Taken at face value, the fourth-round match of Marion Bartoli and Sybille Bammer on Aug. 31 had a lot going for it. Both athletes played the grinding, gutsy tennis that New Yorkers adore, and the 3-hour, 3-minute match that ensued was tied for the longest in U.S. Open’s women’s history.
No one cared.
Throughout Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing, where the epic match was being played, many—too many—of the attending fans were holding little digital American Express TVs, keeping track of a sleepy Roger Federer-Radek Stepanek third-round match being played next door at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The PA system at the Ashe match dominated the quiet sound-space of Armstrong with songs like “Still the One” and “Welcome to the Jungle” at top volume between the Federer match and the Andy Roddick one that followed. The Ashe PA announcer bellowed the words “Roger Federer” with such gusto that it echoed throughout Armstrong and, at one point, forced Sybille Bammer to catch her toss mid-serve.
Even worse, the fans who attended the Bartoli-Bammer match started fleeing the stadium in droves in the first set to catch a match next door at the Grandstand court featuring a men’s qualifier.
But who could blame them?
For years, the once robust and glamorous game of women’s tennis has been listing, and this year, it appears ready to sink. Everything that gave the women’s game so much drama for years—the Soap Opera, the identifiable personalities, the rivalries—has been replicated and surpassed on the men’s side.
“It used to be that the women’s draw had these great quarterfinals, these great matches, and these rivalries and characters,” said Jon Wertheim, a tennis writer for Sports Illustrated. “Monica Seles and the Williams sisters! And Hingis! And Davenport, and Capriati! And then the men, you rolled your eyes at. Back then, the men had all these compelling upsets in the first week, but then that would mean in the second week you’d have these no-names. And now you have the opposite.”
For women’s tennis, that means you have relative unknowns like Marion Bartoli and Sybille Bammer fighting for spots in the women’s quarters.
“I think all top-10 men’s seeds were playing on Saturday,” Wertheim continued. “The five guys most likely to win are still here. And with the women’s draw: It’s wide open. You have the Williamses as a wild card, but otherwise you have Ivanovic who wins the French but loses to qualifiers; Sharapova wins the Australian and isn’t even here. These things go in cycles, but the average fan is much more excited about the men’s game.”
From a fan’s perspective, if the women don’t seem to care, then why should they?
On the Thursday night before the U.S. Open, Maria Sharapova co-hosted a Nike-sponsored U.S. Open pre-party at its new store on Mercer Street. She’s well practiced in such surroundings, having cemented her superstar-level profile by winning the 2006 U.S. Open, and making more money than any other female athlete ever.
But Sharapova wasn’t playing in this year’s Open due to an injury, and instead of being an eager advocate for the sport, she said she didn’t have much interest in the tennis anyway.
“No, I won’t [watch the Open],” she said. “Unless I’m working out and it happens to be on TV, I might catch it, but I don’t plan to watch it. I have so many things going on in my life, and this is a good time for me to work on all of the projects I’m working on.”When The Observer asked for her Open pick, she laughed. “I didn’t even know [the draw] came out!” she said. “To be honest, the day I got injured was the day that I was like, I’m not even sure who’s playing.”