Wertheim, to his credit, generally steers clear of the dreary sociology that can make the sports pages of The New York Times read as if they were accidentally switched with the op-ed section. Concentrating mainly on the famous players -- the wily Hingis, the dazzling Williamses, the tragic Seles, the stalwart Davenport and, of course, that ultimate Bond girl in a tennis dress, Her Royal Thighness, La Kournikova -- he provides incisive if somewhat superficial portraits of each one. (Seles, we learn, is a fan-friendly loner with a keen interest in money. One of the few men to whom she has been “romantically linked” is the third richest man in America, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.) Most interesting, perhaps, are Wertheim‘s forays into gender differences when it comes to such problems as the loneliness and isolation that beset many of the women on the tour. Whereas the men largely restrict competition to the court, he writes, and often socialize with their rivals between matches, female stars dwell in a world in which psychological warfare is a 247 proposition. They don’t have friends so much as alliances and entourages. And as anyone who has spent time at a women‘s tennis tournament knows, few young women are as male-dependent as the tennis players held up by advertisers as symbols of empowered young womanhood. One reason is that while men practice with each other, women practice with men in order to improve their games. And for every exception like Hingis (who’s coached by her mother), there‘s a whole raft of players who live squarely under their fathers’ thumbs until they escape by having affairs with their coaches. It‘s a glamorous world, but suffocating as well.
The tennis continues to be wonderful, however. More than any other sport, it has proved beyond doubt that women can be entertaining athletes, too. (Some people have never doubted it, but there are plenty who have.) As to the perennially tricky problem of what’s feminine vs. what‘s athletically effective, the fact that it’s a non-contact sport helps tennis immeasurably. Unlike in basketball or soccer, for instance, parents can drop their daughters off at a practice court without worrying that they‘re going to come home with a black eye and a broken nose. But perhaps that’s not even a dilemma anymore. Of late, women‘s tennis has turned into a macho slugfest enacted in the Nike version of haute couture. Hingis, the most astounding tactician of her generation and one of the most elegant players in history, is now frequently trounced by players who could deck her as easily as they demolish her troublingly weak serve. What’s popular now is seeing a woman hit the ball hard. Except, of course, when Anna Kournikova‘s on the court. Some things never change.