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Tennis? What tennis?

Why the sport has disappeared off U.S. radar screens

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Monday October 15, 2001 1:39 PM

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

A Tatiana Panova- sized Q&A this week ...

What is going on with tennis in the United States? The sport was so hot after the U.S. Open, with Venus and Serena Williams playing in the prime-time final. Now, you never hear anything about it. It was even hard to find coverage of the Davis Cup tie between the U.S. and India. Why does tennis have to disappear in the States after a great U.S. Open, just when people are getting interested?
—Susan Jacobs, Chicago

Strictly from an American perspective, your point is a good one. Tennis has all sorts of momentum in the U.S. after the Open and then, for all intents, doesn't resurface in the States until February.

Three reasons why the sport is so stark this year. First, the events of Sept. 11 have pushed all sports, not just tennis, to the background. Second, the U.S. was not a credible Davis Cup threat. A tie against India to remain in the World Group, played in North Carolina (without Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi in the lineup), does not make the heart skip a beat. Third, the WTA Tour made the questionable (read: nonsensical) decision to relocate the year-end championships from Manhattan to Munich.

For a lousy increase in prize money, the women lost the buzz of New York and the proximity to Madison Avenue. What's more, the tuneup moved from Philadelphia to Nice. If and when the tour finally names a new CEO to replace Bart McGuire (I've had friends whose marriages haven't lasted as long as this executive search), putting a fall event back in the States ought to be a top priority.

Now that Jennifer Capriati has taken over the top ranking, do you think Martina Hingis will ever return to No. 1?
—Seth Douglas, Phoenix

Truthfully, no. For the past year, her ranking has been marked by an invisible asterisk. It's hard to be considered a credible No. 1 when your last Grand Slam title came nearly three years ago and you're consistently overpowered by any of a half-dozen other players. Hingis is so innately talented, so technically skilled and so consistent that, barring injury, she will always be a top-10 player. But her battered confidence and physical limitations will make it nearly impossible for her to reclaim the top spot.

Hingis has, of course, lost her position sporadically through the past three years, only to recover it a few weeks later. But after missing the rest of this season with an ankle injury (preventing her from defending her year-end championship points), she will start 2002 with a significant points deficit.

What do you think are the prospects of Tathiana Garbin becoming a top-15 or -20 player?
—Peter So, Manila, Philippines

Slim. Garbin is a nice player who hits a big ball, plays with flair and has had some good wins, including one this year over Monica Seles at Indian Wells. Unfortunately, she has a tendency to get injured and, despite never having won a Grand Slam match before this year, is already 24 -- downright middle-aged in tennis years. Currently ranked close to 100, the top 20 is far away. Instead, put her in the dangerous-floater category.

I've read over the last few years how romance between tennis players causes distractions for them on the court (see: Martina Hingis and Ivo Heuberger, Jennifer Capriati and Xavier Malisse). However, that doesn't seem to be the case for Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters, both of whom have had their best year on tour in 2001. What's different about this duo from the other couples?
—Janine Riamolo, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

This is just a guess, but perhaps you answered your own question. Since Hewitt and Clijsters are so close in terms of ranking, ability and goals (both young, top-five players trying to take the next step), their relationship is more simpatico than, say, Hingis-Heuberger, who were at vastly different points in their careers.

What are your thoughts on the Delta Tour of Champions (aka the Fogeys Tour) becoming big, like golf's Senior tour, in a few years when the likes of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter and the Rochus brothers turn 35?
—Scott G., Los Angeles

The real question is why Seniors golf is so popular. Sure, that Jumbo Ozaki is a barrel of laughs, and Chi Chi Rodriguez waving his putter like a pirate never gets old (joke), but, honestly, there has to be something more exciting worth watching. Like a city-council meeting on public access.

To me, a tennis Fogeys Tour, as you so delicately put it, five or 10 years hence could be a big deal if today's cast of characters played. That, however, is a huge conditional. Somehow, I can see neither Agassi nor Sampras, each with a net worth of nine figures, spending their weekends at some suburban country club playing against their former colleagues for a $50,000 pot.

