Twenty years ago, you went to the U.S. Open to see Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Now you go to see Anna Kournikova, Venus Williams and Martina Hingis–a triumvirate Ms. Hingis cheerfully dubbed “the Spice Girls of tennis.”
If to sit in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the height of the tournament as airplanes roar past is to feel that one is at the very heart of the urban jungle–forgetting for a moment the 45-minute subway ride to Flushing–then these young women are its new rulers, its lionesses. They’re the ones strutting and preening and stalking the baseline–as Messrs. Borg, McEnroe and Connors used to–while the rather simian Pete Sampras, the newly hairless, emasculated Andre Agassi (who has a hunted look even when he’s winning) and that wussy Aussie Patrick Rafter, with his pliés, his zinc oxide and his topknot, do their thing and quickly flee the court. The new, big rackets–which have rendered the men’s serves unreturnable and their rallies short and boring–are feminine . Their sweet spots are larger. Gone is the old racket press, a sort of corset.
Tennis, as a spectator sport in America, is mostly accessories, body parts and attitude. So: The sports bra has replaced the tennis sweater. The long, waxed thigh has replaced the hairy, clay-smudged calf. And the brattiness that Mr. McEnroe made acceptable has given way to the schoolgirl insouciance of Ms. Kournikova, Ms. Hingis and their juicy pop-culture counterparts. If the attitudes of professional female tennis players are reflective (or, God forbid, predictive) of upper-middle-class mores, then these ladies are the standard-bearers of the new bitchiness. Billie Jean King’s earnest, nerdy determination, Chris Evert’s golden-girl equanimity, Martina Navratilova’s blend of physical power, emotional frailty and self-deprecating humor–that stuff doesn’t cut it anymore. The new girls are sex objects, willfully. They are big and strong, yet they continue to wear short skirts. They whack the hell out of the ball, then tuck it away in their panties. They spend hours in front of the mirror and say mean things about each other and appear, lightly varnished, in magazines. Their very names connote power: Anna Smashnova, Mary Pierce, Venus (as opposed to Chrissie, Steffi, Tracy). “I can’t help it if I’m beautiful,” famously remarked Ms. Kournikova, who has never won a tournament.
“I just think that the girls are–they’re more of a show,” said Nick Bolletieri, the ubiquitous, leathery Floridian coach who helped launch Ms. Kournikova, Mr. Agassi and Monica Seles. “It’s showtime, dear! The Williams sisters come out with the beads. Not only do they come out with the beads, but they back it up! You watch Venus and Serena go across the court and you say, ‘ Ho -ly mackerel!’ It’s not just pushing the ball back. It’s big serves, thundering ground strokes … You’re dealing with a whole new game, dear!”
So goes tennis–and, perhaps, gender power relations–as we approach the century’s last Grand Slam, which will kick off on Aug. 28, appropriately enough, with a concert by the midriff-baring teen singer Britney Spears. Whaling It Nine days before the Open, some of the girls were in New Haven. It was a chilly, misty morning during the qualifying rounds of the Pilot Pen Championship, one of the two women’s hard-court tournaments leading into the Open. Out on one of the practice courts, a few lower-ranked players were hitting with their grumpy coaches, punctuating each ground stroke with Seles-style grunts. A father-and-son duo watched through the fence, mouths slightly agape. “Jesus, she’s really … whaling it,” said the younger man, a gangly redhead. He was Eric Fabricant, 14, of Madison, Conn. He said his favorite player was Ms. Kournikova. “But I liked Graf. Steffi Graf was an amazing player.” Ms. Graf, 30, the icy Athena of the women’s game who built an entire career around her lithe gams and whiplike forehand, announced her retirement Aug. 13. “I think women’s tennis has really pulled itself up,” the kid said as the grunting players bent low over their rackets, their firm little rumps encased in pale gray bicycle shorts. “A lot of it has to do with the marketing side of it,” said Eric’s sandy, bespectacled father, Scott, 44. “Just the publicity, marketing and the push behind the women.”
