Wimbledon 99: Glittering teenagers and gritty veterans open up a new era

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BY THE pool of the Grand Hotel, the party was just starting. In the dusk, tables groaned with food and drink. A steel band rippled gently through an Abba medley. And just inside the end of the curved driveway, where the seafront road sweeps past, a lean, tanned, long-haired girl in a fresh white T-shirt and jeans stood on the pavement, speaking with quiet intensity into a mobile phone.

"Tu m'aimes pas?" she was saying. "Tu m'aimes pas?"

This is the way we have come to imagine women's tennis - a veneer of glamour and success barely disguising a real world of secret dramas and heartache. The girl with the mobile had been on court that afternoon. Who was she calling? Who was it whose emotional commitment might be in doubt? Her lover? Her father? Her coach?

The party turned out to be a decorous affair, not at all like the famous end-of-the-week bashes thrown by earlier generations of players at Eastbourne in the Seventies and Eighties, when Pam and Martina and the others would dress up in rented costumes and act out sketches and sing satirical songs about each other, letting off steam before they packed their bags and set off for Wimbledon. Women's tennis is a bit more serious now, or at least more businesslike. With gross annual revenues of around $200m (pounds 125m), almost a quarter of which is distributed to the players in prize-money at 59 events in 27 countries (the latest, earlier this month, being the Tashkent Open), the sorority days are over.

"It's very unfortunate that we don't do that any more," Jana Novotna said last week as she cooled down after a doubles match at Devonshire Park. "I don't know why. Maybe it was just that the players who ran it, like Pam Shriver and Elise Burgin, all retired. Somehow we don't have the people who would get the players together and get the dresses and so on. It's a pity."

Not much else to do with women's tennis in 1999 gives cause for regret. With its cast of glittering teenagers and gritty veterans, the Women's Tennis Association Tour is reaching new levels of popularity and prosperity. The Navratilovas and Shrivers, by contrast, were still struggling to establish the women's game as a viable professional entity, and the dressing-up parties were probably an effective way of maintaining solidarity.

"Those women will always have a special place in my heart," Novotna said, "because they were pioneers. They were incredible players, but they didn't only care about themselves. They wanted to take women's tennis - women's sport in general - higher and make it better. It's thanks to them that we are where we are today."

What, however, would tennis's feminist pioneers of 30 years ago have made of Anna Kournikova? As the WTA circus pitches its tent on the lawns of the All England Club, the 18-year-old Russian is a star turn of a distinctly post-feminist type - adored less for her hard-driving grass court game than for her golden hair, golden tan, golden frock and, when she wins, golden smile. Kournikova can play, all right, and is worth her seeding at Wimbledon. But what people are really watching for is the moment when the sweat seeps through the silky fabric of her dress, darkening it to the precise colour of her flesh. "That's crumpet in any language," the man next to me breathed as he beheld the phenomenon. Principally, then, she is the babe who magnetises the tabloids, inspiring them to produce spreads of today's young players, either in swimsuits or photomontaged to look like the Spice Girls - Anna as Baby, Martina Hingis as Posh, Venus Williams as Scary and the pumped-up Amelie Mauresmo as Sporty, with Novotna, clearly the senior, as Ginger. (Ironically enough, this is just the sort of joke their predecessors might have turned into an satirical party skit at Eastbourne.)

All this may seem as frivolous as Gussie Moran's lace knickers in the Fifties, but in today's world, where sport and showbiz and commerce are inextricably linked, the renewed interest of the tabloids is a sure sign that the women's game is serious business - tennis's current success story, in fact. Attendance records were set at Eastbourne last week, and for the next fortnight the men will find themselves with a fight on their hands for an equal share of the crowd's attention and the media's interest.

Yet Wimbledon, in common with three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, refuses to award the women the same prize-money as the men (the honourable exception is the US Open). Campaigners against this historic injustice received support from an unexpected quarter earlier this month when John McEnroe wrote an article for the New York Times in which he advocated fiscal equality. "If I were advising the guys," he wrote, "I'd tell them to take the equal prize-money - while they still can. Fans buy tickets to watch great tennis played by great playing personalities competing for titles in great events. And the women are selling the tickets."

