Sports Nut

Volley of the Dolls

As the U.S. Open gets under way—it began Monday, of course, and will run its course over the next two weeks—the conventional wisdom among the tennis cognoscenti is that the women’s matches are what the fans are coming to see. The women’s game has the glamour. It has the stars. And it has the kind of rivalries—not those nicey nice rivalries like Chrissie vs. Martina Navratilova, but really nasty, trash-talking rivalries, like the Williams sisters vs. Martina Hingis—that stir a sports fan’s blood. Indeed, by all rights, these days the women ought to be paid more at the Grand Slams than the men, since they’re the ones putting the fannies in all those high-priced corporate suites.

But we’ll leave the discussion of tennis economics for another day. Today, we want to focus on something else: the downside to the current state of women’s tennis—at least from a fan’s point of view. The downside is that unlike the men’s tour, where most matches are at least competitive, too many women’s matches are so lopsided that they’re boring. People who go to the U.S. Open primarily to watch the women play are going to wind up feeling that they didn’t get their money’s worth. And they’ll be right.

At this particular moment in women’s tennis, there are really only five players who have a chance to win the U.S. Open (or any big-time tennis tournament, for that matter): Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, her sister Serena, Martina Hingis, and Mary Pierce, who won the French this year. A sixth—Monica Seles—can play a competitive match against the other five (and can beat Pierce, who is something of a head case, on a good day), but that’s about it. The seventh-ranked player in the world, Conchita Martinez, is not even in the same league as the others; two weeks ago at the Canadian Open, I watched her get absolutely taken apart by Hingis in the semifinals. The No. 13 player, Anna Kournikova (a k a the tennis Lolita) should pray that she gets knocked out of the U.S. Open before fourth round. If she lasts that long, she’ll face her doubles partner, Davenport, against whom she’ll win maybe four games. If she’s lucky.

(True, Martina Hingis is the one big gun who does not have the Complete Power Game—witness her pathetic second serve—but her talent is otherwise so transcendent that she is the one player in the world who can still get away with this weakness, at least for now.)

The problem is that women’s tennis is going through one of its periodic revolutions, and there simply aren’t enough revolutionaries yet. This revolution, of course, is about power, about hitting the ball harder than women have ever hit it before, and turning forehands and backhands into serious weaponry. But even more, it is about eliminating some of the traditional weaknesses of the women’s game. A top woman player used to be able to get away with a middling first serve and a cream puff second serve. Not anymore. Holding serve didn’t used to be a big deal on the women’s side. Now it is. At the very top level, the women’s game is coming more and more to resemble the men’s game.

But so far, at least, it is only at the top level where this revolution has truly taken hold. Yes, there are lots of hard hitters on the tour but only that tiny handful who now have what one might call (for lack of a better phrase) the complete power game. And so, whenever one of the marquee players takes on someone like Sandrine Testud (ranked No. 11), or Anke Huber (No. 10), or Amanda Coetzer (No. 14), the result is a slaughter, an embarrassment. The matches rarely last as long as an hour. Up against the big guns, these top 20 players are little more than cannon fodder.

I’m sure this state of affairs won’t last more than two or three more years. Every serious 12-year-old tennis player now is learning to play the power game—to boom in serves at over 100 mph, to hit killer returns, to play, in short, the kind of game that Venus and Serena and Lindsay play. In time, that game will be what all the women professionals play, not just the handful at the top. You may not like seeing the women’s game become more like the men’s—where the big serve is the ultimate weapon—but it is inevitable. And it will make women’s matches more competitive again, which is something that needs to happen.

In the meantime, I have a suggestion for those of you who want to watch some good women’s matches—and don’t have tickets to the semifinals or finals, when the big guns finally get to play each other. Get to the tournament in the early stages, when players you’ve never heard of are still playing each other. Yesterday, for instance, the eighth seed, Natalie Tauziat, beat someone named Ludmila Cervanova of Slovakia, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, in her first-round match, while Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (the ninth seed) defeated a South African named Joannette Kruger in a third-set tie-breaker. Judging by the scores, they must have been wonderful matches. (I didn’t see them, alas; I was working.) If form holds, by the way, Sanchez-Vicario and Tauziat will meet in the fourth round—with the winner to face Venus Williams in the quarterfinals. At which point, the only decent thing to do will be to avert your eyes.