Vacancies in queens' club

Ronald Atkin examines why the women's game has lost its lustre

That all-devouring monster, American television, came to the conclusion a year ago that the women's field at the Key Biscayne tournament was more interesting than the men's and therefore their final should be awarded the prime viewing slot. Accordingly, the Williams sisters cavorted, their father mugged it up in the stands, ratings were high, the monster was sated. Their dictum: women's tennis sparkled, the men's game sucked.

At Key Biscayne last weekend the men's final was quietly restored to top TV spot on Sunday afternoon. The Williamses were nowhere to be seen and the WTA scenario has reverted to a two-star format, Hingis versus Davenport, not seen since Evert and Navratilova ruled the roost.

What tipped the scales? The renaissance of an artist and accomplished talker like Andre Agassi rekindled interest in the men at the same time as slower surfaces and heavier balls curbed excesses of speed and power, while the women have failed to replace the graceful, stellar quality which disappeared with Steffi Graf.

Those supposed to step up into Graf's slot have, without exception, stumbled over the last few months. Venus Williams has not played since November because of a wrist injury and is being urged by her father, Richard, to turn her back on tennis after a mere two years of success, and sister Serena is simply no longer theextraordinary athlete who stormed the US Open six months ago.

Anna Kournikova seems besotted with head-turning, headline-manufacturing and fuss-provoking. She appears genuinely surprised that 65 pro tournaments have yielded her not a single title, and questions attempting to address this failing turn her press conferences into minor classics of sneering petulance. In addition, the other teenagers who lit up Wimbledon last summer, Jelena Dokic, Mirjana Lucic and Alexandra Stevenson, have hardly won a match between them since. Dokic and Lucic suffer from the Dreadful Dad syndrome, while Stevenson's cross is borne on the maternal side.

The pack currently labouring in the wake of Hingis and Davenport consists mainly of French women who are, with the statuesque exception of Mary Pierce and the injured Amelie Mauresmo, so bland as to persuade American TV to pull the plug. Only the Belgian 16-year-old Kim Clijsters continues to make the sort of progress which marks her as possibly in the Hingis mould.

For the rest, the faces making it into the later stages are largely familiar: Monica Seles, enormously popular still but virtually immobile since her foot problems, and Jennifer Capriati, born-again but not quite fit again.

The case of the Williams girls is the most intriguing. In addition to Key Biscayne, the sisters also played the final of the Grand Slam Cup in October. Having won that, Serena then promptly lost limply in the first round at Filderstadt before hurrying home to Florida and enrolling on a fashion-design course which occupied her attention until the Australian Open in January, when she appeared surprised that a three-month absence had undermined her form.

Subsequently, she has had trouble keeping the ball within the stadium, never mind thecourt. Clearly, too, the whole thing is getting to her. In Key Biscayne Serena said: "I've been really struggling, and I don't know why. I took a personality test and found out that I was a perfectionist. If I don't do things perfect it's really hard for me. I have to realise that this is just a game, I'm just out there to please the crowd. If I go too extreme I'll end up in the nuthouse."

With the gangly Venus it always seemed the knees, rather than the wrists, would give trouble. But as cancellations in her schedule piled up, the rumour factory went into overdrive. Trouble is, production foreman at this particular factory is Richard Williams, who a year back was airily discussing his plans to buy the Rockefeller Center for three- point-something billion dollars. Papa now says: "There are a lot more things Venus can do than play tennis. Because of the planning I've done, my girls don't need tennis any more."

Possibly not, but tennis needs them if the women's game is to recover the sparkle of a vintage '99. All of this misery is manna to Hingis, who continues to radiate serenity and confidence despite some clobberings at the hands of Davenport. Since the tantrums at the French Open, Mamma Molitor has reconstructed Martina's persona and in last weekend's Key Biscayne final she played as convincingly as she has ever done to terminate the sequence of adverse scores against Davenport.

While the turmoil elsewhere lasts, these two seem destined, as they have done in their last four tournaments, to keep on meeting in the final. Just as Evert and Navratilova did in eight successive events in 1983-84. If the court surface is fast, Davenport is in with a shot. If it is slow, Hingis should dominate with her accuracy and uncanny anticipation.

With her disarming frankness, Hingis has come out and said that she and Davenport are now a level above the rest. "She's right," agreed Serena, while professing to detect a whiff of soap opera. "A few people say things to the press that don't add up at all. I kind of like to stay out of that. I'm not the soap-opera type."

At least soap opera might help to get the women better ratings again.

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