As the star-starved French Open showed, the women's game is suddenly in a swoon
Ever see a juggernaut run out of steam? Think women's tennis on the way to the 2001 French Open. For four years the WTA tour has been the best soap opera in sports, a melodrama of exploding egos, precocious talent and breathtaking cattiness. The last few months, however, have revealed increasing signs of indifference by marquee players, disenchantment among fans and a lack of leadership from tour officials. "I never dreamed it would turn out like this," Venus Williams said after her meek straight-set loss to Barbara Schett in the first round in Paris. She might as well have been talking about the state of the women's game.
The bleeding began long before the tour's hottest player, Am�lie Mauresmo, buckled under the hometown pressure and lost on opening day. Defending champ Mary Pierce and three-time winner Monica Seles had withdrawn with injuries before the tournament began. So had No. 3-ranked Lindsay Davenport (bone bruise on her right knee) and the tour's most sellable face, Anna Kournikova (stress fracture in her left foot), though there had been growing talk on the tour about both women's lack of focus on tennis.
Kournikova has proved that a tennis player can be a star without winning, so, who knows, stardom without playing might be the next step for her. As for Davenport, she hasn't won a Grand Slam title since the 2000 Australian Open, and she turns 25 this week. That she's enjoying her relationship with boyfriend Jon Leach far more than training leaves many observers wondering if she will ever whip herself back into contention.
The Williams sisters came to France with a metastasizing credibility problem. Venus's last-minute withdrawal from her much-anticipated match against Serena at Indian Wells in March—amid charges of gross disregard for the ticket-buying fan and speculation that their father, Richard, had ordered Serena to lose to eventual champion Venus in their semifinal match at last year's Wimbledon—sparked a public-relations firestorm that hadn't yet been doused. Then, after Venus's loss on the first day of the French, the sisters withdrew from the doubles. Serena said she wanted "to focus all my energy toward doing the best that I can in singles." Fans, players and reporters suspected the real reason was that Venus just wanted to go home. Almost nothing the Williamses say now is taken at face value.
After the Indian Wells controversy, the WTA made a tepid show of support for the sisters, and in Paris no tour official warned the Williamses that fans might take their doubles withdrawal as another slap in the face. There's no reason to expect a firmer hand at the top: WTA chief Bart McGuire has been nothing but a businessman during his four-year tenure, and last month's announcement of his upcoming retirement was greeted by players and the press with indifference. A search committee is working to come up with candidates to replace McGuire by Wimbledon, and whoever gets tapped will face a tour in disarray.
"It's not only the Williamses, it's all the top players—they're all going every which way, only thinking about themselves," seven-time French Open champ Chris Evert said last Friday. "Everything's coming apart at the seams. There has to be some unity, some sense of loyalty and some sense of responsibility."
Don't expect any of that soon. The women's tour still has star power, and a win this weekend by Martina Hingis or Jennifer Capriati will help fans forget about the weak draw and the disorder at the top. Still, Paris changed things. When Serena said on May 29 that "women's tennis is more exciting than men's," it rang less true than it would have six months ago. If the tour isn't careful, soon the statement will sound like a bald-faced lie.
Andy Roddick's Breakthrough
New American In Paris
It's amazing the number of things 18-year-old Andy Roddick did wrong in his debut at Roland Garros. He didn't practice on the unfamiliar Court Philippe Chatrier before his first match there, against former French Open champ Michael Chang in the second round. He ignored advice to consume bananas and other mineral-rich foods to prevent the cramps that would nearly cripple him late in the fifth set of that match. He didn't pull out of his doubles match the next day. When playing Lleyton Hewitt in the third round, Roddick didn't ask for a three-minute injury break after he apparently strained his left hamstring. Instead he played four more points, then retired.