In the Women’s-Tennis Galaxy, Many Stars Eclipsed by Venus

Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women’s Tour , by L. Jon Wertheim. HarperCollins, 225 pages, $25.

Why would L. Jon Wertheim write a book about the women’s tennis tour, a group top-heavy with brilliant and fascinating players, and give it the sexy but ultimately misleading title Venus Envy ? I must begin my answer with a personal tale of professional debacle.

Last December, the very thin editor of a very fat fashion magazine hired me to cover the most prestigious tournament in women’s tennis, the season-ending Chase Championships at Madison Square Garden. My job, I was told, was to see the tournament as a window into the state of the sport.

It seemed like a great gig. Women’s sports are hot everywhere these days, but as everyone knows, women’s professional tennis is in the ascendant. Rich with personalities, loaded with cash, the game far outdraws women’s golf, basketball and soccer, and–as a bonus–has simply stolen the thunder of men’s tennis, which once held the world’s attention but has now dimmed to a sad pallor.

Thanks to the fat fashion magazine, I had nearly total access to areas off-limits to the other media, from the players’ party the night before the event to the tunnels and back rooms under the stands of the Garden. I saw amazing things–Jennifer Capriati standing all alone at the opening party, looking with disappointed greed at the little silver Tiffany’s bracelet the tournament had included in her gift package; the affable Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario turned game-faced before a match, dancing in place like a boxer; the callipygous Anna Kournikova practicing in a tight black Adidas warm-up suit, showing how beautifully she can actually play tennis, despite all the hype and her zero-tournament-wins record (and surprisingly prettier in motion than in repose, in which she bears a passing facial resemblance to Boris Yeltsin). I talked to amazing people. I interviewed players, trainers and commentators, and they opened up to me. Ms. Capriati and Nathalie Tauziat spoke movingly of their fears about the emptiness of life after tennis. Martina Hingis told me about the loneliness of evenings in hotel rooms on the road. Pam Shriver and Bud Collins talked candidly and incisively about the corrosive effects of big money on the game. All of it–every word–wound up on the cutting-room floor.

One problem was that the Williams sisters were not in the Chase tournament. Both claimed to be injured, though the truth may have been more complicated. Their absence seemed a minor enough setback for my story at first, what with Ms. Kournikova, Ms. Hingis, Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport all in attendance. But Ms. Kournikova and Ms. Davenport both lost early and went home, and–rendering moot the slightly worrying question of whether the players could be made to look beautiful enough to command feature-well attention in a beauty magazine–tour officials proved surprisingly powerless to convince any of its stars to pose for the magazine’s photographer.

Then the magazine hired Bruce Weber to shoot the Williamses. That clinched the deal. Suddenly my very thin editor had the Picture, and the Chase Championships, and all the other players, could go take a flying leap. Lo and behold, my thoughtful 3,000-word piece about the women’s tour became a 1,000-word caption to Weber’s arresting, teasingly Sapphic photo of Venus and Serena.

All this is less to complain about my tragic ordeal than to say something about the power of image in women’s tennis. In a game that has more depth of skill among its top 20 players than ever before, three women–the winless Kournikova and the frequently absent Williams sisters, who play fewer tournaments than any of the other stars–are simply the straws that stir the drink. The other top women may win more events, may play tennis just as beautifully, but do they sell magazines? Tickets? TV commercials? Does their Q-rating extend outside the game’s narrow world? The poignant contrast, at the Chase Championships, between the glittery electricity of a not-very-competitive Kournikova night match (Ms. Capriati cleaned her clock) and the big patches of empty seats at the dramatic, hard-fought Hingis-Seles final could not have told the story more starkly or graphically.

But the Williamses, of course, are the biggest news of all, not least for the controversy that continues to wreathe these two very young women (Serena is 19; Venus, 21) and their off-the-wall father, Richard, a cross between Svengali and a Mark Twain character–a man who, according to Mr. Wertheim, has claimed that “he studied law at Yale [and] played for the Lakers,” who “says with a straight face that his father-in-law was once the CEO of General Motors,” who asserted with an equally straight face to an acquaintance of mine that he made $531 million–outside tennis–last year.

