Who's That Girl? The WTA tour is desperately seeking a new star to embody its ideal of strength, attitude and sex appeal. Meet Simonya Popova

September 01, 2002

Simonya Popova is hot. Smoking. Close to it, anyway. It's a
preposterously humid August afternoon in Bradenton, Fla., and
Popova is on a back court at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy,
midway through a series of practice sets. Strikingly attractive,
her skin and hair colored by the sun, Popova is dripping sweat
like a busted faucet. Her opponent, a toned and tanned academy
instructor who claims to have played in the Davis Cup for Peru,
is panting. "Never hot like this in Tashkent," says Simonya's
father, Sergei, looking on from his usual perch behind the court.
"This worse than Cairo."

Not that it bothers his daughter much. Popova, 17, has broken the
instructor's service and is serving for the set at 5-3. With
murderous intent she whacks a backhand winner and then a forehand
winner to go up 30-love. A 125-mph serve down the T rockets past
the Peruvian for 40-love. On the next point he chips a return and
charges the net. Showing court craft to match her power, Popova
unfurls a topspin lob that traces a perfect arc and nicks the
baseline. "More accurate than ICBM," says Sergei, smiling at his
daughter. "How you beat her? I cannot say, because I do not
know."

This week and next the women's game will be all the rage at the
U.S. Open. Yet perhaps the best female tennis player on the
planet won't be in the draw. At age 15 Popova won the prestigious
Orange Bowl junior tournament without dropping a set. But Sergei,
a self-described disciple of Richard Williams, was wary of
throwing his daughter into the fast, peripatetic life of a
full-time touring pro. (He also knew that if her mystique were
allowed to grow, it would spark a bidding war among companies
seeking to sponsor her.) So he has forbidden her to turn pro
until she reaches 18 this fall. With nothing left to achieve in
junior tennis, she has spent the past three years practicing,
mostly against men who couldn't quite cut it on tour. "My dad
thought if I went pro at 16, I'd burn out like Jennifer
Capriati," says Popova in flawless English. "The way you burn out
is by practicing all day and never playing matches that count for
anything. I can't wait to be on the WTA tour."

And the WTA tour can't wait to have her. As women's sports go,
tennis reigns supreme. The players have infiltrated the public
consciousness to such a degree that they're known by their first
names: Venus, Serena, Anna, Martina, Jennifer, Lindsay, Monica.
The TV ratings for women's matches routinely surpass the men's--at
Wimbledon the women's doubles final outdrew the men's singles
final. At the U.S. Open, tournament organizers and CBS execs are
so sure that the women will upstage the men that the women's
final is scheduled for prime time on Saturday, Sept. 7, while the
men play the following afternoon. This is to say nothing of the
women's unquantifiable buzz. "We are in a golden age," says WTA
tour CEO Kevin Wulff.

Yet this Belle Epoque may be gilded with fool's gold.
Financially, women's tennis isn't nearly as hot as most people
think it is; in fact, it might be in trouble. There's a nagging
sense that the WTA has failed to capitalize on an impossibly
colorful cast of characters, and now the window of opportunity
is closing fast.

Consider: Sanex, the European skin-care provider, is rinsing out
as the tour's title sponsor, and no replacement is in sight. The
WTA has never been able to cobble together a meaningful
television package--the coverage is sporadic and impossible for
casual fans to follow--and recently Eurosport, a major broadcast
partner of the tour's, began agitating for a new deal with more
favorable terms. A sexy 1998 agreement with Regency Enterprises,
which Business Week estimated would bring the tour $120 million,
has turned out to be essentially worthless. (Regency bought
worldwide television rights to the WTA Tour, hoping to capitalize
on the glamour of the players, but there were scant takers.)

Women's tennis certainly appeals to corporate America, but
companies ranging from Wrigley to Avon to American Express are
investing in a few choice players--not in the WTA as an
institution. The Williams sisters, for instance, will earn more
this year (from Puma, Reebok, Wrigley, Avon and Nortel, among
others) than the tour grosses. Meanwhile, at WTA events in North
America attendance declined from 1,812,367 in 2000 to 1,769,195
in 2001, while at men's pro events it increased from 1,984,645 to
2,216,727. Overall, attendance at men's tournaments grew 2.6%
more than at women's.

