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What Is Compassion?

Monica Seles’ derriere was wiggling under a starched white skirt. Leaning forward to receive serve, her entire body quivered with anticipation, like a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting bird. She was playing Serena Williams on a cool evening in Manhattan Beach this summer, and the match was a study in contrasts. Williams looked like a pneumatic amazon out of a computer-animation fantasy. Seles looked like a neurotic hausfrau out of the 1930s. But when the serve came, she emitted a blood-curdling scream and ripped the return past Williams at about 120 miles an hour. Is it any wonder that women‘s tennis is so popular?

Television, which is where you usually see athletes, provides a false sense of intimacy. All those close-ups make you think you know who they are. But when you see the athletes in the flesh, you realize you don’t know a thing about them. Williams, who wielded a blue-and-gold racket, wore blue-and-gold shoes, and had squeezed her body into a dress that clung to every muscle and curve, struck me as more regal than intriguing. But the plainly dressed Seles projected real glamour and mystique. She also won the match, prevailing in a third-set tiebreaker after saving six match points. Afterward, as she acknowledged the standing ovation with a touchingly shy pride, it struck me that, despite the squeals and screams and grunts, it had been a completely silent theatrical performance. Only one word had been uttered during the entire two-hour struggle. (“Sorry,” Seles had called out to Williams after miscuing a serve.) Otherwise, the players spoke only with their bodies.

In Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women‘s Tour, L. Jon Wertheim takes us inside the players’ heads. A reporter for Sports Illustrated, Wertheim obviously realized that the current crop of female tennis stars are a sportswriter‘s gold mine, and proceeded to notify his agent accordingly. Much of the opening chapter still reads like a pitch. Women’s tennis (he tells us) was once ruled by polite ladies with powder-puff serves, but then came Generation Next . . . “equal parts attitude and pulchritude, raised in an era of heroine chic, in which Buff Is Beautiful, and trash-talking is just keeping things real. Mixing tennis with fashion, sex appeal, the Internet, and the kind of post-feminist swagger that enables a player to talk smack to the president of the United States, the WTA Tour has been transformed into the sport of queens -- with a few divas thrown in for spice.”

Wertheim exaggerates, of course. Most players are hard-working, swagger-free professionals who have chosen a highly remunerative but difficult and often companionless career. (Male tennis stars have groupies; women get stalkers.) There are certainly divas and queens, although it‘s hard to tell which players are supposed to be which, or indeed which is the preferable position. But judging from the now-legendary argument that took place between Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova a couple of years ago -- “Do you think you are the queen? Because I am the real queen!” Hingis hissed at her scene-stealing opponent during an exhibition match -- I take it that rankings still trump looks.

As for talking smack to presidents -- what’s a politician to a queen, after all? -- that would be Serena‘s sister, Venus, when Bill Clinton called to congratulate her on her win over Lindsay Davenport at the 2000 U.S. Open. Wearing a “broad, faintly sadistic smile,” Venus repeatedly cut Clinton off in midsentence and chided him for causing a traffic jam in Manhattan. She also berated him for taxing her too much, and for not having stuck around to watch her play (he’d been at the tournament earlier in the afternoon). After she hung up, the reporters who‘d witnessed the encounter gaped at her in astonishment. Venus set them straight. “I’m not really intimidated by anyone,” she said. “Why should I be?”

Williams is hardly the only player to yield memorable quotes. Asked whether she ever felt compassion for her opponents, Hingis responded like a teenage Pontius Pilate: “What is compassion?” When a photographer asked Kournikova to wait a second so he could make her look beautiful, Kournikova snapped: “I already am beautiful. Just take the picture.” Ultimately, though, all the women are outclassed in the quote department by Venus and Serena‘s dad, Richard Williams, the most intriguing character in the book. A few years ago, anyone calling Williams Sr.’s answering machine might have been greeted by a communique such as this: “There are those that ask me what I think of intermarriage. Anyone that‘s marrying outside of this race that’s black should be hung by their necks at sundown. Please leave a message.”

Like a lot of tennis fathers, Richard Williams operates somewhere between genius and insanity. Whether he‘s claiming to have purchased the rights to the airspace over India or to have launched a Web site for “fucked-up girls” called Homegirls.com, he’s a fantasist who talks as if he‘s dreaming. But I suspect he’s also amused by the attempts of humorless reporters to expose every whiff of racism on the tour so that they can go to sleep at night feeling noble. Hence his fondness for ribbing the press. If he says something anti-Semitic to a white reporter, for instance, he can probably be sure that the reporter in question will respond not by printing the remark but by redoubling his efforts to prove that the tennis world is anti-black. No wonder the guy looks so pleased with himself: In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is kinky.

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.

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