"The party's over," she says.
The cadaverous figure lurking around the women's tennis tour is a middle-aged millionaire who loves to throw money at other millionaires. His name is Jim Levee, and he buys the affections of players with gifts of cash, jewelry, cars and attention—all for the chance to sit in the players' box and be seen. Tennis is the sport of sycophants, and Levee sets the pace.
Levee made his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. A scion of the Annenberg publishing family, he hovers around top-ranked Monica Seles and "sponsors" at least six other women players, including stars Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Conchita Martínez and Mary Joe Fernandez. He calls them "my girls."
Levee adopted the women's game as a grand and expensive obsession in the mid-1980s. A former teaching pro at a Florida country club says Levee offered him $50,000 to recruit a half dozen prospects. Levee would cover the players' coaching, travel and living expenses; in return, he would receive 40% of their tournament and endorsement earnings. The pro, who wishes to remain anonymous, put together a list of candidates. Levee eliminated one because she was too heavy. "I asked Levee if he wanted models or tennis players," the pro says. When Levee said he would bankroll travel only in the U.S., the pro walked out on him. "He changed the rules and made me look like an idiot," the pro says. Levee paid him only $2,000 and did not sponsor any of his recruits.
Levee angrily denies the pro's allegations and says he found his first protégée, Steffi Graf, on his own in 1986. He courted her the way he courted his latest beneficiary, Karina Habsudova, a 19-year-old Czech ranked 67th in the world. Habsudova noticed earlier this year that Levee kept popping up at her matches. "I didn't know if I should be afraid of him," she says, "so I asked another player." The player told her, "He supports Arantxa. He's definitely worth knowing."
He finally pounced last August at a tournament in Montreal. Levee took Habsudova on a shopping spree and offered to spring for her coaching. "It's very hard to make friendships with other players," she says. "But I can count on Jim as a friend. He roots for me and cares for me. I'd like him even if he didn't give me money. I get lots of love from him."
What does Levee want in return?
"I don't expect sex from my girls," he says. "I do expect a birthday card, a Christmas card, a phone call or two, a guest pass and a win." Though Levee insists he has no hidden agenda, others aren't so sure. "He wants to be very close to players, which is impossible," says Juan Núñez, coach of former Levee-ite Natalia Zvereva. "He demands their time. And when they don't go along with him, he becomes their worst enemy."
Which is precisely what happened between Levee and Graf. In '86 he began showing up at her matches all over the world. He bought her a Porsche before she could even drive. Though Steffi's father, Peter, politely refused that gift, Levee soon became an accepted accessory at her matches. He bombarded her with fur coats, jewelry, clothes, sports cars and $200,000 in cash. "I would die for Steffi Graf," he said then. "She is the only person in my life who has lived up to all my expectations, and that includes relatives, close friends, even my former wife." He called Graf "God's child" and yelled "I love you!" to her during changeovers.