On the subject of the WTA calendar, what about the guys? I am sorry, but I have not seen enough good-looking guys on the ATP Tour. The women wear all that tight clothing to play the game, and the men wear baggy shorts and loose shirts. They should start wearing tight tank tops, I think.
—Omar Portillo, Bronx, N.Y.

So that's why the men's game has been in the doldrums ... not enough tight tank tops. I'll forward this to the tour's marketing department, stat.

I read that Anna Kournikova is going to play Amanda Coetzer in three exhibition matches in November. Finally, one of them is going to win a match! This can't just be a coincidence, right? Care to pick a winner (other than male fans)?
—Luke Croteau, Durham, N.H.

Vince Spadea.

Completely hypothetically, which five WTA Tour players -- keeping in mind not just looks and sex appeal but also personality, sense of humor and good ol' fashion human decency -- would you be most inclined to marry?
—Leslie, Toronto

Professional ethics and a wife who occasionally lapses from good taste and reads this column prevent me from answering. But I'll throw this out to you folks (obviously, ATP players are eligible, too, depending on your preference). Best answer gets some swag.

Goolagong's legacy

Last week's discussion of Evonne Goolagong and her curious legacy drew many thoughtful and passionate responses. A sampling:

I never thought of Evonne Goolagong as anything but a tennis player (a very graceful one). The same holds true for Arthur Ashe, Mal Washington and the Williams sisters. I have followed tennis since the late 1960s. I have never looked at any of the players as anything but a player. Skin color did not and does not matter to me. Can't we get past all of this?
—Peter Fleming, Atlanta

I agree that Goolagong did not have quite the oomph that the Williams sisters now have, but she wasn't given her due even back then by the American media. And my honest opinion is that it's because she wasn't American; Goolagong was a bigger deal outside the States. My gosh, Billie Jean King (granted, with her big personality) outdrew the more accomplished if more diffident Margaret Court. At first, it seems you could blame this on the cult of personality, but Yannick Noah is a much more impressive player than journeyman Mal Washington. How can Washington outdraw him? Only here in America. But I suppose it's still not that simple. I was surprised that Steffi Graf could get away with dissing Zina Garrison when Garrison bounced her out of Wimbledon in 1990. Steffi said something to the effect of: "She's not going to win." A judgment I agreed with but which I thought was obviously sour grapes. Perhaps Graf wasn't jumped on because Garrison's finals' opponent, Martina Navratilova, by then was thought of as American. I have a more insidious suggestion, but I think I'll keep that one to myself.
—Hemsley Stewart, Kingston, Jamaica

Goolagong's accomplishments don't measure up to the Williams sisters'? You're joking, right? Two Wimbledons, one French, four Australians and four consecutive finals at Forest Hills? I think she's got them beat. She isn't mentioned by the media because she's not an American, hasn't played in 20 years, and most tennis announcers can't pronounce a word with more than two syllables.
—Bill Ford, San Antonio

Having read Bud Collins' biography of Goolagong, I think the answer is clear: Goolagong never, as far as I can recall, made any attempt to relate her own situation to that of the Aboriginal people. She was completely apolitical publicly and seemed comfortable living her life as a "white person." I don't know what her private feelings were, but Goolagong was simply not cut out to be a spokesperson for the Aborigines. Perhaps this was due to the fact that she was of mixed race -- only 1/4 Aborigine, if I remember correctly.
—William Moore, Houston

My next statement is made not to be crass or mean-spirited, but to explain a point. Ms. Goolagong is not and was not seen as a "trailblazer" because she was not easily recognized as a "minority." A darker-skinned person stands out in the crowd more so then a lighter-skinned individual, in any number of minority groups. During World War II, Americans of Japanese descent were placed in camps, while Americans of German heritage lived free. From the old Sesame Street days, "Which of these things is not like the others?" Goolagong's legacy as a trailblazer has suffered because she, in fact, did not look "minority" enough. Perception is 9/10ths of reality.
—James Brown, New Castle, Pa.

