Sports

Courting success

Women’s tennis is making great strides with fans

Andrew Clark August 16 1999
Sports

Courting success

Women’s tennis is making great strides with fans

Andrew Clark August 16 1999

Courting success

Women’s tennis is making great strides with fans

Andrew Clark

Celebrity, rivalry and sex appeal. Oh, and some killer tennis thrown in for good measure. That’s the formula powering the women’s tour in 1999. And that’s what the organizers of the du Maurier Open Women’s International Tennis Championships are banking on when the tournament opens at the National Tennis Centre in north Toronto on Aug. 14. Seventeen of the top 20 women players, including twotime du Maurier champion Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, Jana Novotna and Martina Hingis, will compete for $1.6 million at the tournament. “There are different personalities, different ages, different playing styles,” says 27-yearold Spanish tennis ace Sánchez-Vicario. “It’s making the game more exciting.” Sports fans are in love with women’s tennis—an infatuation fuelled by everything from Hollywood hucksterism to player development and new

racket technology. Lighter rackets have enabled the women to play faster, more powerful—and ultimately more exciting—tennis. And many of today’s players are as comfortable in front of the cameras as they are on the baseline. People magazine included 18-year-old Russian Anna Kournikova on its 1998 list of the 50 most beautiful people in the world. Hingis graced the cover of GQ in a sequined gown, and American tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams appeared, buffed and beautiful, on the cover of Vogue. “We are promoting great athletes,” says Bart McGuire, chief executive officer of the Womens Tennis Association, “and we make no apologies for the fact that many of them are very attractive as well.”

Esthetics aside, the women’s game is scoring points on television and at the box office. In 1996, CTVs coverage of womens tennis averaged 231,000 viewers a minute. By 1998, it was drawing 362,000—79,000 more than the mens

average. And it’s not just elite athletes putting some bounce back in the game. According to Tennis Canada, 4.3 million Canadians play tennis, including a new crop of first-time players— women in their 20s and 30s. “A lot more women than men are taking it up as adults,” says Tom Kern, head pro at the Greenwin Tennis Club in Toronto. “We’ve definitely got more women members than men.”

This is a huge leap for a sport mired in controversy only six years ago. In 1993, a deranged fan stabbed Monica I Seles during a match in Germany, and I Florida police busted teen prodigy Jennifer Capriati for drugs. “In the early ’90s, tennis was probably at its lowest point,” says British Columbia-bred Grant Connell, a former professional Top 10 doubles player and now a director of Tennis B.C. “Sports Illustrated ran a cover asking, ‘Is tennis dead?’ and people really began to wonder.”

The WTA decided to revive the women’s game and set about cultivating a deeper talent pool. In 1994, it instituted age restrictions to prevent players under 18 from competing full time. The rules were designed to avoid another burnout case like Capriati but they had an on-court effect. “We believed that if young players were given time, they would develop more interesting all-court games,” says McGuire. Today, there are at least a dozen topranked female players who can contend for a Grand Slam title. The women’s deep talent pool has also fostered rivalries. Players such as 30-year-old Steffi Graf are often pitted against teen prodigies such as Kournikova.

Sánchez-Vicario was exhilarated after she beat her hero, Chris Evert, at the 1988 French Open. Now Sánchez-Vicario is on the other side of the equation. “To be considered an old veteran, with Steffi and Monica, shows that we can maintain our level of play,” she says. “The young ones know what you’ve done and they want to beat you. I’ll just try to keep winning as much as I can.” EE