A GRAND SLAM AGAINST WOMEN

While all American eyes were on Tempe, Arizona, and the Super Bowl last weekend, Monica Seles swept through the field at the Australian Open tennis tournament to win her ninth career Grand Slam title. In beating Anke Huber 6-4, 6-1, Seles extended her Australian Open match record to a perfect 28-0 and re-established herself as the overwhelming force in the women's game. Two and a half years after the bizarre stabbing incident that forced the world's number-one player into seclusion, she's back, bigger and stronger than ever.

Still, some observers of the world's fussiest professional sport wanted to put an asterisk next to last Friday's win: Seles's only real rival at the top of the tennis heap, German star Steffi Graf, was injured and had to pass up the chance to win her fifth Australian.

That's not the real news: The Aussies were damn lucky that any of the women showed up.

Last fall the event's organizers, an outfit called Tennis Australia, announced that after more than a decade of equal pay for men and women, it was reneging on that policy: Of the Open's record $6.2 million in prize money, $390,000 more went to the boys this year. In October angry female players discussed a possible boycott but rejected the idea as divisive, as bad imagery for a game that has already taken its share of knocks in recent years. The Jennifer Capriati incidents. Mary Pierce's nutjob father. Martina Navratilova's retirement.

Too bad the players backed off. Strange as it sounds, a strike may be just what tennis needs to shake up its entrenched old order.

In trying to justify gender inequity, the Australians pointed to lower ticket sales and TV ratings for the women's half of the tournament. But that, odious as it sounds, wasn't the only reason Tennis Australia decided to shortchange the women. Last year the ATP Tour and tennis's powerful Grand Slam Committee cut a deal for men only: The committee promised to offer twice as many world-ranking points for male players' performance in the sport's four Grand Slam tournaments (Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) as it did for the so-called Super 9 events (the second rank of tournaments)--so long as the Slams would offer twice the prize money of the Super 9s. That put Tennis Australia in a little financial bind, and the women wound up paying the tab.

That's not all. After their angry meeting, top players Seles, Graf, Pierce, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and a dozen others sent a letter of strong protest to Tennis Australia but pledged not to boycott--for what they saw as the good of the game. Citing the recent baseball and hockey strikes in the U.S., they said they would desist--this time. The low-down response from Down Under? A press release implying that everything was cool down in the slave cabins: There was no problem at the Open, and the women were happy with their unequal prize money.

One of the ironies here is that the Aussies, of all people, can least afford to alienate anyone in tennis. Once they were world-beaters, producing great champions like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong. But Australia said g'day to tennis domination way back in the 1970s: John Newcombe was their last real ace, and he said in an interview last week that kids in his country, bereft of local tennis heroes, now find other sports more appealing.

At Flinders Park last week, the Aussies had one moment in the sun when little-known Mark Philippoussis knocked number-one seed Pete Sampras out of the tournament with a blistering serve (29 aces) and crisp volleys. Forty-eight hours later, though, Australia's new hero was eliminated himself--by the world's 67th-ranked player. The local game promptly went back into its long slumber, and everybody hit the bar for a Foster's.

In the wake of the Australian Open snub, the touring women remain worried. Activist/ player Pam Shriver, for one, wonders if the other Grand Slam events will now also cut back their female paydays to make weight for the men. No one's talking, but if it happens, there really could be a players' strike. And why not? The prospect of a renewed Monica Seles/Steffi Graf rivalry in 1996 and beyond is a heady one, and developing stars like Chanda Rubin, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams are giving women's tennis a much-needed transfusion of new blood. But if the game's premier tournaments decide to turn half their participants back into second-class citizens, why consent to play ball?

Elsewhere in the Theater of the Absurd, O.J. Simpson finally sat last week for his long-awaited TV interview. It was a performance more ludicrous than the crudest racist could have imagined. As a running back for Southern Cal and the Buffalo Bills, Simpson used to be gloriously elusive; as an acquitted murder defendant still feeling plenty of pressure from a civil suit, he's an artless dodger. Last Wednesday night his evasions were clumsy, his self-promotion flagrant, his inflated ballplayer ego everywhere apparent. But he got what he wanted.

By the way, those racially divergent opinions on the O.J. verdict are not relevant here: When a man says he will do a no-holds-barred interview, then sidesteps the few challenging questions by referring the questioner to the contents of his $29.95 videotape, it no longer matters whether you think he's innocent or guilty of murder.

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