If the women's game is at a crossroads, it's also because of
what's happening on the court. Not long ago a half-dozen players
were credible candidates to win major titles. Today there are
only two: Venus and Serena Williams. Barring a colossal upset,
the Williams sisters will make the U.S. Open final a family
affair, just as they did the 2002 French Open and Wimbledon
finals. Their rise from the courts of Compton, Calif., to the
game's elite might still be the most inspirational story in
sports, but as their tennis has ascended to new heights, the rest
of the field has vaporized.

Capriati, whose inexplicably sour demeanor is fast frittering
away the goodwill she amassed during her comeback, has beaten
neither Serena nor Venus in more than a year. Lindsay Davenport
and Martina Hingis, both former No. 1's, have just returned from
injuries, and the Williams juggernaut seems to have blunted their
motivation. Monica Seles is a saint of a human being and a
sentimental favorite in any tournament, but she's down to her
last few clicks as a player. Anna Kournikova remains a tennis
player manque. And Top 10 mainstay Amelie Mauresmo of France has
said that the Williamses are so dominant that she has set her
sights on being No. 3. "Someone needs to step up and mount a
challenge," says former pro Pam Shriver, now a broadcaster.

That someone might well be Popova. At 6'1" she has the height
that's become a requirement for success in the women's game. And
at nearly 160 pounds of sinewy muscle she's capable of generating
plenty of power. She also deploys her pace-laced shots with the
consistency of a ball machine. Though her natural habitat is the
baseline, she is that rarest breed, a female with both the
ability and the confidence to play serve-and-volley tennis. "If
there's a weakness, I sure didn't see it," says veteran U.S. pro
Corina Morariu, who practiced with Popova in Florida. "There's
just an unbelievable amount of talent there."

What's more, Popova has charisma to match her game. For the past
few years, in a Faustian bargain, the WTA and various management
groups have reaped short-term gains from hyping the players' sex
appeal. Kournikova was the most obvious example, but other stars
like Hingis and even the religious Williams sisters were happy to
vamp. Recently, however, the tour has been backed into a corner
as more and more players have made it clear that they want to be
perceived only as athletes. "We're playing a great game and doing
it very well," says Martina Navratilova. "We've gone away from
the sex-appeal thing."

Take Daniela Hantuchova, 19, a tall, blonde Slovak who is closing
in on the top 10 and is being pushed to fill what tour insiders
refer to as the "Anna vacuum." One veteran tour staffer refers to
Hantuchova as the Bratislava Babe and eagerly notes that her
44-inch legs are the longest in the history of women's tennis.
Problem is, Hantuchova, awkwardly cast as a sex symbol, wants
none of it. "I'm concentrating on my tennis," she says. "I don't
need the other things."

Nor, apparently, does 17-year-old Ashley Harkleroad, who's been
hailed as the American Anna. Harkleroad caused a minor stir at
last year's U.S. Open when, with Nike's encouragement, she
violated all the laws of physics by squeezing her body into a
skirt and tank top that were several sizes too small. (Not
coincidentally, several days later tournament schedulers put her
match in Arthur Ashe Stadium.) This year she is insisting that
any outfit she wears on court first be approved by her mother.

Elena Dementieva, another blonde Russian, was expected to follow
in Kournikova's tracks, but she too has demurred. "I don't like
the show-business side of tennis," Dementieva says.

Same for No. 4-ranked Jelena Dokic of Yugoslavia. Earlier this
summer she was approached about a photo shoot by GQ, which had
done earlier layouts with Hingis (cover line: THE CHAMP IS A
VAMP) and Kournikova (headline: FROM RUSSIA WITH, UM...LOB?).
To the tour's dismay Dokic declined, preferring to spend time on
the practice court. Dokic also stands sentry over her private
life. Recently asked by a journalist about her romance with
Formula One driver Enrique Bernoldi, she responded, "Why don't
you think of a question that is your business, and you can ask me
that." This attitude is anathema to a tour that rose to
prominence by promoting its players as glamorous cultural
curiosities rather than as athletes.

Just how desperate is the tour to keep the focus on style over
substance? Earlier this summer the WTA ran a series of ads in USA
Today promoting its summer tournaments. An illustration of a
curvaceous player was accompanied by pro-wrestling-style tag
lines, including, "I'm your worst nightmare: a bitch in a
headband." A number of players were so incensed that, through
their agents, they demanded that the tag line be removed, which
it was. "It's as if they want to portray us as being catty," says
one top player. "I guess controversy sells, but for most of us,
it's not our nature."

