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Riot Girls

Kournikova is reviled because she's gorgeous and snotty. Hingis is disliked for her bluntness. The Williams sisters' arrogance -- and their dad -- rub players the wrong way. Just about everyone in women's tennis has got a beef with everyone else. No wonder the tennis is so good.

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Jennifer Capriati is hot. Certainly in the wolf-whistle sense: She's exposing an insouciant stripe of tanned midriff above her tight silver tennis skirt. And definitely in the buzz-generating sense: This year, Capriati completed an electrifying comeback from teen-prodigy drug-rehab burnoutsville by winning her first two Grand Slam championships.

Capriati is also sweaty. It was nearly 100 degrees on the court this afternoon in Mahwah, New Jersey, where Capriati collected $80,000 for an hour's workout, laying an unmerciful beating on an ungainly Bulgarian in the semifinals of the A&P Tennis Classic. The event is one part tennis exhibition and three parts carnival. Tight behind one baseline is a stage full of amps and spotlights awaiting the Behind the Music-vintage rock bands that play here each night.

Jen wants a shower. So one last question: What was it like to open for Huey Lewis and the News?

"Open for them?" Capriati says, her mouth forming a half-smile, half-smirk; now she's steamed in a different way. "I thought they were following us."

Forget Anna Kournikova's trashy charms. The sexiest thing about women's tennis is the attitude. The top players all share Capriati's We are the show swagger, and ferocity animates the game both on court and off. Martina Hingis and Kournikova heave trophies and insults at each other. Capriati wants to kick Monica Seles's ass. Lindsay Davenport expresses the tour-wide resentment of the endorsement-endowed, victory-challenged Kournikova by calling her "a circus act." And everybody hates the Williams sisters and their evil-genius father, Richard Williams, so vehemently that players huddle around the TV sets in the women's locker room and high-five when an opponent nails a winner against Venus or Serena.

Some of the catfight hype is sexist. But not much. This isn't empty pro-wrestling-style snarling. Women's tennis is the rare pro sport where the infusion of big bucks has actually sparked rougher battles: Not only is there more money at stake, but the booming success of the women's game has freed its players to drop the saccharine we're-all-sisters piety that oozes from fan-hungry startups like women's pro soccer. "The animosities are very real," says Mary Carillo, a mixed-doubles champ in the late seventies and now the sharpest tennis analyst on TV. "A lot of the hostility actually gets played down."

Next week, when the 2001 U.S. Open begins in Queens, the tournament will validate the exploding popularity of women's tennis, capping the glittering two-week run with a first: CBS will showcase the women's-singles final on Saturday night, September 8, in prime time.

"Right now," Monica Seles says, "the men are just really dull."

Even without the favorable contrast to the O-Town boy-blandness on the male side of the draw -- excuse me, is that one Andy or Brad or Taylor or Mardy? -- the women are a compelling collection. Pampered millionaires, yes, but ones scuffed by adversity. Seles has tenaciously battled back from the on-court stabbing she suffered in 1993. The Williams sisters left Compton eight years ago for a ten-acre estate near West Palm Beach, but they've clung to their outsiders' edge. Hingis was named after the great Navratilova, but she was raised by a single mom working two factory jobs.

Capriati -- or "J-Cap," the new nickname that's certified her arrival as a pop star -- is realist enough to understand that everybody loves a winner. She also rightly sees another reason why the public has jumped on her bandwagon. "I think it's probably because they can relate to some similar situation in their lives," she says. "Working hard and coming through, everybody can relate to that."

That, and the raw desire to stomp your enemy into the dirt.

In November, the tennis-starved citizenry of Santiago, Chile, showed up expecting to watch a benign hour of net showmanship featuring Hingis, the No. 1-ranked player in women's tennis, and Kournikova, reputedly the most downloaded pinup in any realm. Players call these quick-cash exhibitions "hit-and-giggle shows." So why was Kournikova weeping?

A close call had gone against Hingis. She appealed to Kournikova, this being a friendly match. Kournikova agreed with the line judge. During the next changeover, Hingis was reportedly livid. "Do you think you are the queen?" she seethed. "Because I am the queen!"

Hingis, an intelligent and curious Czech native, enjoys the spotlight but is saddled with a toxic public image because she's blisteringly blunt. She famously blasted her 1999 Australian Open finals opponent, Amélie Mauresmo, a lesbian, as "half a man." Hingis jettisoned one doubles partner, Jana Novotna, by calling the 30-year-old "too old and slow"; Novotna responded that Hingis was "stupid." Hingis has also shared her frank estimation of Kournikova the singles player. "I've always been better," Hingis said, "and I beat her at the great tournaments."

Kournikova's reply? "You may be No. 1, but I'm more marketable than you."

Just two weeks before, Hingis and Kournikova teamed to win the doubles at Madison Square Garden in the Chase Championships. But in Chile, Hingis was chafing from close, prolonged exposure to the cult of Kournikova. The pouty blonde treats most of the women on the tour with haughty disdain and has often withdrawn from matches with dubious injuries. And last year she earned fifteen times more money from endorsements than she did from tennis.

In the locker room, Kournikova and Hingis screamed at each other. Vases, flowers, and trophies went airborne. "It was so bad," said Jaime Fillol, who ran the event, "I thought they were going to beat each other up." The only injury, however, was to the doubles partnership; Hingis dumped Kournikova for Seles -- until early August. At the U.S. Open, Kournikova and Hingis plan to resume taking out their anger on doubles opponents.

Talent has something to do with the increased rancor. The depth in the women's game is unprecedented, with new faces like the Belgian Kim Clijsters and the Virginian Meghann Shaughnessy capable of winning any day. And the style of play -- the thrilling physicality of Venus's 127-miles-per-hour serves and 19-year-old Justine Henin's booming backhand -- ratchets up the intensity.

Julie Anthony knows about both muscles and minds. She was a touring pro in the seventies and is now a clinical psychologist. "We women carry grudges: 'She acted like an asshole, and I'm not going to talk to her anymore,' " Anthony says. "McEnroe or Connors were jerks on the court and fine with the guy on the other side of the net afterwards. With the men, there was an acceptance that this was just a game."


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