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Breakin' Bad

Once upon a time, in a game far, far away, a princess named Chris Evert started collecting U.S. Open tennis titles like charms on a bracelet. Her racquet was wooden, her dress was snow-white, and her words were measured--if she spoke at all. When the announcers at tournaments called her "the doomsday stroking machine," they meant it as a gentle compliment: Evert's grinding baseline game was so steady, so relentless, that her opponents sometimes felt that they were hitting against a robot. Chris Evert always congratulated her foe after a match. She always shook hands with the chair umpire. In victory or defeat, she always said the right, quiet things to sponsors and organizers.

Chris Evert almost killed off women's tennis.
Okay, it wasn't just Chris. It was the whole solemn, silent, buttoned-up manner of a gentlewoman's sport born on a manicured lawn and raised at a country club. The entire collection of traditions, niceties and civilities that essentially trapped the game in the mid-nineteenth century while dwindling TV audiences dozed off on their couches in the late twentieth. Little matter that these were superb athletes in the peak of condition, playing one of the most difficult games on the planet: Watching Chris Evert exchange endless ground strokes and mutual admirations with Evonne Goolagong was like watching two ladies embroider doilies.

And it might have proceeded forever thus, until tennis finally collapsed under its own dead weight.

As if! At the U.S. Open this week in New York, don't be surprised if the fiery Romanian Irina Spirlea, age 24, is socked with another $1,000 fine for abusive and profane language. Don't get upset if 17-year-old Venus Williams smashes a 100-mile-an-hour forehand straight into her opponent's mascara. Or if the Russian Lolita, Anna Kournikova, shows up on center court wearing a pair of tennis shorts smaller than a 50-ruble note.

Going to the Martina Hingis match? Don't expect the Swiss Miss, nicknamed "the smiling assassin" by friend and foe alike, to spend much time admiring her opponent's overhead smash. In the women's locker room, which has all the warmth and cheer these days of the Mideast peace talks, Martina, age 17, has already spent ten icy minutes doing her Mike Tyson thing, staring the poor girl down like a serial killer. Then smiling that lethal smile.

Chris Evert is dead.
Well, Chris isn't dead, actually. In fact, she's doing her usual superb job in the TV booth. But Evert's dispassionate, workwomanlike style of tennis is a thing of the past. Her fine manners are gone, too, as outdated as that old Jack Kramer woody gathering dust in your attic. For the most part, the women's game is now a jealousy-ridden, in-your-face battle royale inspired by Xena: Warrior Princess and the Albert Belle Book of Etiquette, not the strawberries-and-cream courtesies of yore. Girls change their outfits in mid-match and call for bathroom breaks to psych out their opponents. They feud at the buffet table, dis each other in interviews and compete for face time on the boob tube. "I just want to win matches," says Williams. "I don't care about making friends."

Another sample of the Adolescent Manifesto? Here's the aforementioned Ms. Hingis, winner of last year's Open and the world's top female player, on the issue of arrogance: "I'm number one in the world. Unless that changes sometime soon, I have a right to be arrogant."

Guess what. Women's tennis is suddenly on the rise. The game has returned in a big way to municipal parks. Last year's U.S. Open final between Hingis and Williams outpointed the men's final in the TV ratings. And Arnon Milchan, who produced movies like Pretty Woman and L.A. Confidential, recently snapped up the worldwide broadcast rights to the Women's Tennis Association tour. Two years ago the WTA couldn't find a major sponsor. This week thousands of overheated adolescent boys are packed into the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, panting one word in unison: "Anna!" The ruble may be inflated, but Kournikova's outfits just keep shrinking. "Why should I look ugly just because I'm an athlete?" she asks.

Why, indeed?
Six-time Open champion Evert, now a mother and an eminence grise, calls what afflicts today's teenage tennis stars the "Muhammad Ali syndrome." Writing in Racquet magazine, Evert says: "They have been brainwashed into believing no one is going to beat them. Their lack of humility is a part of what makes them successful."

Propagated like hothouse flowers and denied the usual ups and downs of adolescence, kids like the super-brash Hingis are the real "doomsday stroking machines." Their biographies sound strikingly similar and go something like this: Mom and/or Dad grooms kid for greatness from age six; enrolled at the dog-eat-dog "tennis academy" at seven, out at eleven, already honed to a fine warrior's edge; on to the junior circuit with seventh-grade tutor in harness, then up to The Tour, where the big money and all those airplane flights are; retirement before birthday number 30 with a couple of mil in the bank, wondering how childhood went out the window.

"The danger for the young girls," Evert observes, "is that the environment is unrealistic. Eventually it must end, and when it does, the fantasy comes crashing down heavily."

Seven syllables say it all: Jennifer Capriati. Molded by her father, she had a great forehand and a fast-developing game that might have catapulted her to the top. A 15-year-old semifinalist at the U.S. Open in 1991, she flamed out soon thereafter, mixed up with the wrong crowd and the wrong brand of smokes. This week Jennifer returns to New York as an obscure, unseeded comebacker scheduled to face 1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna in the first round of the U.S. Open.

The mini-Muhammad Alis of the women's circuit are unlikely to give their fallen sister a second thought. The attitudinal hormones in players like Mirjana Lucic, a 16-year-old who likes to call her opponents "bitch" in Croatian, are far too powerful for that, and so is their will to win.

Witness the hottest commodities in women's tennis--Venus and Serena Williams, they of the rattling hair beads and the awesome serves. The ill-mannered boys who dropped the first cherry bombs in the old country-club punch bowl a generation ago--Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe--haven't got a thing on Venus and Serena, and they're the first to say so.

Neither teenager has yet won a major tournament, but they vow to become the first sister act to be ranked numbers one and two. Their father, coach and protector, Richard Williams, sees greatness in them, so he limited their junior tournaments and continues to limit their social contacts outside the family. The Williams sisters are as outspoken as any players in the game and sometimes even refuse to shake hands with opponents. Meanwhile, two back pages are sure to intensify the Venus-watch in New York--her simmering feud with Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a championship geezer of 26 who believes the kid lacks respect, and an incident at last year's Open in which Venus and Spirlea (fire meeting dynamite) bumped each other hard during a game changeover.

Last year Williams the Elder became the first unseeded female finalist at the Open in 39 years, losing 6-0, 6-4 to the equally impudent Hingis. No one in tennis will be surprised if Venus turns the tables this year. Meanwhile, Spirlea will again win the trophy for the most expletives served at post-match press conferences.

Is it bad for the game, this coarsening, this outrageous bravado?
Maybe not. Not in this day and age. Not in the Dennis Rodman Era, the Age of Mark McGwire, where the grand gesture counts for everything and subtlety gets lost in the shadows. For women's tennis to survive in the marketplace and in the consciousness of the paying public, it must be better and more excitingly played. It is. In all likelihood, it must also be more colorful, angrier, more theatrical--on and off the court. And it is.

Oddly, this seems to be exactly what WTA officials have feared since Martina Navratilova came out of the closet and Monica Seles got stabbed in the back: They've feared real life. The powers that be have always been obsessed with taming their "girls," with hiding their problems, with shutting their mouths and rendering their personalities indistinguishable from one another. They've been obsessed with the old country-club manners by which the game nearly died back in Chris Evert's day.

This is not to say that Evert's pristine grace, or Margaret Court's, or Rod Laver's, isn't still a beautiful thing to behold, that it isn't the hallmark of civility in an uncivil age. Always will be. But for women's tennis to thrive, it likely needs a ton of up-front attitude to go with all those thundering ground strokes.

So if you're listening, Mirjana, how about calling Lindsay Davenport a bitch in English this year, okay?


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