Survival of the Fittest

The Specialization of Women’s Bodies for Specific Sports

But Wilson and Prince can't get all the credit for the advent of power tennis. "It's not just a function of bigger rackets," says Mary Carillo, former French Open mixed-doubles titleist and now an announcer for CBS. "It's the bigger athletes."

Davenport is the perfect example of today's tennis player. Four years ago, when she won that gold medal, her first major victory, Davenport had great shots, but was woefully out of shape. Indeed her weight was a don't ask/don't tell matter: the WTA media guide listed her height but omitted her weight—then over 200 pounds—entirely.

Then in early 1998, her new coach Robert Van't Hof made her a modern-day Martina Navratilova; Davenport started training seriously, shed weight, gained muscle, and suddenly found the speed to complement her power. "Davenport had to get used to her body," says Carillo. "She improved her serve and her footwork and it's why she's number one."

And indeed the biggest threat to Davenport's top spot, Serena Williams, upped the game's athleticism quotient yet again. Although shorter than Davenport, or her sister Venus, Serena hits harder and runs faster than any woman, ever. She served notice by taking out Davenport and Martina Hingis in quick succession in last year's U.S. Open, only her seventh Grand Slam tournament.

The key to her success? It might be her work at the gym, as much as her work on the court: Serena's more muscular than any woman in the game, and most of the men. In response to the streamlined Davenport and buffed-out Williams, all of the established stars have started pumping iron and some, like Mary Pierce, have even bulked up with the help of supplements like creatine. "If you go to the French Open or Wimbledon, you'll see women come off the court and go right to the weight room," says Etcheverry. And this fitness revolution has left some former champions struggling in its wake. "Monica Seles used to be the hardest hitter in the game," says Austin. "But now everyone's raised it up a notch, and she's in the middle of the pack."

Of course, there are exceptions to the specialized-body theory. Martina Hingis, who was the world's top player in 1997 and '98, is no smaller than Graf was. But Hingis seems to be fighting a losing battle in trying to play a finesse game against bigger and more athletic rivals—since the 1998 U.S. Open, her head-to-head against Serena Williams and Davenport is 3-9. "It's her brain against their bodies," says Reed. "And look at the records."

And Olympic silver-medalist and reigning world champion Michelle Kwan has evolved from a jumping bean to an artistic skater in the spirit of Kristi Yamaguchi, but she's continued her run in spite of her body, rather than because of it. Indeed a growth spurt probably cost her the '98 Olympic gold medal. She grew a couple inches and gained 10 pounds in the two years before the Nagano games, and the added weight hampered her jumping. "Even if it's a little bit of weight, it throws you off," Kwan told Brennan. "If you gain one pound, it makes the jump lopsided. It's harder to get through the long program now than it was before. When I was 13, it was like, 'Let's do another one.' Now I'm winded."

And although Kwan won the last three world championships, skating insiders wonder aloud whether her artistry and competitive fire is going to be enough against the next generation of jumping beans—notably 14-year-old Naomi Nari Nam and 15-year-old Cohen—in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Ironically, as silhouettes of the athletes in each sport have diverged, tennis and figure skating have almost swapped places in the public consciousness. In its current turbo-charged form, women's tennis has never been more fun to watch. And interest is at an all-time high, with more fans tuning in to see Venus, Serena, Martina, and Lindsay than Pete and Andre.

More important, the new emphasis on power and speed in women's tennis has cured one of the game's big problems—the influx of 14-year-old pros—more effectively than any rules change could. One look at Serena Williams's physical strength and all-court game, and most teeny-boppers understand that being steady from the baseline won't get you to number one any more.

In skating, however, the emphasis on antigravitational athleticism has turned the sport into the domain for preadolescent prodigies. The most obvious result is that these young skaters are putting unnatural stresses on immature bodies. The skaters from the Class of '98—Lipinski, Kwan—were constantly skating through a variety of injuries, while Cohen has actually experienced problems with the growth plates in her right heel. And the social costs may be even worse.

"It's rewarding all the wrong things. These little girls are going crazy," says Brennan."Their parents are going crazy. They think they don't have much time." Brennan cites the example of the 4-8, 82-pound Nam, who at age 13 finished second at the 1999 Nationals behind Kwan to become the sport's new "It" girl. Her performance landed her everything from her own Web site to an endorsement deal with a Korean electronics firm. But one year later she finished a disappointing eighth, while the equally athletic 15-year-old Cohen usurped both her silver medal and the unofficial mantle of heir apparent.

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