The woman responsible for that push, Anne Worcester, 41–kind of a silky blond lioness herself–retired as chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association last year and now directs the Pilot Pen. She was found clad in a beige pantsuit and lots of jewelry in a subterranean office not far from the practice courts. “For me personally, women’s tennis is powerful, first and foremost, and it’s graceful,” said Ms. Worcester, “but it’s also glamorous, and I don’t mean–I’m not referring to sex symbols. I think glamour is a very elegant thing. It’s elegance … They’re women second, but they’re athletes first and foremost. But being a woman is a positive thing! You know, especially in this day and age.”
A few doors away, in the players lounge–a more modest version of the Open’s plush quarters–a blond, tanned Euro esthetic prevailed. Clusters of bored, ponytailed players lolled back in comfy chairs watching You’ve Got Mail as their track-suit-clad male entourages ran errands and helped themselves to fruit from silver urns. To kill time, some players in rustling warm-up pants played darts. “It’s kind of gone in stages,” said United States Tennis Association coach Craig Kardon, who has worked with Ms. Navratilova and Wimbledon semifinalist Alexandra Stevenson. “First there was a lot more power, and now it seems like the girls are getting taller and bigger and stronger.”
And they are more out there . The 6-foot-plus Lindsay Davenport talks about her weight problem. Venus Williams designs herself one-armed tennis dresses. And while Mr. McEnroe used to be taken to task for his bad behavior (he is now adored as one of the few male commentators with any sort of teeth), these days Ms. Hingis is the one with the perpetual sneer–lip curling back–and the proud, pale forehead. She tosses her racket, insults lesbians in press conferences and throws temper tantrums. “Women, historically, have been a bit more emotional,” reasoned Mr. Kardon, a deeply tanned 38-year-old who looks like Dennis Quaid. “Tennis has always been filled with etiquette, and I think lately the etiquette has been thrown out for money. The competition for money and the jealousy surrounding endorsements has gotten out of hand.” As for the history of the game, he said, “They don’t care. They don’t care . You ask Venus and Serena who won Wimbledon and under what circumstances, and they wouldn’t care. In the women’s game, much more so than the men, they detach from the past and it’s like, ‘Me now, basic gratification. I want to get the most money for myself, and endorsements, me, me, me .’ Ha ha!”
Back in leaner times–the 70′s, say–female players were actively lobbying for equality off the court. But they presented themselves delicately. Virginia Wade had a dress with a ruffle at the bottom of it. When Margaret Court won, she would sometimes look up and hit her head ruefully with her racket in a kind of “Well, gosh, look at me go” gesture before going to the net for the handshake. There was something soft, inoffensive and googly about Evonne Goolagong, with her little crop of hair, her walkabouts and her Geritol commercials. Even Billie Jean King donned the occasional lace dress. The 80′s commenced with Tracy Austin in pinafores and pigtails and pompom socks; and sedate Ms. Evert with her mouth set in a firm line. Watching archival footage of these women play, one is struck by how much of a loping, scooping game it was. They hit forehands with their free arm outstretched as if they were holding cups of tea. To get power on her two-handed backhand, Ms. Austin had to choke up so high on the shaft of her racket that her top hand was up halfway between the head and the handle. During the 1979 final between Ms. Evert and Ms. Austin (who won in two sets), they’re not even running for the ball. They stand upright. It looks like a lazy Saturday morning practice session.
