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.”
Other previous champions have seemed, somehow, equally eager to distance themselves from the sport as soon as an opportunity presented itself.
Last year’s champion, Justine Henin, retired earlier this year at the age of 25—a year after she won two Grand Slams—and left the game because, she said, she was burnt out. The 2005 Open champion, Kim Clijsters, retired at 23 with a similar explanation.
And no one among the current crop of would-be superstars seems willing, or able, to stay on top long enough to allow the public to get to know them. For example, the telegenic French Open champion and new No. 1, Ana Ivanovic, got bounced in the second round to a player barely ranked inside the top 200, the second consecutive Grand Slam where she didn’t even make it to the fourth round.
It didn’t used to be this way. Starting as early as 1998, women’s Grand Slam finals had consistently higher ratings than the men’s. But in the past three years, the scale has been tipping back, and this year, the erosion of the women’s once dominant position seems complete.
Part of this comes down to a sort of vacuum at the top. The women’s side was once so strong that the first week of play was something of a joke, so routinely did the in-form stars make embarrassingly quick work of their first-round opponents.
Now, that’s what the men’s side looks like. Over a week of play so far at the Open, four top players—Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick—have dropped three sets combined.
And with the high survival rate of the marquee players, the potential late-round matchups are mouth-watering. A Djokovic-Roddick quarterfinal, with the American veteran looking for one last triumph vs. the 2007 U.S. Open finalist and 2008 Australian Open champion. There’s the real possibility of a Nadal-Federer final, which would be the third consecutive one in a Grand Slam this year, and Nadal’s first-ever hardcourt Grand Slam final appearance. And there’s the possibility of a Nadal-Djokovic final, not to mention a Roddick-Federer semifinal.
The headlines write themselves.
“Men’s tennis is at the point where no matter what happens, it’s interesting,” said Wertheim. “‘Federer gets his mojo back and wins a Slam and shuts up his critics!’ ‘Federer loses and the wheels have really come off!’ ‘Nadal wins and it’s the best year since Rod Laver!’ ‘Djokovic wins and he wins two slams in one year!’
“Men’s tennis is at a point where—and this is where women’s tennis used to be—anything that happens provides a juicy plot,” he said.
The one thing that could save the women’s game this year, of course, is a self-inflicted drama involving the Williams sisters. Because they take part in so few tournaments, they wound up in the same quarter in the draw and only one of them will survive to the final four of the Open.
And maybe if one of them can eke it out and win the whole thing, everyone will forget about Ana Ivanovic’s second-round loss.
But still, that’s pretty meager stuff. On Sept. 6, the day of the women’s final and the men’s semifinals, when Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are potentially playing in one semifinal, and it’s Roddick or Djokovic against Federer in the other half of the draw, the women will have to pray they’ve got still got a Williams to give fans someone to root for (or against).
The plot thins.