According to McEnroe, the dramatis personae of the women's tour - Hingis, the Williams sisters, Kournikova, Seles, Davenport, Graf - easily outshines the men's cast, in which Sampras and Agassi are poorly supported by the likes of Kuerten, Kafelnikov, Medvedev and Rios, who have failed to build a significant fan base. "The women have always worked harder at marketing and promotion than the men," he continued. "It was a necessity. This ethos is paying dividends today... the women are carrying the promotional load and bringing the fans through the turnstiles. They should be paid accordingly."

The compliment was warmly accepted. "The players talked about it quite a lot," Novotna said. "It's nice to see the support we got from a past champion like him. It's a sign that it's not only the people who're directly involved in women's tennis who feel that way."

Bart McGuire, who gave legal advice to the WCT for many years before becoming its chief executive at the beginning of 1998, was similarly delighted. "It wasn't something we'd expected," he told me. "And it was very encouraging, coming from someone who was outspoken in his criticisms of the general standard of the women's game some years ago. It's a dramatic indication of how far the women's game has come. Another one is Richard Krajicek, who once called the women `lazy, fat pigs' but recently commented that they were now doing so well that their success is actually helping the men's Tour."

Seven years ago, when Krajicek made his notorious remark, the women's game was looking rocky. The Graf-Seles rivalry, which was supposed to have taken over from the Evert-Navratilova era, had been destroyed by the on-court stabbing of Seles and by Graf's various tribulations. Of their possible rivals, Gabriela Sabatini had the glamour but not, in the end, the results. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario had the results but not the glamour. Jennifer Capriati, promoted at 13 as the next prodigy, self-destructed in a blaze of publicity that reflected badly on the whole tour. The spectacle appeared to confirm the findings of Ladies Of The Court, Michael Mewshaw's investigation of women's tennis, which exposed a world of exploitation and misery when it was published in 1993.

"It was pretty obvious that the women's tour was about one or two great players," Novotna said last week, "and that the rest weren't as good. You'd be going into a tournament and it was thoroughly easy to predict that, yes, Steffi and Monica would be in the final. Once in a while you'd have an upset. But nowadays, if you look at the top 10, 15, 20, it's so much stronger. There's more depth, definitely. A perfect example was the French Open, where Venus Williams lost to a qualifier, someone who was ranked 130th in the world."

At 30, the Wimbledon champion is a representative of the older generation, and takes a natural pleasure in seeing her contemporaries fight back against the challenge of the newcomers. "It feels like the young ones are ready to take over, they want to be on top, but the older ones aren't ready to give it up yet," Novotna said. "Just like Steffi proved to us at the French Open, where she came back so strong after not playing her best tennis for the last two years because she was struggling with injuries and everything. It's fascinating to see that. You're going into Wimbledon, and you have no idea who's going to win it. On any given day, anybody can lose and anybody can win."

Novotna's criticisms of individual players - of Hingis's manners, the Williams sisters' muscles, Mauresmo's shoulders and Mary Pierce's arrogance - were widely quoted last week, and despite her pride in the success of the women's Tour she also has broader reservations about the way the game is being played. "Women's tennis is becoming a power game," she said. "It's becoming a very simple, very strong, very physical game. Nowadays it's not really about variety, not about a thinking game. Whoever hits harder is the winner. Part of it is the equipment. We're playing with lighter rackets and faster balls and everything is heading in this direction. But I think that's the new wave, the new generation."

For Bart McGuire, however, the increase in power, physical and technical, is part of the successful marketing formula. "Racket technology is definitely helping women," he said. "It makes it much easier for them to play a forcing, all-court game. If you look at the new generation of players, the top ones can all serve, volley, move the ball around the court, hit lobs and drop shots."

