Riot Girls

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.”

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.

A year later, Davenport is still bristling. “I should have taken the final and didn’t,” she says. The lesson she learned is all about aggression: “You’ve gotta go after Venus.” And this year, Davenport promises, she will.

Bring it on, answers Venus. “Last year was last year, and it was great,” says the defending champ. “But I want it this year, too.”

London’s tabloids do an admirable job of whipping up two weeks of tennis-related headline froth during the Wimbledon fortnight. New York, though, adds its own special coarse sand to the grinding gears of women’s-tennis hostility. In London, the players stay in comfortable flats within walking distance of the center-court shrine, and the atmosphere is suffused with genteel history. By the U.S. Open, however, the women are cranky and worn out from a grueling eight months of transatlantic hard-court combat. It’s the ideal mood with which to greet the late August New York humidity. And whether it’s Kournikova staying at the U.N. Plaza or the Williams sisters at the Essex House, all the players gripe about the battle through midtown traffic to Flushing Meadows. “It sometimes feels that we spend as much time in the car as we do on the court,” Venus Williams says.

Capriati’s U.S. Open memories are just as mixed. She stormed to the semifinals as a 15-year-old in 1991. Two years ago, she lost to Seles in the fourth round – a respectable showing, considering she’d lost 30 pounds in the previous year as she attempted to reclaim her career. In her post-match press conference, Capriati read a heartfelt, if scattered, 500-word essay, attempting to shut the door on questions about her teenage “rebellion.” Then she fell to pieces, the disappointment of the loss and the relentlessness of the reporter’s questions destroying what little self-confidence she’d pieced back together. In tears, Capriati fell into the arms of a WTA press aide, then into a hug from her bawling mother.

The tabloids judged Capriati’s performance pathetic. Now the moment looks cathartic. “It was a line of demarcation of her maturing and growing up,” says Harold Solomon, the former men’s pro who was Capriati’s coach at the time. “That was the point where she went from a little girl to a woman, standing up for herself, taking responsibility for herself, and growing up, as far as her inner self was concerned, right after that. It made a huge difference for her.”

Not that Capriati has learned to balance her life completely. She pushed herself into prime physical condition at the beginning of 2000, won some mid-level tournaments, and saw her ranking rise from 101 to 12. Her forehand was smacking wicked, sinking returns, balls so heavy they deserved their own atomic number.

Then Capriati fell in love. She hooked up with Belgian tennis player Xavier Malisse, put on fifteen pounds, and began to sputter out in the early rounds. Capriati is something of an obsessive, devoting herself wholly to one pursuit at a time, and for six months the object of all her attention was Malisse. She split with Solomon and reinstalled her father as her coach.

Then, in November, the relationship with Malisse foundered. Tennis filled the void. Capriati began to train more seriously again, and in January defeated Hingis in a shocking upset to win the Australian Open.

Venus Williams claims she isn’t annoyed by all the hype proclaiming 2001 as “Capriati’s year.” Yet she is well aware that her own accomplishments are getting lost. If she repeats as U.S. Open champ, Venus will have won four of the past six major tourneys. Women’s tennis hasn’t seen that kind of sustained dominance since the heyday of Steffi Graf.

Critics complain that the Williams sisters don’t play enough tennis, but Venus seems to be peaking at exactly the right moment. Two weeks ago, in San Diego, Venus flattened Seles in straight sets while making just fourteen unforced errors.

Last year, John McEnroe stoked an Open controversy by demeaning the women’s tour and the Williams sisters in particular, all but promising he could beat either Serena or Venus with one hand tied behind his 42-year-old back. This year, there’s a new attraction immediately after the women’s final, a Heineken-sponsored nostalgia exhibition between Boris Becker and McEnroe.

Picture it: The match everyone wants to see, pitting defending champ Venus against girl-of-the-year Capriati, starts at 8 p.m. After three tingling sets, the beaming winner basks in a trophy ceremony.

Soon it’s midnight. McEnroe shuffles onto center court. There’s more crushed beer cups than fans in the stands. Johnny Mac always did want to be a rock star. Now he’ll know what it felt like to be the band that followed the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

Riot Girls