It took an unprecedented rash of injuries in the tournament’s early days, but there’s been a welcome reversal of gender roles at this year’s U.S. Open. With three of the planet’s top five hard-court players out— world No. 1 Pete Sampras; defending champion Pat Rafter; and 1998 finalist Mark Phillippoussis, who withdrew with a hurt knee— the men’s side of the draw was decidedly bereft of sexy matchups. Instead, the story line shifted to “Superhunk” Andre Agassi giving shirtless interviews, and desperately cheesy profiles of would-be heartthrobs like Marcelo Rios, Gustavo Kuerten, and Jan-Michael Gambill. The tone-setter for the tournament’s first week wasn’t Todd Martin but Ricky Martin.
On the women’s side, with lobbing Lolita Anna Kournikova on the sidelines, the emphasis thankfully shifted to on-court matters. Amelie Mauresmo, the tour’s most prominent out lesbian, was fielding more questions about her ankle injury than her sexual orientation. Even Jennifer Capriati made her only news with her racket. And in the Williams and Hingis camps, Richard Williams and Melanie Molitor have both been blessedly quiet. Instead, they let their daughters do what teenage girls do best: talk trash. Venus, Serena, and especially Martina dished like Muhammad Ali at a weigh-in, which only whetted our appetites for the eventual showdown. Don King would understand, and so would Vince McMahon.
The events of week one ought to prompt some discussion of another kind of role reversal. Every year as the equal prize money issue raises its ugly head at Wimbledon, some genius invariably wonders, “Why don’t the women play five sets?” How about the other way around: two out of three for the men? Keep in mind that the last two Opens have largely been decided in the trainers’ room (remember that Sampras had Rafter on the ropes in last year’s semis before pulling up lame in the third set). Not only would more of the top men be around and healthy in the second week, some of them might even begin to play doubles the way virtually all the top women do.
All in all, it adds up to a compelling less-is-more argument. Less tennis + more talk = better entertainment.
Commodity Foot Fetishism
Liberty forward Sue Wicks mixes-and-matches her knee-pads (one black, one white) to assure good luck. Hot-handed Vickie Johnson doesn’t expect to have a good game if she doesn’t put on her uniform in a particular sequence of moves. So it’s logical enough that New York might have felt that wearing sneakers with a streak of blue down the middle could help them snag the WNBA’s Eastern Conference title. Maybe they were right— they snuck past the Charlotte Sting 74-70 on August 29 when six squad members took to the floor in the shiny blue shoes— but the good-luck charm came with a big price tag: a $500 fine from the WNBA for each player who donned the offending footwear. The crime? First, league rules stipulate that shoes must be 51 percent one color; and second, any player who does not have an individual contract with a shoe manufacturer must wear Nike, a “marketing partner” of the WNBA.
“We were looking for a way to bring our team together, to build some more unity,” pleads Crystal Robinson, who donned the illegal high-tops, made by Converse. “Spoon had seen them in a store and we liked how they matched our uniforms.” Backup point guard Coquese Washington, who has a contract with Converse, got the company to donate the half-dozen pairs, which were also laced up by Tamika Whitmore, Becky Hammon, Teresa Weatherspoon, and Johnson. “We figured we’d get fined, maybe $100,” Robinson says. “But 500? That’s what Lisa Leslie got fined for a fight,” she adds, referring to the throat-grabbing shove the L.A. center dished out to Houston forward Tina Thompson in the Western Conference playoff final.
Haven’t they heard? Nike rules. So Liberty players had to cough up $3000 in combined fines— more than the annual salary of the folks who sew up the shoes in some factories— and in the championship games against Houston, the Liberty were out of luck.
What’s the toughest ticket in sports? Scalpers and fans alike would answer The Masters, that four-day extravaganza of southern exclusivity. But here’s a new contender: the upcoming Oscar De La HoyaFelix Trinidad championship fight in Las Vegas. In an unprecedented action (or nonaction), NO tickets were put on sale. Rather, ducats for the September 18 superbout have been divvied up between the casinos, the promoters, and the fighters.
“It’s not a public fight,” admits Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner, who noted that it was the promoters’ decision (in this case, Bob Arum’s and Don King’s) not to make tickets available to the public. “It’s not a black eye for boxing, but it’s not great from a PR standpoint.”
Several factors ensured the private offering. The Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino’s arena seats only 12,000— far less than the Thomas & Mack Center, the usual venue for Vegas championship fights. And, because two companies (Park Place Entertainment and Circus Circus Enterprises) are cohosting the event, as many as 30 hotel-casino properties were cut in on the tix. Finally, De La HoyaTrinidad is such a hot fight that everybody with a connection wanted tickets (which cost from $300 to $1500).
The result? The matchup will probably rack up record pay-per-view numbers for a nonheavyweight fight, exceeding the Sugar Ray Leonard Marvin Hagler matchup. (Pay-per-view costs a hefty $49.95.) But, long-term, this will harm both boxers’ reputations. “It’s unmitigated greed,” says radio talk-show host Steve Kim, who broadcasts an all-boxing show from Los Angeles. “The promoters cater to Latin fans, who are the biggest fight fans and who pay for a lot of bad shows. Now, for the so-called Fight of the Millennium, they’re shut out. The people watching this live won’t be typical fight fans— it’ll be the world’s largest photo op.”
Contributors: Allen St. John, Alisa Solomon, David Davis
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman