Books Exposing the seamy side of the great Oklahoma teams and women's tennis

September 16, 2001

The Undefeated
by Jim Dent/Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95

There's little question that the Dust Bowl migrations of the
1930s left Oklahoma with a soiled image. The rest of the
country--Californians in particular--viewed Oklahoma's fleeing
inhabitants, the so-called Okies, as barefoot primitives on the
order of Steinbeck's beleaguered Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.

Several events conspired to alter that depiction. First, Richard
Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the breakthrough Broadway
musical that, starting in 1943, extolled the virtues of a state
where "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye." Next, in '51, a
muscular young Oklahoman named Mickey Mantle joined the New York
Yankees and began hitting baseballs out of sight. Finally,
Oklahoma's football team began obliterating the opposition,
winning 47 games in a row over five seasons, from 1953 to '57.

The last of these restorative occurrences is the principal (but
not the only) subject of Dent's book. The Sooners' streak didn't
happen by accident. The deep pockets of filthy-rich oilmen, rules
be damned, financed it. Dent gleefully captures these backroom
shenanigans, while conveying the mounting excitement of the
victory run. Along the way, he delivers compelling portraits of
the tough and wild farmboy players who kept the wins coming.
Dent, a Texan, knows the type, and he speaks the language.

The book's true protagonist, though, is Sooners coach Bud
Wilkinson, a man who, on the surface at least, was a paragon of
virtues. However, as Dent so entertainingly reveals, Wilkinson
had another side to him. The churchgoing family man could booze
with the hardiest of his oilman benefactors. Plus, he may have
been the state's most prolific and proficient womanizer. It was
not only his coaching acumen, then, that inspired awe among those
privileged to glimpse the swinger inside the saint.

Wilkinson was certainly a winner. So is this book. --Ron Fimrite

VENUS ENVY
by L. Jon Wertheim/Harper Collins, $25

"Please, we are not tennis players," says Anna Kournikova of the
members of the women's tour. "We are stars."

That's the central issue in this book: An athlete should be
judged on her ability, but a star may be judged on other
criteria--on her personality, on her clothes, even on her sex
appeal. The question facing nearly every woman on the tour is: Do
you want to be a star like Kournikova, who bragged to a newspaper
that "my breasts are really good because they don't sag"? Or
would you be satisfied to be like Lindsay Davenport, who,
according to Wertheim, "takes to putting on makeup the way cats
take to baths?"

The triumph of feminism is that women can choose for themselves,
but it's not that simple in tennis, because many female pros are
young and screwed-up. Wertheim, an SI senior writer, offers an
examination of this subject (while he also provides a festival of
gossip). It's astonishing, for example, how many players have
difficulty with their dads.

Wertheim's catalog of crazy dads provides enough material for a
psychoanalytic conference. Jennifer Capriati's father, Stefano,
brags that he made her do sit-ups in the crib; Mary Pierce's
father, Jim, was ejected from the 1993 French Open for causing a
disturbance in the stands. Then there's Richard Williams, father
of Venus and Serena. At various times he has claimed that he was
about to buy Rockefeller Center and that he had launched a
website "for f-----d-up girls" that he estimated would be worth
$100 million. With parenting like that, it's amazing these women
can choose from a menu, let alone make smart career decisions.

It's no coincidence that Davenport emerges as the tour's most
well-adjusted player. When she was a kid, her father embarrassed
her during a match by groaning loudly when she made a mistake.
She told him to stop or "you'll never get to come watch me again."

A tennis player, not a star. If I have a daughter, I hope that's
the choice she makes. --Charles Hirshberg

COLOR PHOTO: ST. MARTIN'S PRESS COLOR PHOTO: HARPER COLLINS

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