Steffi Graf also dismisses the criticism that the new players are too obsessed with developing and generating power. "I don't really have too many concerns about it," she said in Paris. "I think it's positive that players are in better shape. They're working out, and obviously gaining strength from that. The only concern, probably, is how early you start doing it. If you see some of the juniors now, the way they're built, you can see they're playing hours and hours a day. And maybe their bodies won't last as long any more as they used to."

She is more interested in the fact that the members of the new generation find it easier to express themselves. "The way the players present themselves is definitely a lot more outspoken, with a lot more confidence," she said. "That's very positive."

For Novotna, the improvement in the backstage atmosphere is partly due to changes at the top among the players themselves. "It's changing all the time," she said. "It's changed very much since Steffi was the dominant player. She used to be a very private person, really quite and into herself, and it affected all the players. People were thinking, we'd better not talk, let's keep quiet. It seems like whoever is No 1 sets the trend or the mood for the tour in general. Then Lindsay Davenport became No 1, and then Martina Hingis, and they're both very friendly, nice, very open, normal girls. So the atmosphere on the Tour is very relaxed. Everybody's friendly, although there's a good and healthy competition on the court. When we sit down and have top 10 player meetings at the major tournaments, it's really nice to talk to the girls and see how they feel about the game. Nobody's holding back. We feel that we're stronger than ever, and so everybody wants to get involved and get the most out of it."

For McGuire, the game's increased appeal is based on the arrival of appealing characters. "You can't ever lose sight of the fact that they're here because they're very good tennis players, but they're also intelligent, articulate, interesting people with good stories to tell. And people love to follow human interest stories, don't they?"

Look, he suggested, at Graf's popularity today, compared with her standing 10 years ago - before, he meant, various elements of her life began to go out of shape and she took on new dimensions in the public mind. But you have to be careful with the sympathy-for-victim business, and in recent years the WTA has also taken steps to improve its image by trying to help young women to handle the various forms of social dislocation that can result from joining the Tour.

"There's our age eligibility programme," he said, "which slows down, to some extent, the entry of very young women into the tour. They can still come in at 14, but they're limited in the number and type of tournaments they can play. The rule was designed to prevent the players from suffering early physical injury, and also from succumbing to the physical stresses of the tour. We also believe this helps them develop their game much better. If they're competing to get into a Wimbledon quarter-final at 14, they're going to go with what got them there - the big ground strokes. But Venus and Serena Williams, Kournikova, Mirjana Lucic, Hingis - they all play very interesting all-court games."

Other schemes include a mentor programme, in which older players pass on the fruits of their experience to new arrivals. "There's also a players' hot-line, an educational programme and a coaches' code of ethics. We're working with the players and their parents to help them through the pressure of being young women in a highly visible international arena."

A worldwide cultural evolution, he said, is making it more acceptable for women to go into professional sport. "And because we are the No 1 women's sport, we're very well placed to take advantage of that. It's also more acceptable for people to come and watch women athletes, and to invest in them. I would say that we have all the pieces in place to enable us to take commercial advantage of what has become a simply outstanding product. And I believe it will continue to improve." A significant part of that improvement is his goal of ensuring that the lowliest player in a 128-draw Grand Slam tournament is earning a minimum of $100,000 (pounds 60,000) a year. "About 85 are at that level now. That's a goal I hope to reach in the year 2000 or 2001."

Some people - although not, on current evidence, John McEnroe and Richard Krajicek - might find it hard to believe that there are 128 women tennis players in the world worth a hundred thousand dollars a year each. But when you go to Eastbourne and encounter someone like Anne Kremer, you might feel a bit differently.

Kremer, aged 23, is currently Luxembourg's most famous sports personality, a distinction which doesn't stop her being engagingly modest. She dropped out of an English literature course at Stanford University in California to join the tour, ended last year ranked No 74, and has since risen 30 places. At Devonshire Park she began by beating the British No 1, Sam Smith, and then removed the tournament's No 1 seed, Monica Seles, who happened to be her own idol as a teenager. She came into her first press conference and spoke with intelligence and charm. In the next round she took a beating from Natasha Zvereva, but it didn't really matter. There would be another day. And she'd made being a woman on the tennis circuit look like having fun.