Fortunately for the WTA, Popova has pulchritude and attitude in
equal measure. Her midriff-baring outfits, so small they appear
to come from Gap Kids, highlight her ample decolletage. She has
already agreed to pose for the tour's annual swimsuit calendar.
When she turns pro, an image consultant hired by her agent will
travel with her.

"Simonya is to marketability what John McEnroe is to
self-promotion," says her agent, Max Eisenbud. "We're talking off
the charts."

Better still, unlike the Williams sisters, who have become
increasingly opaque figures, reluctant to let down their guards
for an instant, Popova is a beacon of candor. "I have no
secrets," she says. "I'm like Hingis when she started out. I'll
say anything." Indeed, with only a modicum of baiting, she is
inclined to, well, Popov on a variety of subjects. "If women's
tennis is all that, how come we still make, like, 40 percent less
than the men at events outside the Grand Slams?" she asks. "Did
you know that 26 men have won more than $500,000 this year, but
only 12 women have?" And don't get her started on Kournikova. "I
hear Anna wants to write a biography, but can you publish a book
if you don't have a title?" she says. "Seriously, Anna's nice.
It's just that she's, like, so jumped the shark."

Kournikova did, however, write the career blueprint that
Popova--and dozens of other young players from the former Soviet
Union--have followed. In the late '70s and early '80s, her
parents, Sergei and Raisa, both gym teachers in Tashkent, were so
poor that they went weeks eating nothing but borscht. After their
fourth son was born, Raisa vowed that her fecund days were over.
"She was going to get tubal litigation, or whatever you call it,"
volunteers Simonya. Raisa didn't, and Simonya was born on Oct.
22, 1984.

By age eight it was clear that she had preternatural hand-eye
coordination and a one-in-a-billion aptitude for hitting a tennis
ball. Given her skill, her physique and a face that could launch
a thousand endorsements, Popova was nicknamed Predopredelena (the
Destined) by Uzbekistan Tennis Federation officials. Two years
later she was delivered to IMG, the Cleveland-based management
behemoth. The whole Popov family left Tashkent for a
three-bedroom condo, provided free of charge, at the IMG-owned
Bollettieri Academy. ("From one gulag to another," jokes Sergei.)
Simonya began taking classes at the academy and was soon speaking
fluent English. (She now quotes Lil' Romeo and Romeo Montague
with equal proficiency.) Her tennis flourished. Says Bollettieri,
one hardly given to overstatement, "The first time I saw Sim, I
thought of Flo-Jo: the speed, the grace, the determination. I
said to myself, Nick, you got a world Number 1 on your hands."

Though she is still two months removed from her professional
debut, Popova is hip to the realpolitik of the WTA tour. Like
many stars, she has already made a fuss about wearing the tour's
sponsor patch on her shirt, lest it reduce the value of her
apparel deal. Popova has also let it be known that, like
Kournikova, she won't lodge at designated tournament hotels.
She'll take a suite, preferably at a Ritz, though an
Inter-Continental will do. ("And not one of those
add-a-desk-and-call-it-a-junior suites," she adds. "I'm talking
the claw-foot tub, the polished rocks in the ashtrays, all that
stuff.") With IMG's behind-the-scenes finagling, she has been
guaranteed that she won't have to play her first match at
tournaments until Wednesday, something of a status symbol among
top players.

Time, of course, will tell if Popova's abundance of confidence is
justified. But with skills to compete with the Williams sisters
and a celebrity force field to rival Kournikova's, Popova is
precisely the player longed for by a tour that's losing its mojo.

If only she existed.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH VELVET HAMMER While Kournikova hasn't raised her game to match her looks, the powerful Popova (opposite) looks to be a dazzling success. COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JAMES PORTO [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN (HANTUCHOVA) NOT ME, THANKS Hantuchova (left) and Dokic have both been offered the opportunity to be the tour's next vamp but have said they would much rather concentrate on improving their games. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN ALONE AT THE TOP Serena (left) and Venus are so dominant that other leading players are relegated to battling for No. 3.

One veteran tour staffer refers to Hantuchova as the Bratislava
Babe and eagerly notes that her legs are 44 inches long.

Not long ago a half-dozen players were credible candidates to win
major titles. Today there are only two: the Williams sisters.

There's a sense that the WTA failed to capitalize on an
impossibly colorful cast of characters, and the window of
opportunity is closing fast.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)