BOOK REVIEW / Wall-to-wall child's play on centre court: Ladies of the court - Michael Mewshaw: Little, Brown pounds 15.99

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THE SUBTITLE of Michael Mewshaw's new tennis book is 'Grace and Disgrace on the Women's Tennis Circuit', and that about sums it up. On the one hand it is a profile of spectacular sporting talent; on the other - the backhand, perhaps - it is a sombre description of the day- to-day realities endured by an anxious bunch of rich, uneducated globetrotters. When Mewshaw describes the glamorous ferocity of Steffi Graf's forehand, and then tells us that German newspapers publish charts of her menstrual cycle - well, we get the rough idea.

In spending a year (1991) following the game's almost endless season, Mewshaw's timing was good. Men's tennis, as the next fortnight at Wimbledon will no doubt show, has been all but abolished by modern equipment and muscle-power. These days, the highlights are those adorable moments when the net-cord judge gets a ball in the neck, or when a player tumbles hilariously into the net and offers his racket to the ball boy. The rest of the time, a game designed as a duel is just two players taking it in turns to have a whack.

But the women's game is different. Sure, at times it still resembles what Mewsham calls 'a leaky faucet. Plop-plop. Plop-plop. Plop-plop.' Sure, there are too many 6-0, 6-0 wipe-outs - the dreaded 'double bagel'. But hi-tech rackets and the revolutionary example of Martina Navratilova have added sizzle to the sport. Mewshaw does not spend much time describing the actual matches (a pity, since he's good at it) but he does enjoy noticing the new- found power of his thoroughly modern misses. Here, for instance, is Monica Seles playing Jennifer Capriati:

'Brain-dead tennis - that's what the purists called it . . . Seles banged the ball, and Jenny banged it back harder. Like heavyweights, they threw nothing but haymakers. Every time it looked as if Jennifer had flattened Seles, Monica beat the count. Twice Capriati served for the match, nailing 100mph first serves. Twice Seles ripped unreturnable returns, evening the score.'

It is pretty hard to see this as a knockabout between two teenagers. 'That', as one of the reporters remarks in the interview room, 'was a tennis match played by axe-murderers'. But if all this seems to indicate a culture of stark athletic purity, it is, Mewshaw tells us, anything but: a depressing, sealed-off universe of hotel rooms and Walkmans, of boredom and bad tempers and nagging ill- health, a world of high achievers badgered and hectored by ambitious fathers who sit in the posh seats and shout 'Kill the bitch]'

Tournaments try to maintain local traditions, but for the most part the tennis world is monocultural and jittery. Seles puts it neatly enough when she says: 'People always say I'm tough mentally. But they don't see the backside.'

Seles stands for nearly all of what Mewshaw is on about. Brilliant, energetic, precocious, rich beyond description, pushed along by her father and brother and almost completely out to lunch. Commenting on her new, darker hair, she stresses her need for a disguise ('To be number one is a terrible cross. My life has become a prison'). But she doesn't mention (Mewshaw does, with some glee) that the haircut was worth dollars 600,000 as part of a promotional deal with a cosmetics company.

Not many of the top players emerge with their reputations enhanced. Mewshaw's disappointment with the tour is epitomised by his interview with Gabriela Sabatini, ostensibly the most scintillating of all the stars. But her monosyllabic, dumb world-view amazes him, and he ends up quoting an Argentinian journalist: 'She's just as boring in Spanish as she is in English.' Another quips: 'She's got tennis elbow of the personality.' Remarks such as these underline the current of hostility that sustains the circuit. The women are rivals, not friends.

The most vigorous character in the book is Martina Navratilova, who dispenses frank, arresting chit-chat as easily as the rest dispense sweet nothings. In connection with the Magic Johnson affair (or affairs?), she refers to the double standard by which a man who has 'accommodated' thousands of women is an unlucky hero, while a lesbian such as herself is a pariah. Mewshaw watches Navratilova play Capriati and is struck by the fact that the nine-times Wimbledon champion, and the greatest woman player ever, has a couple of third-rate sponsorship deals; while her opponent, a 'bubbly' 15-year- old who once won the Puerto Rican Open, is pulling down million-dollar endorsements like popcorn out of a bag.

Mewshaw also can't help noticing the ironies behind Chris Evert's reputation as 'Miss Cutie-Pie'. Whatever her image, he implies, Chris Evert, er, lived life to the full, and was especially fond of ribald jokes. But who can blame her? The daily life of tennis - the media stuff, the corporate stuff - sounds glum and unreal. After one match in New York, Seles is persuaded to go and sit beside a young actor called Alec Baldwin. They don't exchange a word, but the tabloids have a fit of romantic speculation - and so help to sponsor exactly the kind of high-glitz image the management of the women's tour is seeking to project.

Mewshaw tries to imagine John McEnroe living Navratilova's life - and the result is tragicomic: 'How long would he have lasted at the top if it had been revealed that he was bisexual and had lived with a pro golfer, then a pro basketball star, then a popular gay novelist, then the divorced father of two sons?' It surely does tax the imagination: perhaps Mac would have raised his voice or something.

Navratilova would stand out in any company, but she stands out in this book because she is more or less the only adult. The average age of the top ten was 20 - and that included the 34-year-old Martina. Mewshaw chats to Mary Joe Fernandez, who at least went to school; and he has a brief word with Laura Gildemeister, the one top player with a baby. But he stays only long enough to make us wish he'd stayed longer. Otherwise, it's wall-to-wall child's play: dazzling teenagers boxed in by parents, agents, coaches - a ghoulish entourage designed to keep them 'focused', or to prevent them growing up.

Mewshaw spends a silly amount of time pursuing vacuous rumours about fathers slapping daughters or senior lesbians hitting on newcomers, as if, in the midst of all the routine venality, these were major crimes. At these moments he resembles a grim- faced club player convinced that his opponent is vulnerable to the drop shot. But he concludes with the recommendation that girls should not be able to turn professional until they are 17 or 18 - at present they start at 14. And it is impossible to disagree.