WIMBLEDON, England -- It sure was tough to be a women's pro tennis player five years ago. The sport was stale, the tournament promoters were panicky and the media outlets were hostile.
"All we heard was how bad the game was and how there were stars," says Lindsay Davenport, the world's second best woman player. "But now, we've got the stars."
In world tennis, it's the women who rule. They've got the charisma and the buzz that are electrifying the game's premier event, Wimbledon.
They've got great rivalries and talented teen-age players who are so brash, they even talk a little trash.
But mostly, they're not dull, like the men.
This amazing turnaround is fueling a new tennis boom.
Television ratings are up -- for the women. Corporate sponsorships are up -- for the women.
And magazines that would normally have nothing to do with women's sports are ablaze with tales of the racket-swinging teen sensations.
Martina Hingis, the 17-year-old who is No. 1 in the world and the reigning Wimbledon champion, squeezed into a tight minidress and grabbed the cover of GQ under the headline, "The Champ Is a Vamp."
People magazine named 17-year-old Russian Anna Kournikova one of the world's 50 most beautiful people.
"I think that everybody loves the ladies," Venus Williams says.
Davenport, who is 22 and virtually a generation removed from the teens, agrees.
"These girls are going to grow the sport," she says.
The women's game is now a hot commodity on and off the court. Hingis hawks everything from sunglasses to juice drinks. The Williams sisters have signed with separate clothing companies.
Regency Enterprises signed a five-year deal to sell the women's tour television rights globally. The $5 million-plus-a-year fee may not sound like much in an era where rights for pro football top $1 billion, but it is a strong step forward.
Even the men's tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, wants to cash in on the new trend by creating more joint tournaments with the World Tennis Association, which oversees the women's tour.
'This is the moment'
"Women's tennis is in the best shape in its entire history," says Billie Jean King, the first big-money female player of the modern era. "This is the moment."
Women's tennis has come a long way since Sept. 23, 1970, when nine players, led by King, signed $1 contracts to form the Virginia Slims tour. The female tennis pioneers fought for equal pay and a greater stake in the fledgling professional game that was tilted toward the men.
Many among the tennis elite disparaged the women's game, calling it slow and boring. But a "Battle of the Sexes" changed all that.
Millions of television viewers watched as King beat aging tennis hustler Bobby Riggs in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome. And the tennis bureaucrats caved in.
They didn't guarantee the women equal pay, but they started to give them equal billing. And where the money flowed, the stars followed, as the women's game was nourished for years by Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf.
Now, women's tennis is a worldwide show that runs over 11 months and hands out more than $40 million in prize money.
"We're moving into a period of great strength," says Bartlett H. McGuire, the chief executive officer of the WTA.
McGuire sees few clouds on the horizon. He says the tour is in an enviable position as it looks for a new overall corporate sponsor after its current deal with Corel expires at the end of the year.
Playing for parity
He also remains hopeful that the women can soon command equal prize money at three of the four Grand Slam events, the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon. Men and women receive equal pay at the U.S. Open.
"I believe the cause for equality is getting stronger and stronger," he says.
Still, those around the women's game are aware that today's stars can quickly disappear.
There were a few lean years in the early 1990s. When Monica Seles was stabbed by a fan at a match in Hamburg, Germany, in April 1993, the sport was traumatized. Its rising star was sidelined for years and its image was damaged.
Later that year, Jennifer Capriati, another teen who at 13 was promoted as the next Chris Evert, burned out on the game.
The travails of the teens forced the WTA to protect its young. Under current rules, 14-year-olds are limited to five professional events a year, while 15-year-olds can enter eight.
The limits are lifted when a player turns 18.
By shielding the young players, the WTA all but forced the teens to develop well-rounded games. Racket technology, which enables players to hit faster and harder, also helped the women by adding pace and power to a once soft-hitting game.
"With these powerful rackets, the women got more interesting and the men got more boring," says former pro Zina Garrison.
A convergence of stars
Yet it's in the past 12 months that the women's game has truly come together, with a convergence of teen stars.
"Characters? I think that there's a lot of personalities on the ladies' tour at this moment in time," Venus Williams says.
It's Kournikova who symbolizes the new breed. She's a tennis player who looks like a super-model and dates a hockey star, Sergei Federov of the Detroit Red Wings.
She once boasted, "I am beautiful, famous and gorgeous." And no one disputed the claim.
When she withdrew from Wimbledon with a thumb injury, it was the stuff of front-page headlines in Britain.
Hingis is a throwback to Evert, a steadfast competitor who can win from the baseline.
And the Williams sisters are what any world sport craves -- American stars. But unlike most of the top players in this sport, their games weren't fashioned in country clubs. They were raised in a rugged neighborhood in Compton, Calif.
"They're making an impact on the game," Garrison says. "They're bringing more spectators to the game.
"And it's not just African-Americans who are following the Williams sisters. They're so good, a lot of girls want to be just like them."
Veterans contribute, too
But women's tennis isn't relying just on the teens. Seles is back and there is a host of veterans like Jana Novotna and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario still vying for titles.
Former tennis star Pam Shriver says, "If you don't keep the hunger and clenched fist, there is some 18- or 19-year-old who says, 'Get out of here.' "
And lurking in the wings are teens honing their skills in tennis academies around America.
As Seles says, "There's always another 16-year-old."
Pub Date: 6/28/98