First of all, thanks to Daniel Rabbit for bringing up a valid point about Goolagong's lack of recognition. As someone old enough to remember well her career, I have several ideas why Goolagong is ignored:

1) Although she was of Aboriginal descent, Goolagong steadfastly refused to answer any questions about her heritage and refused to be drawn into controversy about the shoddy treatment of Aborigines by their countrymen. She reserved her right to privacy, so the significance of her accomplishments were always ignored.

2) Goolagong's star fell just as quickly as it rose. She always was overshadowed by the strong personality of Billie Jean King, and had the misfortune of coming on to the tour at the same time Chris Evert was catching everyone's hearts (including mine). Injuries prevented Goolagong from having a long career, and when she retired we already were entranced by the blooming Martina/Chris rivalry.

3) Even though Goolagong had a distinguished career, there will always be a feeling that she never quite reached her potential. She was easily one of the most effortless and graceful players in the history of the game, but to the couch tennis player it looked like she never really was trying. Also, her mental game, even by Goolagong's own admission, was always lacking. Goolagong called these lapses "walkabouts." Whatever they were, there were many matches where she simply seemed to lose interest.

Goolagong's place in tennis history always will be incomplete, in my opinion. However, I will remember her as one of the most entertaining players to watch, as well as a marvelous ambassador for women's tennis.
—Phil O'Donaghue, Florence, Mass.

I think there are a few reasons why Goolagong hasn't gotten her due. Nationality (re: not American) does have something to do with it; I suspect the way Aborigines are seen in Australia also is a factor, but not having inside knowledge I could not say for certain. But that's only a part of the problem. Unlike Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe or the Williams sisters (not to mention Jackie Robinson or Tiger Woods), being African-American is and was a ongoing, daily struggle. Gibson and Ashe were the first. Serena and Venus were "the first since." Goolagong, on the other hand, did not have that kind of fanfare nor that kind of pressure. She was seen as a dyed-in-the-wool Aussie.

I think another reason has to do with results. Gibson, in her day, was the best. Today, Venus and Serena are the best. Goolagong was great, had a beautiful game and even made Chris Evert look interested in their matches. But she was never the best. Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Evert were the better players during the most fruitful era of Goolagong's career.

Personality is another reason. Ashe may not have had the results of a Rod Laver or a Jimmy Connors, but he stood out for being both political and a gentleman par excellence. Gibson was hired by the USTA to travel the world playing tennis, a calculated political move, especially since she previously had been barred from warmup tournaments for the U.S. Open. When people say "good for the game" in regard to Venus and Serena, it often feels like they mean "get more black kids involved."

Goolagong suffers from the Virginia Wade syndrome. Wade won Wimbledon in the 1977, but every reporter says that Fred Perry was the last Brit to win the Championships because he was a man and Wade is a woman. Goolagong is of Aboriginal descent, but because she isn't African-American that gets forgotten. Which is a shame. She played one of the most beautiful games ever and there is no way to see it anymore.
—Avi Lichtenstein, Southampton, Mass.

While it doesn't surprise me that many Americans will never really appreciate the true greatness of Evonne Goolagong-Cawley and the obstacles she faced, I was astonished by your assertion last week that her achievements could never "measure up to those of the Williams sisters." Goolagong-Cawley won seven Grand Slam singles championships: four Australian Opens (beating Evert and Navratilova in two of those finals), two Wimbledons and one French Open. Further, she was runner-up in 11 Grand Slams, making the final of the U.S. Open four straight times. Of course, her second Wimbledon victory in 1980 saw her become the first mother to win the title in 66 years. How can you honestly say her career is inferior to that of either Williams?
—Russell Boxshall, Melbourne, Australia

I don't think many people know Goolagong is of Aboriginal descent. I know because my father told me (I'm African-American). I'm old enough to remember her. Maybe the people covering tennis today are too young or just don't know. For the record, I think she is a trailblazer.
—Milford Pinkney, Perkasie, Pa.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim, author of Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tennis Tour, is a regular contributor to Click here to send him a question or comment.

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