Whereas now even a lazy Saturday morning practice session at a second-tier tournament causes hormone-filled 14-year-old males to flinch as they ogle. That kind of intimidation began with Ms. Navratilova, the transplanted Czech who dominated the tour until Ms. Graf came on the scene, but Ms. Navratilova’s ropy arm muscles and mannishness did not endear her to New York. Speaking at a U.S. Open press conference in 1985, Ms. Navratilova–dolled up in frosted lipstick and teased hair–wondered why the Open crowd didn’t like her. “I’m not a monster,” she insisted. “I’m not mean and nasty and a bad person.” She was trying to seem nice. The kids today are post-nice. They are bored and indolent–as befits the dominant class. “They go out on the court and they want ,” said an awed-sounding Pam Shriver, who made it to the finals against Ms. Evert in 1978, of today’s crop of players. “Their mentality is to be aggressive, to hit the ball hard, whereas, I’m telling you, you could see some matches on the women’s side in the late 70′s, early 80′s that were, like, moonballs , they used to call them moonballs. It was a very passive way of playing, whereas now, there’s nothing passive about it.”
“They are more aggressive,” agreed puckish NBC commentator Bud Collins, “although nobody was more aggressive than Billie Jean King, but it’s a little more blatant aggression, you know, holding the hands up for applause.” The women of1999 tennis are not only post-nice, they are post-history. And they don’t need each other. “Billie Jean and Rosie Casals, they understood,” Mr. Collins said. “They had their place in history more in mind. If they didn’t make it then, it wasn’t going to be made, whereas the kids come in now and say, ‘Who’s Billie Jean King? What do you mean she played for $1,500? Get away from me, I’m making a million!’”
How Coach Brad Gilbert Remade Agassi’s Game
If Andre Agassi rides his 1999 French Open victory and Wimbledon runner-up appearance to the finals of this year’s U.S. Open, it will be largely on the back of his coach, the gritty ex-pro Brad Gilbert. More than anyone else, Mr. Gilbert has helped transform Mr. Agassi from a flaky, premature has-been into a poised and hungry warrior, capable finally of being the rival to Pete Sampras that the tennis world has long wished him to be. In his day, Mr. Gilbert was the king of garbage tennis, the guy no one wanted to play. He wasn’t particularly gifted, but he made life miserable for players with twice his talent by hitting junk shots and playing mind games. Opponents hated him for it. He played like a wimp and won. So humiliating was a Gilbert loss that in 1987 John McEnroe took a six-month sabbatical after dropping a match to him. “How could I let Gilbert beat me?” he complained afterward. “I’m getting out of the game.” But Mr. Gilbert never left it. Just before he retired from the pro tour in 1995, he latched onto Mr. Agassi, a guy with raw talent who, with a little Gilbert here and a little Gilbert there, could be the old meatballer’s ticket to No. 1. Coaches occupy a strange place in the tennis firmament. Part guru, part accessory, they steer the fragile egos of their players and labor to convince them that tennis is a chess match and a test of endurance as much as it is a game of making shots. Other than that, their job is to sit sullenly in courtside boxes as their charges ignore their game plans. Between points, the TV cameras find them, and they come to occupy central roles in the soap operas of the players’ lives. There are Svengalis like Ion Tiriac, the cranky Romanian with the Gene Shalit ‘fro, who coached Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and Boris Becker, and called himself “the best tennis player in the world who can’t play tennis.” There are the great tennis moms, from Gloria (Ma) Connors (part of history’s first tennis entourage) to Melanie Molitor, who gave the world Martina Hingis. And then there’s Mr. Gilbert, with his petulant underbite, his 1 o’clock shadow and his rather limited coterie of admirers on the professional tour. Eleven days before the Open, Mr. Gilbert was sitting on the last row of the small grandstand court of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C., watching two players named Marat Safin and Fabrice Santoro slug it out for the right to play Mr. Agassi in the next round. Mr. Gilbert, the brains in the Agassi entourage, was there to scout. On the court Mr. Santoro, a small, stocky scrambler with a slice backhand, was closing out the first set against Mr. Safin, a tall, blond, big-hitting Australian who seemed put off by his opponent’s tenacity. Mr. Gilbert was identifying with