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Riot Girls

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So Capriati says the Williamses disrespect the game by claiming they don't train seriously. Ninth-ranked Nathalie Tauziat writes a book bemoaning the glorification of curves over serves. Hingis stirs spite because the Women's Tennis Association's arcane ratings system ranks her No. 1 even though Hingis hasn't won a Grand Slam event since January 1999.

Diagnosis, Dr. Anthony? "Little boys are brought up in team sports, knowing how to compete and having it be a fun, natural thing," she says. "Some of this is changing, but a lot of girls still come into tennis without a sports background or a team experience. You don't learn how to keep it nonpersonal, so that if you lost a match it didn't mean you had to hate your opponent."

Agents and the WTA contribute to the tension by pitting the players against one another for publicity and endorsement plums. Tauziat, in her French book The Underside of Women's Tennis, decries the vulgarity of mixing show business and break points. "Aesthetics and charisma are winning out over sporting performance," she huffs; apparently, SportsCenter isn't broadcast in France.

"The WTA made a very concerted effort to doll up the players, demand cover stories from magazines other than Tennis," Carillo says. "I've got some big problems with that. There are all these stories about: 'They're so glamorous, they can cook, they can juggle cats.' Sex does sell; I'm no dope. But I'm much more interested in the fact that Venus Williams is a remarkable athlete than that she sews her own sequins on moments before she walks to center court at Wimbledon. That's bullshit. I don't care. I want to know why she hasn't worked more on her second serve. I wish we'd spend more time celebrating what they can do as athletes."

Yet as any self-respecting shrink would tell you, many of the issues in women's tennis go back to parents. The women typically turn pro younger than the men, and they bring their parents along. Only a handful of tennis parents, like Jim Pierce and Damir Dokic, have actually tangled with the law, but the rest still make their presence felt. "Most men, tennis players or not, wouldn't be caught dead at the age of 21 in the same Zip Code as their parents," says L. Jon Wertheim, whose juicy, perceptive new book, Venus Envy, chronicles the 2000 women's tour. "You never see Andre Agassi's dad. The Williams sisters, Hingis, Capriati, still not only travel with their parents but have them as coaches. There's a physical component too. If Richard Williams, who is six-four, wants to yell at his daughters, that's one thing. But a guy isn't going to put up with that."

"Do you think YOU are the queen?" Hingis seethed at Kournikova. "Because I AM THE QUEEN!"

Which is just a hypothetical example, Wertheim stresses. Richard Williams spends more time antagonizing other people's daughters.

The first round of the 1999 U.S. open had barely ended when Richard Williams made his guarantee: an all-Williams final. Hingis, the top seed, accused father and daughters of being ignorant loudmouths. Then Serena fired back that at least she had graduated from high school -- it was Hingis who suffered from "a lack of formal education."

The bickering kept escalating. Then, after Hingis won her third-round match, she began her press conference with a forced smile and scripted words. "I heard this morning that a certain person is always asking for my autograph at every tournament," Hingis announced. "I'd like to give something to that certain person." Enter Richard Williams. Hingis handed him a T-shirt with her name scribbled on the front. "She was cringing," Carillo says. "The Women's Tennis Association public-relations people had cooked up this twisted and bizarre stunt. Hingis didn't want to give this guy a T-shirt. She wanted to give him something else."

The truce, such as it was, held until last September, when the cast reassembled at the U.S. Open. This time Richard Williams waited until Venus had defeated Lindsay Davenport in the finals to launch his attacks. "If Martina or Lindsay can't step up their games and reach the bar we've set, Venus or Serena will win the Open every year," he said. "I can't see Hingis getting any better. And Lindsay is getting old and slower. You know, Hingis is an inch shorter than when I first met her. She should come to me and say, 'Master Williams, I want you to help me. I want to be better.' And I could help her. I've got a friend in Compton, and when he's not high, he's a surgeon. He could saw her legs off and attach new legs that are a couple of inches taller. Her legs are too short to run the ball down."

Somehow Hingis has resisted the transplant offer. Meanwhile, the debate continues: Is Richard Williams a crafty showman in the grandly weird tradition of Don King? Or is he just nuts?

Rick Macci coached the Williams sisters for five years. Nevertheless, he's still baffled. "Richard has his own madness," Macci says. "When he says left, it means right. He might be stirring up all this trouble to toughen up Serena and Venus. But he's both calculating and wacky, and that's a scary combination."

At a March tournament in Indian Wells, California, Venus withdrew five minutes before her scheduled match, claiming a sore knee. The sold-out crowd vented its pique on Serena, booing her viciously. Afterward, Richard Williams claimed fans taunted his family with racial slurs.

Carillo says most of the women try to temper their public comments about Richard Williams, though privately they resent him for grabbing the headlines that should focus solely on his daughters' achievements. "They pull their punches, reacting to what Richard says about racism," she says. "It's become a big issue. He thrives in that climate of turmoil, saying something ridiculous. But he's made it much lonelier for his kids."

"There's an enormous amount of jealousy regarding Venus and Serena," Macci says. "They've got the biggest contracts, except for Kournikova, and they're not the most social people on the tour; they play and they're out. They're not afraid to talk a little smack, and women's tennis didn't really have that. It has also made other players step up and say how they really feel."

Davenport, for one, doesn't hide her analysis; it's instant and scalding. "Oh, all of what Richard says is calculated," she says. "He does all that on purpose, to get a rise out of the media, to get some attention. And so that Venus and Serena stick together. They have an attitude that it's 'us against everybody else.' "

Davenport is an anomaly on the tour. Profoundly uninterested in off-court glamour -- she'd rather be known as a pure jock -- the Californian is the only top pro without an entourage; Davenport's business-executive parents are almost never seen on the tour. She's six-two and has wrestled repeatedly with her weight, which at one time topped 200 pounds, prompting other women on the tour to nickname Davenport "Dump Truck" -- behind her back, of course. All of which has endeared Davenport to the media, which portrays her as a hardworking, regular-gal underdog with her ego under control.

Not that Davenport doesn't have a nasty side, too. Last year, she and Hingis vowed they'd achieve a Williams-free final. Davenport held up her end, only to meet a furious Venus for the championship. "It's getting to be like the WWF," Williams said before the showdown. Three epic sets later, Williams had put Davenport in her place. With the crowd roaring after the last point, Richard Williams hopped on the court to perform a bizarre victory shimmy. Davenport didn't wrap Venus in a phony hug. Instead, she packed her gear and turned her head away, too livid to watch the Williams celebration.

"It's better not to see how they act," she said.


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