-court appeal of the sport goes from strength to strength, off-court the Corel WTA Tour lurches from crisis to crisis.

On Tuesday the tour announced that the new chief executive Ric Clarson would not after all be taking up the appointment. Just two weeks after ending the nine-month-long search for a new head, Clarson said he would be staying with golf's PGA Tour.

An announcement on a replacement is due tomorrow, thought likely to be Bart McGuire, 56, the WTA Tour's long-standing external legal and business adviser.

Clarson was imprecise about why he turned down the $250,000 [pounds 155,000] job. "Since verbally accepting the position of CEO my heightened awareness of certain issues within the organisation has made me rethink my commitment and reconsider my acceptance," he said, declining to say what the "certain issues" were.

Meanwhile, all indications are that women's tennis is booming. The tour has reported a record on-site spectator total for 1997 of over 3.5 million; it has attracted new big-name corporate partners such as Chase, Waterford, Avis and TWA, and new tournament sponsors including Samsung, Toyota, Audi, Skoda and Adidas; and it goes into 1998 with record prize money of over $40m.

Yet the debacle over appointing a new chief executive has run concurrently with rebellion among middle-ranking players angry at dwindling tournament opportunities because of more byes for top players. And the tour's sponsors Corel say they will not renew their deal come the end of this year. Add to that the growing belief in tennis circles that drastic reorganisation of the way the sport is governed is overdue, and it is easy to see why not everyone wants the job.

The emergence of new sponsors and partners is no surprise when one looks at the WTA Tour's product. Women's tennis had a great 1997, witnessing the emergence of a new generation headed by Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova, but also a minor resurgence of the "old-style" single- handed backhand and volley game (played by Jana Novotna, Irina Spirlea, Lisa Raymond and others) which keeps alive the contrasts in styles that make the game attractive to the connoisseurs.

This year could be equally exciting. The latest member of the new generation, Serena Williams, makes her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open a week tomorrow, with many tipping her to reach the top. She has waited patiently in the shadow of her elder sister Venus. "Since I was able to watch Venus I don't have to make the same mistakes she made," Serena says, "so I can come through faster."

When Venus, 17, was asked last spring who she felt her main long-term rival would be, she skipped Hingis and Kournikova and plumped for Serena, 16. Some dismissed that as mere family solidarity, but the younger Williams confirmed her immense potential in November when, in only her second tournament on the WTA tour, she beat Mary Pierce and Monica Seles in successive matches. There are plenty who believe Serena will achieve more than Venus because she has a better net game.

Yet if Serena will catch the headlines in the first days of the Australian Open, many believe another newcomer has better long-term chances. Mirjana Lucic won't be 16 until March, but her Grand Slam debut at September's US Open served notice that she need fear no one soon. She made it to the third round before falling to Novotna, after which the Czech said Lucic hits the ball harder than anyone. Another to be impressed by the Croat was Steffi Graf. In only her second tournament as a professional, Lucic reached the Strasbourg final against Graf. The German won but told Lucic afterwards that with her talent the sky was the limit.

At 5ft 10in and with a comfortable disposition, Lucic could easily pass for 24; in fact many have wondered whether she really is 15. She pestered her father Marinko, a former Yugoslav international decathlete, into letting her play before her fifth birthday, and today has all the assurance of one who has been in the game for years. She may look older than 15, but her age kept her out of last year's French Open and Wimbledon when she was clearly good enough (and aching) to play.

Like Hingis, Lucic has benefited from a balanced approach from her family, who recognise that there is more to life than tennis and money. She has no commercial endorsements other than contracts with her racquet and clothing suppliers, because her father believes in keeping things in perspective for a 15-year-old (some gesture for a man who twice sold his business to fund his daughter's career).

Lucic and Hingis are good friends. As the two mature, they are likely to be courted by journalists because both are outgoing, with opinions and the eloquence to express them. It all adds up to a rosy picture for women's tennis, always assuming it can get its administrative act together.