Posted: Thursday June 29, 2006 7:36PM; Updated: Monday July 3, 2006 8:37PM
The fact is, pro tennis is a hothouse in which people perform rare skills for absurd amounts of money. It puts crushing pressure on families, demands that its thin-skinned talent grow up in public, exposes human weakness and frailty for the world to see. It combines soap opera, high school, high finance and high fashion. It is, in other words, irresistibly human in a way that most sports aren't. And it's that way, to a disproportionate degree, because the women make it so.
Because girls peak earlier and hit the circuit at a far younger age than boys, they reveal the costs exacted -- the true toll of the game -- in ways that the men's tour rarely does. In just the last 20 years, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Mary Pierce, the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis, Jelena Dokic, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne have been forced to battle adolescence, express private emotions, deal with sometimes twisted family dynamics -- and in the process have mesmerized the public, filled seats and boosted TV ratings. Some became superstars, of course, and one reason is that the public believes that they know these women, not only as athletes but as fully-fleshed personalities.
For the most part, the men never run that gantlet. They compete hard but suffer far fewer social and emotional casualties. They come on tour at 18 or 19, guided by a coach, accompanied maybe by a girlfriend. Their families stay in the background; there is a premium placed on independence, on being their own men, and obfuscation -- not revelation -- is the prevailing emotional mode. It's telling that the most dominant player of the age, Pete Sampras, barely acknowledged his parents' existence until his final Wimbledon win, and insisted being judged solely on his play. But, then, even among men's tennis cognoscenti, how many complained that Sampras was so dull?
That may be the strangest part. In the Open era, the men who crossed over into the mainstream, who became superstars, hardly lived up to the male ideal -- at least in any old-fashioned, John Wayne sense. McEnroe and Jimmy Connors ranted and raved, lost control, took nothing with a stiff upper lip -- acted, in other words, emotional to the point of near hysterics on court, violating every age-old code of male behavior. The most popular player of the last 20 years, meanwhile, wore an earring and dressed in Day-Glo. Once, someone showed Andre Agassi a picture of himself at 16. "I looked at it and said, 'Wow, she's cute,'" Agassi said in 1999. "Nice figure, very narrow hips, nice legs, long good hair. All of a sudden I went, 'Wow, that was me.'"
No, more and more, that's the men's tour. The women created the crossover template, and now agents implore their male clients to "Show them how you feel." Roddick and Federer cried when they broke through with their first Slam titles. Male players have taken to wearing cut-outs, clamdiggers and tank tops in the hope of getting more attention. So, yes, I'm being facetious when I say that the women should earn more; everyone should make the same. But when Wimbledon talks about how much harder the men work, it's almost laughable. When it comes to the sport's heavy lifting, the men aren't even close.