Lindsay Davenport loped onto practice court B at New Haven’s Pilot Pen tennis tournament last Sunday morning, and the small bleachers immediately filled with mothers, dressed in white visors, and their kids, gripping the fuzzy tennis balls they hoped she’d sign.
The crowd oohed and aahed as Ms. Davenport hit flat forehands, deep backhands and punchy volleys that bruised the court’s white lines. But it was when she brandished that red racquet high above her head that shivers shot through my stomach, just around the spot where she socked me with a serve so many years ago.
On a scorching summer day in 1994, when I was a teenager, I stood in the corner of a U.S. Open court in Flushing, Queens, clad in blue Fila short-shorts, my hands folded behind my back in that St. Sebastian–like ball-boy pose. That’s when Ms. Davenport pounded one of her monstrous shots deep into my solar plexus. She took no notice of the windless wheeze coming from the corner, next to the potted plant. Since then, I have not exactly been her No. 1 fan.
But as she signed oversized tennis balls with a black Sharpee in New Haven, Ms. Davenport made good on her reputation as the most down-to-earth woman in a playing field crowded with star-struck American divas, androgynous Europeans and Russian nymphs.
“I’m sorry,” said the 29-year-old Californian, sounding more like a freckled, broad-shouldered soccer mom than the athlete who held the top rank in women’s tennis for much of the year.
Indeed, much has changed in tennis since our last painful meeting, when Ms. Davenport was a bruising 6-foot-2 teenager trying to prove herself against giants like Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.
“A new era of players has dawned,” said Ms. Davenport, all grown up now with an investment-banker husband, nagging injuries and a history of retirement talk. “When I first started, it was the Steffi show. Now we have more players that transcend the sport.”
Clearly, Ms. Davenport was referring to rivals Maria Sharapova, with her new perfume line, and Serena Williams, modeling silky black swimsuits in Sports Illustrated. And there is no more appropriate showcase for the new flashy, fashion-driven face of women’s tennis than the U.S. Open, a tournament that over the last decade has developed an achingly tacky taste for sparkle over substance. The tournament has gone from an intimate, grassy affair in Forest Hills, the main event for America’s genteel, white-collar and often whitewashed classes, to an odd mix of sporting event and consumer carnival.
“From West Side to here, it wasn’t just a country-club event anymore,” said Tim Curry, a U.S. Open spokesman, as he walked the grounds’ sprawling food court. “It’s grown to more than just a tennis tournament …. It’s a New York happening.”
Some things, however, never change— especially when it comes to ball boys with good arms and quick legs plucked from local high schools for one last summer job. On a recent Friday night, as Hispanic kids practiced line-dance steps outside the Open’s gates and the lights from neighboring Shea Stadium lit the iron sky, a small pack of ball boys joked around in the parking lot, waiting for their parents to pick them up from practice.
They lasciviously inferred how they “wouldn’t mind” being on court with the Russian beauty Sharapova and talked about selling their official Ralph Lauren sweatshirts, which provide free entrance, for hundreds of dollars on eBay.
“It’s only two weeks, and they want money,” said Johnny Jorquera, a 16-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School, speaking of his less virtuous colleagues.
When I was a ball boy in the U.S. Open, from 1991 through 1995, we’d play Chinese poker for bottles of beer and prey on the ball girls who best filled their skirts and sweaters. We signed tennis balls scarred by any old player’s racquet string with Andre Agassi’s scrawl, and then sold the counterfeit goods at ridiculous prices. We compiled the food tickets issued to us every morning and bartered for $8 bottles of Evian at wholesale prices and—throats raw from smoking Newport cigarettes—we’d hawk them at discount to parched spectators.
And just as I hated Ms. Davenport for her low blow, the current ball boys and court attendants have their own players to suffer. Raffi Wartanian, a 21-year-old court attendant who has been supplying cold drinks and warm towels to players at the Open for seven years, once had a run-in with a washed-up American named Jeff Tarango.
“After a rain delay, I gave him the last towel. He wanted two more,” he said. “Next thing I know, there’s a racquet flying in my direction. I was like, ‘Jeez!’”
Back in the parking lot, Mr. Jorquera diplomatically noted that it’s rare for the top players to snap like that.
“They know they’re being watched closely,” he said.
Anthony M. Williams, a corpulent 17-year-old who goes to the Beacon School, seemed less concerned about how the players treated him and more interested in his compensation.
Noting that the pay had climbed to $9, up from $7.75 last year and a lowly $5 and change when I worked the courts, Mr. Williams said, “The only green I’m after ain’t on the court, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Inside the gates on Friday, workers scrambled to fix the loose wires hanging from the ceilings of Arthur Ashe Stadium and replace the pantheon of posters in its corridors with more recent champions. Outside, barefoot court attendants cleaned center court with high-powered water hoses.
The court, like all the others at the Open this year, was blue.
“It’s copyrighted as ‘U.S. Open blue,’” Mr. Curry said.
Open officials said that the navy blue courts increased visibility for both players and the fans watching at home on TV. The change is also intended to boost television ratings for the smaller American tournaments in this year’s new U.S. Open Series, which are all played on identically hued courts and create what one Open official called “a consistent television package for tennis.”
But not everyone was so thrilled about the bluing of the Open.
“I don’t like them,” said veteran tennis commentator Bud Collins, who is usually not so prudish when it comes to loud colors. “It’s showbiz. The green seemed to be a suitable color for tennis for over a century. It’s a gimmick.”