Mr. Santoro. “Safin’s already got a shitty attitude,” Mr. Gilbert said. “This guy Santoro’s already under his skin right now. I used to do that to guys. They just don’t think he’s that good, but yet if they look at it, he’s doing a lot of things out there. He’s in his kitchen, and that’s an art in itself. He’s a great counter-puncher and he slices like me and he takes a lot of pace off the ball. I used to take my time between game breaks if I was down, to get the guy out of his rhythm.” Born and raised in Oakland, Calif., Mr. Gilbert was a bad junior player who flourished only after he got big and went to Pepperdine University. The pinnacle of his professional career was when he reached fourth in the world in 1990. Over the course of his 13 years on the tour, he won 20 tournaments but never got past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Mr. Gilbert first introduced Mr. Agassi to his gritty thinking-man’s game in 1995, after Mr. Agassi had split from tennis impresario Nick Bollettieri. Mr. Agassi had developed a reputation for tanking matches, departing unexpectedly from tournaments with mysterious injuries, and just plain underachieving. He was perhaps the most talented player anyone had seen since Mr. McEnroe, yet he couldn’t finish his matches. He was a wimp with big hair, a small heart and $100 million in endorsement contracts with Nike and Canon. Then came Mr. Gilbert, the preening, friendless tour veteran. The two men had dinner in Key Biscayne, Fla., a real tennis town. They talked about tennis. They could do things for each other. “I think the big difference between Andre now and Andre five years ago is that he’s a lot more well balanced,” Mr. Gilbert said. “His strategy is a lot better now on the court. When Bollettieri coached him, he used to go out there and just wing it. If he played good, he’d win. One of the first things I told him was that, look, you can win a lot more of your matches with 65 percent of your game and 100 percent of your brain as opposed to 100 percent of your game and 65 percent of your brain.” Down two sets to none in this year’s French Open final, the old Agassi would have already been halfway home to Las Vegas, but the new Agassi, under Mr. Gilbert’s tutelage, fought back and won the title, producing one of the more memorable comebacks in recent (tennis) history. Mr. Gilbert shared in that triumph, but there’s still a part of him that wants some measure of success on the court for himself. He wants to play on Jimmy Connors’ senior tour, but there’s one small problem–Mr. Connors won’t let him. “He’s an asshole,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Every single place I go, people ask me, ‘Why don’t you play?’ I would love to play. I just can’t get in. He controls who gets in because he owns the tour. By merit, I’m way good enough to get in. I beat him a few times, and you know what else, too? He’s got a big stick about Andre. He doesn’t want to think that anyone took away from his luster. And one time Andre beat him in the ’88 Open and Andre said he was going to beat him in straight sets and then he did it, and I don’t think Connors ever got over that. He’s a strange cat. That’s all I can say. He’s a strange cat.” Mr. Gilbert doesn’t think much of Mr. Connors’ game, either, which is odd since it resembles his own in so many ways–at least the scrapper part. “I never felt he was a threat to me,” he said. “Even when he beat me, I always felt like I had chances, as opposed to when I would step on the court to play Lendl or Mac. They were intimidating. Connors had no intimidation in his game.” Back on the court, Mr. Safin was about to lose the match and his head against the wily Mr. Santoro. “Santoro’s the kind of guy that every club player hates to play,” Mr. Gilbert said. “He always gets one extra ball back even if he’s out of the point. It starts to screw with the opponent’s head.” Mr. Safin dumped an easy volley into the net, threw his racket on the court and shouted, “Ah, fuck!” “That was just a mindless shot,” Mr. Gilbert observed. “He’s about two inches away from breaking a chair or breaking his rackets. It’s like watching Tim Wakefield pitch. I love watching him to see if he can get away with it.” In the stands, Mr. Gilbert looked up at the sun through his sunglasses, then removed his white Nike T-shirt. He had the kind of overflowing hairy chest that a lot of guys are shaving off these days, guys like Mr. Agassi. “He’s hairy like me, so he just trims,” Mr. Gilbert said. “I don’t think enough about that kind of stuff to care. I don’t worry about that kind of shit.” –William Berlind
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