SPORTS

Queens of the court

Women’s tennis enjoys a surge in popularity

JAMES DEACON August 16 1993
SPORTS

Queens of the court

Women’s tennis enjoys a surge in popularity

JAMES DEACON August 16 1993

Queens of the court

SPORTS

Women’s tennis enjoys a surge in popularity

Leading 4-1 in the third set of a gripping Wimbledon singles final last month, Jana Novotna appeared to have the world’s most prestigious tennis title wrapped up. Instead, the 24-yearold Czech came completely undone. She double-faulted. She mis-hit volleys. And her face, smeared by sweat and dust from the parched earth of centre court, tightened with anguish at each unforced error. As Novotna stumbled, her opponent, No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf, took charge. The German star unleashed her powerhouse forehand to repeatedly pressure her faltering foe and, from the brink of disaster, Graf rescued her fifth Wimbledon championship.

Such dramatic shifts in momentum are common in tennis, but what made the Wimbledon final unique is what happened afterward. As the Duchess of Kent presented the second-place trophy, Novotna dissolved into tears, pouring out her grief on the duchess’s shoulder. Grafs elation turned to sympathy for her colleague, and she, too, began to cry. For the stadium crowd and the millions of TV viewers worldwide, the spontaneous tears were touchingly human. “When you see that kind of emotion from Jana and Steffi,” says Patricia Hy, Canada’s top-ranked women’s tennis player, “you feel it yourself.”

That emotional connection between players and fans is one reason for the growing popularity of the women’s game. Men’s tennis still draws more fans at many events, but women’s tour officials say that the gap is closing. The Matinée Ltd. International, which opens this week in Toronto with 15 of the top 20 women in the world, including top-ranked Graf and ninth-ranked Novotna, often records higher TV ratings than its male counterpart, the Player’s Ltd. International. And while four years ago Matinée officials could not find a single market outside Canada for their broadcast, this year’s event will be shown in 84 countries. Says Tennis Canada executive vice-president John Beddington: “I think that women’s tennis, quite apart from being the most visible women’s sport worldwide, is now simply more exciting than men’s tennis."

The engines of that success are technology, player development and star power. The proliferation of lightweight but powerful rackets has made tennis a faster game. ‘Technology has dramatically improved the way women play tennis,” says Beddington, who has run both the men’s and women’s tournaments for 15 years. “If you look at tapes of women’s tennis from a decade ago,

the pace was pretty slow.” At that time, the sport had two marquee names, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Navratilova is still playing, but she is not alone in the star strata. Among those who will compete in Toronto are third-ranked Arantxa SánchezVicario of Spain, Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina (fifth), and Americans Mary Joe Fernandez (sixth) and Jennifer Capriati (eighth). Monica Seles, the former No. 1, is still recovering from a knife wound suffered when she was attacked at a German tournament in April. “Women’s tennis used to be dominated by only a handful of play-

ers,” Beddington says. “Now, almost anything can happen.”

Hy, a native of Cambodia who moved to Hong Kong as a child and then to Vancouver in 1988, says that the Matinée is especially important to Canadian players. “We don’t get many chances to play before a home crowd,” she says. “You get a lot of energy from the crowd, and you can go a long way on adrenaline.” A strong performance by Hy can also be good for the tournament. “To have a Canadian with a shot adds a dimension to the event,” says veteran broadcaster Johnny Esaw. “It gets people interested who might not otherwise pay any attention.”

Adversity has been Hy’s ally throughout her career. The 27-year-old, currently ranked 38th, nearly gave up tennis in 1989 after going nearly two years without winning a competitive match. ‘That was really rock bottom,” she recalls. But at the suggestion of a friend, she moved to Richmond Hill, Ont., to train, and won the next tournament she entered—a satellite event in Chicago. “If there was a turning point for me, that was it,” she says.

A disappointing performance at last year’s SunLife Nationals in Mississauga, Ont., spurred another surge in her play. “I went into the Nationals ranked No. 1 in Canada, and everyone expected me to win,” says Hy, who is now coached by her fiancé, Yves Boulais. “But I played as if I expected them to give me the title, and I lost. That was a kick in the behind, and I began training with more intensity.” Soon after, her ranking rose to a personalbest 29th when she took Seles to three sets before losing in the quarter-finals of the 1992 Matinée, then upset Capriati before losing to Seles again in the quarters of the U.S. Open. One of her goals this year is to win a tour title. But she admits she still has much to learn from the likes of Graf and Seles. “It’s more than just talent,” she says. “They just have that something extra that helps them in tough matches.”

While it is gaining, women’s tennis still does not attract the same level of prize money or TV coverage as men’s. The purse for the Matinée, for instance, is $950,000, whereas the Player’s Ltd. offers a total of $2.1 million for the same-sized field. Furthermore, while men’s tournaments are required to provide accommodation for competitors, women have to pay their own way at many events on their tour. Beddington, who is one of only four people worldwide who hold senior tournament positions on both tours, says that the difference in prize money is loosely based on the still-greater audience for most men’s events. The women’s tour, he says, is working to resolve other inequities by 1995. ‘We still have a ways to go,” Hy says, “but we are a lot better off now than ever before.”

JAMES DEACON