Outside the stadium, there are other new additions. Ralph Lauren, the official clothier of the Open’s umpires and ball boys, has opened its own onsite outlet, decorated with white tennis balls and silver trophies, selling stacks of white V-neck sweaters. J.P. Morgan and Chase have their names plastered on all the backstops. Evian, “your natural source of youth” (and ball-boy cash flows), has scores of stands. Silver monoliths topped with Citizen clocks shoot like stalks out of the food court’s garden.
To temper all this blatant consumerism, the Open has added faux folksy touches à la Camden Yards. One is a new scoreboard, manually updated by workers on ladders; another is a new rule that lets spectators keep balls launched into the stands. In another borrowing from baseball, there will be a tennis version of the Yankees’ Monument Park, with bronze plaques celebrating the Open’s Hall of Fame. (This year’s inductees are Ivan Lendl and Maureen Connolly.)
Only steps away, however, two square fountains, made by the creators of the Bellagio Casino, will supply a dancing water show to give the Open what Mr. Curry called a “little Vegas feel to it.”
The Las Vegas ambiance will surely not only suit Andre Agassi, who grew up there and is playing his 20th Open this year, but also the starlets of the women’s game, like Ms. Sharapova.
The first Russian to win Wimbledon, the 18-year-old with corn-silk hair knocked Ms. Davenport out of the No. 1 ranking on Monday, Aug. 22, and looks down from billboards and out of fashion magazines. On Aug. 28, Ms. Sharapova will launch her own fragrance with a big “tea party” featuring D.J. Mark Ronson, in which hands will come out of bushes spraying passersby like a shrubbery of Avon ladies. Guests will include Andy Roddick, who also has his own fragrance on the way.
“It’s supposed to convey her presence and who she is. She’s a big celebrity,” said Jassi Lekach, a spokeswoman for Parlux Fragrances, which created the perfume. “There are very few tennis stars that are also stars off the courts. She loves to dress up and go to parties. Her on-court outfit was the highest-selling that Nike ever had. She loves the color pink.”
It’s against the glossy Sharapova—and catsuit-clad Serena Williams—that Ms. Davenport stands out most.
“She’s not posing for swimsuits and launching perfumes,” said Jon Wertheim, who covers tennis for Sports Illustrated. “She’s like the den mother.”
On the practice court in New Haven, Ms. Davenport would take breathers between points to rest her feet up on the net and shoot the breeze with her hitting partners, joking about their abs. Her dark hair is simply highlighted with lighter brown; her teeth are tinged yellow.
“I feel like I portray myself like I am. I see myself as a good, honest person—a family person,” said Ms. Davenport, who married in Hawaii. “I don’t like photo shoots, and a lot of the other players do. They can do them.”
But unlike her flash-in-the-pan compatriot Anna Kournikova, Ms. Sharapova actually wins matches. Russian dominance, which was the story of women’s tennis last year when Russia claimed three of the top five players, has nevertheless lost its hold.
“I don’t think it’s a great year for Russia,” said Elena Dementieva, a 23-year-old Russian who holds the world’s sixth rank. “People know how to play against us. They aren’t surprised anymore.”
That will open the field up this year.
“What’s so good about women’s tennis is that you can’t definitely say who is going to win the Open,” said tennis coach Nick Bolletieri. “There are eight or 10 players. I think it makes it quite interesting—the depth is pretty damn good.”
But injuries have rendered the bench pretty damn thin, and many players have begun to complain about an unrealistically demanding schedule. Critics talk instead about how strides in racquet technology and conditioning have markedly increased the women’s power (some women hit serves in excess of 115 m.p.h.) and resulted in too much wear and tear. Many of the women’s top seeds have sat out significant portions of the season.
That has made it all the more difficult to pick a favorite in next week’s Open. Besides Ms. Davenport and Ms. Sharapova, who have seesawed on the world’s first ranking, one name that often pops up among experts is 22-year-old Kim Clijsters, the fourth-ranked woman in the world, who was an Open finalist two years ago. The feisty, pockmarked Belgian is the only top seed who has been consistently playing, and playing well. On Sunday, she won her third title in four weeks in Canada’s hard-court Rogers Cup.
The opponent she dispatched in the final, Justine Henin-Hardenne, 23, also from Belgium, is often called the best all-around player in women’s tennis, and is dangerous if healthy. Ms. Dementieva, who lounged around New Haven in a sky blue velour jumpsuit, also has a shot.
Serena Williams has played only a few matches since Wimbledon, is overweight and has been more interested in her reality show, Venus and Serena: For Real, than her game. Her sister, Venus, is in good form after her Wimbledon win and her foray into interior design. Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 20-year-old winner of last year’s Open, is still in the thick of it. France’s Amelie Mauresmo, 26, often cracks under Grand Slam pressure.
“She is a very fine tennis player,” said Mr. Collins of the Terminator-chinned French woman. “But she has problems in the head.”
Ms. Davenport, who has won three Grand Slam titles, hurt her back in July’s epic Wimbledon loss to Venus Williams, and on Sunday she used bending down to pick up stray balls as an excuse to stretch out her back. She said this tournament, which began Monday, would give her a good indication of how she would stand up to the Open’s competition, and commotion.
One certainty is that Ms. Davenport has a new rapport with her ball boys. She thanks them after matches and even has a personal relationship with some of her fetchers.
“There’s one guy, he does all my matches,” said Ms. Davenport. “One time when I lost in the semis, I was just sitting there really bummed out—I knew I was going to need surgery on my foot. He just came to the chair and gave me a big hug. I got a lot of questions about that, but it was really sweet.”
Yes. But an apology will suffice for this ball boy.