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.
He's guilty of insulting the public intelligence.
Of course, he had a willing conspirator in the scam. Simpson's handlers chose the Black Entertainment Network as the loudspeaker for their man's outpourings because they knew this media outlet would never, could never, turn up the heat on him. BET is clearly reluctant to question Simpson's newfound bond with the black community, and it decorated its big night in the ratings with assorted propagandists and apologists. The show's thirty-minute intro pretended to journalistic integrity, but it ended with a bush-league Louis Farrakhan, one Professor Michael Dyson, raving about "white folk living in the United States of Amnesia" and plugging a book he's written.
There's another reason BET was a perfect fit. It is the only TV medium that has accepted commercials for Simpson's aforementioned O.J. Tells videotape. Incredibly, those spots ran (and ran) last Wednesday night--before and after the O.J. interview.
This glaring conflict apparently worried no one at the network, least of all O.J.'s handpicked interviewer, Ed Gordon, who serves as BET's regular news anchorman. Gordon feigned toughness, but he pitched softballs. No questions about DNA. Nothing about blood in the Bronco. Not a word about glaring inconsistencies in courtroom testimony. Instead, Gordon did the Mark Fuhrman thing, then worked the "human interest" angle to a fare-thee-well. He was an autograph hound disguised as a reporter, playing second fiddle to a pitchman. When a choked-up O.J. told America that he loves golf, Gordon murmured sympathetic assent.
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In one of his few aggressive moments, BET's best did get around to asking his subject just where he was when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman lost their lives. Incredibly, O.J. referred to his mail-order infomercial for the tenth time. "Watch the video," Simpson said. "Then I'll come back on your show." That was that: Off the hook and back to the golf course.
Naturally, any real interviewer would have pressed on into the face of Simpson's evasion. For instance: "Mr. Simpson, you are appearing--right here, right now--before millions of viewers. None of them have any obligation to buy your video. If you want to convince doubters of your innocence, kindly answer the question. Where were you, and what were you doing at the time of the murders?"
Instead, Ed Gordon cut and ran. But it's no surprise that O.J. Simpson was already thirty yards downfield, styling toward the end zone. He may be clumsy and he may bumble, but he had no trouble turning a sham into an advertisement for the advertisement for himself.
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