Richard Williams is also many things besides amusing. Mr. Wertheim tells us that “he has an ugly habit of making virulently anti-Semitic remarks,” that his answering-machine message once said, “There are those that ask me what I think of intermarriage. Anyone that’s marrying outside of this race that’s black should be hung by their necks at sundown. Please leave a message.” He also has been suspected of beating his wife, Oracene, and “eagerly and unapologetically tells of giving his daughters ‘ass-whippings’ when they disobeyed him.”

And then there was the time, a few years ago, that “Richard accompanied his daughters to [a tennis] event. When he met the tournament director, Richard draped an arm around him. ‘So,’ Richard said. ‘How does it feel to have a couple of niggers in your draw?'”

Shocking, maybe; but not irrelevant. The triumphs of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and the Williamses notwithstanding, tennis has long been a lily-white game. And so when Richard Williams accuses the women’s tour, tournament directors, fans and players of racism with regard to his daughters, he accomplishes several things simultaneously: He pushes everyone’s buttons; he keeps the publicity machine churning in slow moments; and he brings up troubling but pertinent issues. Were fans really, as Mr. Williams charged, yelling racial epithets at him and Venus last March at a California tournament after Venus pulled out of her semifinal match against Serena? Mr. Williams has been known to tell a tall tale or two–but then, even one racial epithet is more than enough.

Subtler questions are more to the point. God knows the cameras, both still and video, love Venus and Serena, yet there’s something disturbing around the edges, a whiff of Leni Riefenstahl-ish condescension, about our (and fashion-magazine editors’) objectification of the sisters as beautiful physical specimens. It speaks to white discomfort about black dominance in certain sports, and to black discomfort about white perceptions of black intelligence. Stir these questions up, and they don’t die down easily. Simplest to sweep them under the rug.

And focus on the astonishing ascendancy of Venus Williams. With back-to-back Wimbledon titles bracketing her conquest of the U.S. Open last year, she has more than justified the reported $40 million endorsement deal she signed with Reebok last December. And this is a young woman who does not live for tennis, who doesn’t especially like to practice, whose priorities, Mr. Wertheim tells us, “are God, Family, and Education. If tennis is fourth, it’s a distant fourth.” Yet where most tennis fans are concerned, she’s clearly Numero Uno.

Why, then, is Venus Envy a misleading title? Because what Mr. Wertheim has done at book length is precisely what I was attempting to do on a much smaller scale: give a thoughtful, colorful, insidery look at a rich but troubled little world, narrow but deep, and full of players and stories far beyond the Williamses. At least as amazing as Venus’ rise over the past year has been the triumphant second act of Jennifer Capriati, the former teenage phenom who descended into drug use and petty theft, then emerged phoenix-like to take the 2001 Australian and French Opens.

How much time does Ms. Capriati spend envying Venus? Zero, I promise. And the same could be said of Ms. Hingis, Ms. Davenport or any of the tour’s top players, or even the up-and-coming 19-year-old Justine Henin, who gave that big Williams sister a jolting second set in the Wimbledon final. Mr. Wertheim covers almost all the bases in his lively, quickly readable book. (Alas, Venus Envy also appears to have been quickly written; it’s speckled with flagrant repetitions and solecisms. And if I never see the phrase “served notice” used again–ever–in any tennis writing, it’ll be much too soon.)

Mr. Wertheim is excellent on the Williamses–and everyone else. His writing, when he gets away from a fitful and unfortunate need to jerk the prose into colorfulness, is sensitive and psychologically acute. His chapter on the tour’s wistful, sharp-witted almost-martyr Monica Seles (stabbed by a demented German fan in 1993, she’s been struggling to come back ever since) playing a low-paying tournament in Oklahoma City just for the love of the game is itself worth the price of admission.

And, oddly enough, it has nothing at all to do with Venus Williams.

James Kaplan is working with John McEnroe on Mr. McEnroe’s autobiography. In the Women’s-Tennis Galaxy, Many Stars Eclipsed by Venus