Simonya Popova is hot. Smoking. Close to it, anyway. It's a preposterously humid August afternoon in Bradenton, Fla., and Popova is on a back court at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, midway through a series of practice sets. Strikingly attractive, her skin and hair colored by the sun, Popova is dripping sweat like a busted faucet. Her opponent, a toned and tanned academy instructor who claims to have played in the Davis Cup for Peru, is panting. "Never hot like this in Tashkent," says Simonya's father, Sergei, looking on from his usual perch behind the court. "This worse than Cairo."
Not that it bothers his daughter much. Popova, 17, has broken the instructor's service and is serving for the set at 5-3. With murderous intent she whacks a backhand winner and then a forehand winner to go up 30-love. A 125-mph serve down the T rockets past the Peruvian for 40-love. On the next point he chips a return and charges the net. Showing court craft to match her power, Popova unfurls a topspin lob that traces a perfect arc and nicks the baseline. "More accurate than ICBM," says Sergei, smiling at his daughter. "How you beat her? I cannot say, because I do not know."
This week and next the women's game will be all the rage at the U.S. Open. Yet perhaps the best female tennis player on the planet won't be in the draw. At age 15 Popova won the prestigious Orange Bowl junior tournament without dropping a set. But Sergei, a self-described disciple of Richard Williams, was wary of throwing his daughter into the fast, peripatetic life of a fulltime touring pro. (He also knew that if her mystique were allowed to grow, it would spark a bidding war among companies seeking to sponsor her.) So he has forbidden her to turn pro until she reaches 18 this fall. With nothing left to achieve in junior tennis, she has spent the past three years practicing, mostly against men who couldn't quite cut it on tour. "My dad thought if I went pro at 16, I'd burn out like Jennifer Capriati," says Popova in flawless English. "The way you burn out is by practicing all day and never playing matches that count for anything. I can't wait to be on the WTA tour."
And the WTA tour can't wait to have her. As women's sports go, tennis reigns supreme. The players have infiltrated the public consciousness to such a degree that they're known by their first names: Venus, Serena, Anna, Martina, Jennifer, Lindsay, Monica. The TV ratings for women's matches routinely surpass the men's—at Wimbledon the women's doubles final outdrew the men's singles final. At the U.S. Open, tournament organizers and CBS execs are so sure that the women will upstage the men that the women's final is scheduled for prime time on Saturday, Sept. 7, while the men play the following afternoon. This is to say nothing of the women's unquantifiable buzz. "We are in a golden age," says WTA tour CEO Kevin Wulff.
Yet this Belle Epoque may be gilded with fool's gold. Financially, women's tennis isn't nearly as hot as most people think it is; in fact, it might be in trouble. There's a nagging sense that the WTA has failed to capitalize on an impossibly colorful cast of characters, and now the window of opportunity is closing fast.
Consider: Sanex, the European skin-care provider, is rinsing out as the tour's title sponsor, and no replacement is in sight. The WTA has never been able to cobble together a meaningful television package—the coverage is sporadic and impossible for casual fans to follow—and recently Eurosport, a major broadcast partner of the tour's, began agitating for a new deal with more favorable terms. A sexy 1998 agreement with Regency Enterprises, which Business Week estimated would bring the tour $120 million, has turned out to be essentially worthless. (Regency bought worldwide television rights to the WTA Tour, hoping to capitalize on the glamour of the players, but there were scant takers.)
Women's tennis certainly appeals to corporate America, but companies ranging from Wrigley to Avon to American Express are investing in a few choice players—not in the WTA as an institution. The Williams sisters, for instance, will earn more this year (from Puma, Reebok, Wrigley, Avon and Nortel, among others) than the tour grosses. Meanwhile, at WTA events in North America attendance declined from 1,812,367 in 2000 to 1,769,195 in 2001, while at men's pro events it increased from 1,984,645 to 2,216,727. Overall, attendance at men's tournaments grew 2.6% more than at women's.
If the women's game is at a crossroads, it's also because of what's happening on the court. Not long ago a half-dozen players were credible candidates to win major titles. Today there are only two: Venus and Serena Williams. Barring a colossal upset, the Williams sisters will make the U.S. Open final a family affair, just as they did the 2002 French Open and Wimbledon finals. Their rise from the courts of Compton, Calif., to the game's elite might still be the most inspirational story in sports, but as their tennis has ascended to new heights, the rest of the field has vaporized.
Capriati, whose inexplicably sour demeanor is fast frittering away the goodwill she amassed during her comeback, has beaten neither Serena nor Venus in more than a year. Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, both former No. 1's, have just returned from injuries, and the Williams juggernaut seems to have blunted their motivation. Monica Seles is a saint of a human being and a sentimental favorite in any tournament, but she's down to her last few clicks as a player. Anna Kournikova remains a tennis player manqu�. And Top 10 mainstay Am�lie Mauresmo of France has said that the Williamses are so dominant that she has set her sights on being No. 3. "Someone needs to step up and mount a challenge," says former pro Pam Shriver, now a broadcaster.
That someone might well be Popova. At 6'1" she has the height that's become a requirement for success in the women's game. And at nearly 160 pounds of sinewy muscle she's capable of generating plenty of power. She also deploys her pace-laced shots with the consistency of a ball machine. Though her natural habitat is the baseline, she is that rarest breed, a female with both the ability and the confidence to play serve-and-volley tennis. "If there's a weakness, I sure didn't see it," says veteran U.S. pro Corina Morariu, who practiced with Popova in Florida. "There's just an unbelievable amount of talent there."