As the star-starved French Open showed, the women's game is
suddenly in a swoon
Ever see a juggernaut run out of steam? Think women's tennis on
the way to the 2001 French Open. For four years the WTA tour has
been the best soap opera in sports, a melodrama of exploding
egos, precocious talent and breathtaking cattiness. The last few
months, however, have revealed increasing signs of indifference
by marquee players, disenchantment among fans and a lack of
leadership from tour officials. "I never dreamed it would turn
out like this," Venus Williams said after her meek straight-set
loss to Barbara Schett in the first round in Paris. She might as
well have been talking about the state of the women's game.
The bleeding began long before the tour's hottest player, Amelie
Mauresmo, buckled under the hometown pressure and lost on opening
day. Defending champ Mary Pierce and three-time winner Monica
Seles had withdrawn with injuries before the tournament began. So
had No. 3-ranked Lindsay Davenport (bone bruise on her right
knee) and the tour's most sellable face, Anna Kournikova (stress
fracture in her left foot), though there had been growing talk on
the tour about both women's lack of focus on tennis.
Kournikova has proved that a tennis player can be a star without
winning, so, who knows, stardom without playing might be the next
step for her. As for Davenport, she hasn't won a Grand Slam title
since the 2000 Australian Open, and she turns 25 this week. That
she's enjoying her relationship with boyfriend Jon Leach far more
than training leaves many observers wondering if she will ever
whip herself back into contention.
The Williams sisters came to France with a metastasizing
credibility problem. Venus's last-minute withdrawal from her
much-anticipated match against Serena at Indian Wells in
March--amid charges of gross disregard for the ticket-buying fan
and speculation that their father, Richard, had ordered Serena to
lose to eventual champion Venus in their semifinal match at last
year's Wimbledon--sparked a public-relations firestorm that hadn't
yet been doused. Then, after Venus's loss on the first day of the
French, the sisters withdrew from the doubles. Serena said she
wanted "to focus all my energy toward doing the best that I can
in singles." Fans, players and reporters suspected the real
reason was that Venus just wanted to go home. Almost nothing the
Williamses say now is taken at face value.
After the Indian Wells controversy, the WTA made a tepid show of
support for the sisters, and in Paris no tour official warned the
Williamses that fans might take their doubles withdrawal as
another slap in the face. There's no reason to expect a firmer
hand at the top: WTA chief Bart McGuire has been nothing but a
businessman during his four-year tenure, and last month's
announcement of his upcoming retirement was greeted by players
and the press with indifference. A search committee is working to
come up with candidates to replace McGuire by Wimbledon, and
whoever gets tapped will face a tour in disarray.
"It's not only the Williamses, it's all the top players--they're
all going every which way, only thinking about themselves,"
seven-time French Open champ Chris Evert said last Friday.
"Everything's coming apart at the seams. There has to be some
unity, some sense of loyalty and some sense of responsibility."
Don't expect any of that soon. The women's tour still has star
power, and a win this weekend by Martina Hingis or Jennifer
Capriati will help fans forget about the weak draw and the
disorder at the top. Still, Paris changed things. When Serena
said on May 29 that "women's tennis is more exciting than men's,"
it rang less true than it would have six months ago. If the tour
isn't careful, soon the statement will sound like a bald-faced
Andy Roddick's Breakthrough
New American In Paris
It's amazing the number of things 18-year-old Andy Roddick did
wrong in his debut at Roland Garros. He didn't practice on the
unfamiliar Court Philippe Chatrier before his first match there,
against former French Open champ Michael Chang in the second
round. He ignored advice to consume bananas and other
mineral-rich foods to prevent the cramps that would nearly
cripple him late in the fifth set of that match. He didn't pull
out of his doubles match the next day. When playing Lleyton
Hewitt in the third round, Roddick didn't ask for a three-minute
injury break after he apparently strained his left hamstring.
Instead he played four more points, then retired.
None of it mattered. No player made a bigger splash in Paris last
week. "Relief, joy--you can't explain moments like that," Roddick
said when asked how he felt after Chang's backhand flew wide to
give Roddick a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 victory. "I almost wanted
to cry, but I wanted to scream and yell at the same time."
Plenty of fans felt the same way after that thrilling marathon.
There was Chang, beyond his prime and looking across the court at
both the past and the future. There was Roddick, cramping as the
17-year-old Chang had in the '89 fourth round against Ivan Lendl
but blasting un-Chang-like 129 mph serves and then whirling like
a scarecrow on a stick as his body buckled in pain. At 4-4 in the
fifth set, Roddick's coach, Tarik Benhabiles, gestured from the
stands for him to quit. Roddick shook his head.
As that match showed, there is much to love about Roddick's game.
He already has one of best serves on the tour, a cracking
forehand and high energy. He loves the big moment and works the
crowd so effortlessly that he already has begun to annoy his
peers. The day after the Chang match, numerous player criticized
Roddick for having torn off his shirt following his win, and some
in the Chang camp were skeptical of the extent of Roddick's
cramping. After the Hewitt match, many of his peers wondered how
injured Roddick was, given that he'd gone to a dance club that
In fact, soon after retiring in the Hewitt match, Roddick had an
ultrasound that confirmed he had strained his hamstring. However,
he refused to divulge the results of an MRI he underwent the next
day. Regardless, Roddick said he plans to play at Wimbledon.
He has the skills to do well there, but Paris also highlighted
his weaknesses: a shaky backhand, a willfulness that can override
wisdom, and a fragile body. Roddick had arthroscopic knee surgery
last year to repair minor ligament damage. As Andre Agassi said
on Saturday, "He really needs to take care of himself."
Doctor, Can You Check His Head?
No male player did more in Paris to damage his reputation than
Marat Safin. Last year, as a 20-year-old, the Russian prodigy
rode a scintillating backhand, a huge serve and an engaging
personality to stardom. After winning seven tournaments as well
as the 2000 U.S. Open, he seemed positioned to be the game's
standard-bearer for years to come. Evidently success doesn't
"He has to grow up, because his attitude is not quite
professional," fellow Russian pro Yevgeny Kafelnikov said last
week. "I hope he's going to understand that the success he had
before is in the past. He has to move on."
Injuries to muscles in his back have plagued Safin since he
pulled up lame in the Dubai final in March, but the lure of a
$1.4 million ATP bonus for playing in all nine Masters Series
events pushed him to show up and lose in the early rounds of five
tournaments he had no business entering. Safin, who has earned
$4.8 million during his four years on the tour, made no
apologies. Missing one event would've cost him $467,000, a second
would've cost $934,000, and a third would've cost the whole
booty. "What I would have lost not playing was so huge that I
didn't even ask myself about it," the No. 2-ranked Safin said
His decision to go for the cash cost him dearly. Safin came to
Paris far from match-ready. He sprayed his shots and moved
poorly, and after surviving two rounds, he lost ugly to Fabrice
Santoro, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 0-6, 6-1. Afterward Safin smashed a
racket in the locker room and drew a $10,000 fine for refusing to
attend his postmatch press conference. "I do what I want," he
told an International Tennis Federation official.
Two days earlier, when asked about Kafelnikov's criticism of him,
Safin had grinned and said, "I don't care. Maybe my brain is a
little bit less than 21 years old, but I think that's what makes
me feel good." That, perhaps, is the most disturbing news of