Russian the Net


They were at home in Florida, replenishing their red blood cells, resting their joints, and filling their sketchbooks at fashion college, but the Williams sisters loomed over the Chase Championships as surely as that six-story-tall banner of Serena loomed over Madison Square Garden last week. Over the course of the last year, the mainstream sports media, looking for a way to cover tennis in a way that NFL-addled sports junkies can understand, have latched onto the Williams sisters much like a WWF ring announcer touts Razor Ramon. They’re unfriendly (this in the sport that gave you John McEnroe). Their dad’s a jerk (this in the sport that gave you Jim Pierce). They’re just too damned good (this in the sport that gave you Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf). They’re, um, African American.

So without that convenient racial subtext to fall back on, sex became the story of the week. Anna-mania, to be more specific. Would she finally win her first tournament? Would Derek Jeter propose on the spot? Would anyone notice that she’s the first top female player since Martina Navratilova to wear shorts on the court? (No. No. And no.)

She was the tournament’s new poster girl, splashed everywhere from The New York Times to embarrassingly cheesecake-y WTA promos (ad copy: “If you think this is beautiful, then you’ll find this absolutely stunning”). Kournikova played kinda OK in dispatching a distracted Jennifer Capriati and clay courter Conchita Martinez, but anyone who suggested that the Garden would host her coming-out party didn’t seem to understand that Anna is to tennis what Britney Spears is to music. For a brief moment, she seemed poised for a breakthrough in the semis against Martina Hingis, serving for the first set. But after she let that opportunity slip through her manicured fingernails, she merely pouted—c’mon, work with me, the photographers must have muttered under their breath—through the rest of the match.

Actually it was another tall, blond Russian who was the revelation of the tournament, from a tennis point of view. Elena Dementieva didn’t show as much midriff as Kournikova—fashionwise, she channels Chris Evert rather than Christina Aguilera—but she did show a lot more game. Fresh off the U.S. Open semis and an Olympic silver medal, Dementieva took a giant step forward by fighting off a match point and gutting out a tight three-setter against second-seeded Lindsay Davenport in the opener, the kind of match that champions usually win.

That Dementieva ran out of answers against a rejuvenated Monica Seles in the semis doesn’t mean that she’s not for real. But her story—unlike Anna’s, unlike the Williams sisters’—didn’t fit into a tidy story line, despite some reporters’ best efforts:

Q: You said at the U.S. Open that you didn’t have an agent, you didn’t have any endorsements, you didn’t have a boyfriend. What’s changed since then?

A: Agent and a boyfriend is the same thing?

On the other side of the draw, Martina Hingis sulked her way to another all but meaningless title. Her Slam-less season has proven nothing except the fact that she’s playing 20th-century tennis in a 21st-century world. Her conundrum? On the one hand, she knows she’ll be hard-pressed to win a tournament with either or both of the Williams sisters around. But on the other hand, she seems thoroughly uninspired when her archrivals are absent.

The smirking Swiss—did you ever notice how much she looks like George Dubya?—inexplicably dropped a set against an overmatched Nathalie Tauziat. And in the supposed grudge match against Kournikova, she didn’t dictate points, happy instead to let Anna pile up more errors than winners.

If the players don’t seem to care, is it any surprise that no one else does? Anna aside, the tournament could have been played in Moscow for all the ink it got—the local papers didn’t even print match schedules. The Garden’s cheap seats were emptier than Adam Sandler’s head, and even those bought-and-paid-for corporate boxes went largely unoccupied, at least when Anna wasn’t on the court. The U.S. Open this ain’t.

And ironically, the player who was dissed the most this week is the one who almost saved the show. Injured and out of shape, Monica Seles wouldn’t let this tournament go quietly into that good night. Grunting as ever, she plastered the lines with two-handers, invented angles like a young Pablo Picasso, and served with a gusto that’s usually reserved for someone named Williams. Indeed, the go-for-broke tennis she played in the finals—winner . . . winner . . . winner . . . forehand into the Audi banner—would have made even Serena’s dad proud.

But whether you focus on the somnolent week or its rousing climax, the reality is that you won’t have the WTA’s whoever-ponies-up-the-money Championships to kick around next year. Just like the men’s Masters, the WTA’s year-end showcase is leaving New York for Europe—Munich, to be precise.

Who cares, you ask? Seles, for one. You will remember that her career was derailed by knife-wielding Steffi Graf fan Guenter Parche. And in protest of the fact that a German court let Parche walk, she has steadfastly refused to play in Germany. On Sunday, the WTA came this close to getting the result they deserved.

Although she pushed Hingis around, Seles didn’t have the fitness or match toughness to pull out an oh-so-ironic victory. She was six points away from a colossal upset, serving for a 5-2 lead in the second set, but if you watched at home you didn’t see how Hingis awoke just in time, reeling off four straight games to even the match. NBC Sports, you see, edited out the whole second set so that they wouldn’t have to preempt a made-for-TV ice extravaganza, StarSkates Latin. Call me a cynic, but I somehow doubt that this spellbinding finale would have gotten this shades-of-Heidi Bowl treatment if Venus or Serena or Anna had been on the other side of the net.

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