Staring hard at the women’s draw on an oversized sign at the Pilot Pen tennis tournament last week in New Haven, Conn., Carol Nadel quietly mouthed some names to herself.
“There aren’t that many names I know,” said the 64-year-old fan. “Myskina—I know her. But I couldn’t pick her out of a line-up.”
It’s the story of women’s tennis. Like the draw here at the last warm-up tournament before the U.S. Open, the field isn’t so much weak as it is anonymous.
Just a few years ago, the women’s game was controlled by a set of first-class divas, a set of athletes the public knew simply as Serena, Venus, Jen, Monica and Martina.
But most of those first names will be absent when the Open arrives in Flushing this week. Thanks to injuries, attrition and indifference, the dramatic running rivalries that used fuel the sport’s popularity are a thing of the past. Also gone are all the diva-driven dramatics that lured fans to Center Court every big Sunday.
As far as the current players are concerned, the marked decrease in crazy tennis dads, players bumping during changeovers and incidents of trash talking is a good thing.
“Trash-talking is over now,” said Wimbledon champ Amélie Mauresmo, her hair wet after stepping out of the shower after practice in New Haven. “Today, players might think something, but they won’t say it in public like they used to.”
“There’s a difference from a few years ago,” quietly observed Justine Henin-Hardenne, the five-time Grand Slam champion, clearly more uncomfortable than Mauresmo while answering questions from the local press. “There’s still a lot of conflict on the court, but off the court it’s probably better now.”
But the dirty secret of women’s tennis is that it thrives on conflict.
In many ways, Henin-Hardenne’s ascendance the last three years reflects the change that women’s tennis has undergone, with the brash, outsized personalities of Venus Williams and Martina Hingis replaced by one of the most brooding, press-shy athletes in sports.
“Back then, you had everything,” said L. Jon Wertheim, tennis reporter for Sports Illustrated, with more than a hint of wistfulness. “You had a racial component, a burnout component, a tragic back-story. It was like a sitcom, and everyone had an easily reducible role.
“The buzz factor isn’t nearly what it was five years ago. It’s harder to get a grip on the sport. The sport thrives on these back-stories, and fans don’t know who they’re rooting for. Elena Dementieva is a perfectly pleasant person, but the average fan doesn’t have a grip on who she is.”
Put simply, today’s women players aren’t household names.
“You don’t say ‘Anastasia’ or ‘Elena’ and say, ‘Yeah!’” said NBC tennis analyst Bud Collins.
Those first-name players pull the game up to its highest reaches. They brought the women into prime time for the U.S. Open final. They raised higher purses for tournaments. They were cover girls.
After several decades’ worth of domination at the hands of the men’s game, the television ratings for the women’s Grand Slam finals finally began to match—and oftentimes beat—the men’s finals’ ratings.
Sports columnists everywhere were suddenly speaking of the greater virtues of the women’s game: It had more rallies than the men’s game, and the good matches were a crisp two hours—the length of a college-basketball game.
Now those encomiums have been replaced by excuses.
Chief among them this year—as cited in interviews with Women’s Tennis Association officials—seems to be that the women’s tour needs more Americans. But take one look at the men’s tour and that argument dissolves. The men’s game is experiencing a renaissance on the backs of two foreigners: the invincible Roger Federer and the handsome, exciting Rafael Nadal.
In fact, the player who has the best chance to bring any buzz back to the women’s game is Russian-born Maria Sharapova— currently the highest-paid female in the history of sports. But for all of the Canon commercials and her squeaky-clean image, Sharapova still hasn’t won a Slam since her elegant 2004 slaying of Serena Williams at the Wimbledon final, at the age of 17.
Which leaves Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne as the closest thing to genuine stars that the W.T.A. has to offer.
“Justine and Amélie are kind, they’re smart, but they’re also shy and not wildly outgoing,” said Anne Worcester, former chief executive of the W.T.A. and current director of the Pilot Pen Tournament in New Haven. “But when Venus Williams and Irina Spirlea bump each other, fans like that drama and they like that tension.”
Ms. Worcester was referring to the moment in the 1997 U.S. Open when Spirlea threw her shoulder into Williams’ body during a changeover. Williams’ father, Richard, reacted by calling Spirlea a “big, tall, white turkey” after the match.
Consider the world-famous diva of women’s tennis during its apex: five-time Grand Slam champ Martina Hingis. Her most absurd highlight was calling Mauresmo, one of the few openly gay players on tour, “half a man.” A close second was her appearance in the 1999 French Open final, when Hingis called a bathroom break in the middle of her final against Steffi Graf, returned from the locker room with a new outfit and hairstyle, smashed her racket into the clay at one moment, underhanded her serve on Graf’s match point, slapped a W.T.A. official when she left the court and burst into tears when the French Open crowd booed her during the trophy presentation.
“Tension off the court brings drama on the court,” said Ms. Worcester. “Martina Hingis was charismatic. She had that grin, she’s mischievous, and when she said something, you want to listen. Fans like that.”
The tour’s malaise is perhaps best personified in Venus and Serena Williams. The Williams sisters—love them or hate them—invited a massive amount of attention with their years-long domination of the sport. But now, at a time when the sisters should still be in the prime of their careers, Serena is barely ranked in the Top 100 and Venus is hurt, adding to the sense of a pervasive culture of injuries, absence and indifference around the tour.
“The players aren’t supporting the tour,” said NBC and CBS tennis analyst Mary Carillo. “Mauresmo has blown off the entire hard-court season. Then there are injuries and phony injuries—Clijsters is out for two months.
“They don’t think about growing the game; they think about growing their bank account,” Ms. Carillo continued. “There’s been a recession for years, but the players don’t feel it. They’re making more. You can’t convince them that tennis is in trouble. They can’t feel it; their agents can’t feel it. They’re living in an entirely different reality.”
Along with that is the loss of any true rivalry in the sport. Federer and Nadal have played each other five times this year. Years ago, Hingis and Venus Williams would play each other as many times. But with the biggest names withdrawing from tournaments or spreading to different warm-ups, there’s no chance for two players to establish a rivalry.
“It’s hard to build a brand here,” said Mr. Wertheim, the Sports Illustrated reporter. “After Sharapova beat Serena at Wimbledon, that was supposed to be the next great rivalry. I’m not sure they’ve played two times since then.”
But perhaps there’s reason for hope: After retiring several years ago due to injuries— and her consistent failure against the Williams sisters—Hingis is making a comeback, and is entering the Open ranked ninth in the world and with a legitimate shot at making it into the final.
In an interview with Play, The New York Times’ quarterly sports magazine, Hingis was asked if the women’s side was tougher since she returned. She said no and, with her typical grace and sense of sportsmanship, cited Mauresmo’s success as Exhibit A for the decline in the game’s quality.
On Sunday, while Mauresmo was signing balls and posters for fans, she was told by a reporter what Hingis had said.
Her hand immediately froze. Her face tightened. Her chin twitched.
But, in keeping with the times, she quickly regained her composure.
Answering a question about Hingis and her comeback, she said, “I think it’s quite amazing.”
There was no hint of sarcasm.