Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tour

Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tour

by L. Jon Wertheim
     
 

Venus.

Serena.

Anna.

Martina.

Lindsay.

Like other modern-day heroines — Madonna, Hillary, Mia — they need only one name. They are the stars of professional tennis — the young, brash, and often reckless women who hold court, and serve.

The last several years have seen such a seismic explosion in women's tennis that you might be

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Overview

Venus.

Serena.

Anna.

Martina.

Lindsay.

Like other modern-day heroines — Madonna, Hillary, Mia — they need only one name. They are the stars of professional tennis — the young, brash, and often reckless women who hold court, and serve.

The last several years have seen such a seismic explosion in women's tennis that you might be surprised to learn there's still a men's game. Fans flock to the high-voltage matches, which come packaged with tales of infighting, family squabbles, and, of course, Anna Kournikova's micro-miniskirts. In Venus Envy, Sports Illustrated investigative reporter and tennis columnist L. Jon Wertheim draws back the curtain on the soap opera that is the women's professional tennis tour, with its primal plotlines driven by ambition, sex, and revenge.

Here are the stories behind the stories: the tragic Garbo-like star who whiles away hours in a midwestern hotel room because she's afraid to go outdoors; the teenager who tries to cope with the pressure of the big time as well as an abusive father; the brilliant number one who plays out her adolescent tantrums on the public stage; the coquette who launched a thousand Web sites; and a little-understood African-American family who proved that they could play by their own rules and still win the game — not to mention the endorsements.

The biggest story in sports in 2000 was Venus Williams. Forced to the sidelines for the early months by injuries to both her wrists and her psyche, she stormed back to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and two Olympic gold medals. Not since the glory days of Martina Navratilova — and the historic days of Althea Gibson — has women's tennis seen such a dominant champion with the rare combination of athleticism, intelligence, and competitive fire. By the time Venus signed the biggest endorsement deal ever for a female athlete, her opponents' sentiments could be described in just two words: Venus Envy.

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Editorial Reviews

Allen St. John
Wertheim is the tennis writer for Sports Illustrated, and his book has the fly-on-the-wall perspective that you'd expect from a veteran tour observer. He depicts the pro tennis circuit in all its theater-of-the-absurd glory. Wertheim backs up these guilty pleasures with solid reporting..
Washington Post Book World
New York Times Book Review
Lively and...fresh.
San Francisco Chronicle
Fascinating...inside scoops...Plenty of off-the-court gossip.
Tennis Week
Explosive...Jon Wertheim has done the game a good service.
Publishers Weekly
If you think only male professional tennis players exhibit less-than-mature behavior on and off center court, you're in for a surprise with Wertheim's candid tell-all account of a year spent following the superstars and also-rans on the WTA Tour, from the 2000 Australian Open to the 2000 U.S. Open. Wertheim (senior writer for Sports Illustrated) pulls no punches as he profiles the egos, catty repartee, emotional battering and dysfunctional family relationships that drive Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova, Monica Seles and some lesser-known professionals. Women's tennis is now "the world's most popular and financially successful women's sport," surpassing men's tennis in television viewership, but still lagging behind the men in prize money. The outspoken sportswomen are not unaware of their sex appeal and appear, for the most part, willing and eager to cash in on it. Sound bites range from petulant to downright insulting (Hingis), while a model-pretty player like Kournikova can exude icy diva vibes and garner huge bonuses even though she has yet to win a major tournament. After winning the 2000 U.S. Open, Venus Williams "talked smack" to then-President Bill Clinton, asking him to lower her property taxes. But underlying the bravado of these successful athletes is the specter of abuse and dysfunction. Wertheim is unafraid to name names and reveals that the "tennis dad" is even more dangerous than the "stage mother," among other unpleasant truths. The book should hold more than just tabloid interest for young women who aspire to tennis careers. 8 pages of color photos not seen by PW. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA
Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, regales readers with behind-the-scenes goings-on of the 2000 Women's Professional Tennis Tour. Readers are told about the inequality of men's and women's cash prizes, the strange behavior of some players' parents, sexual abuse of players by coaches, romances, and the sheer difficulty of continuous traveling and living on the road. Different players are profiled throughout. Readers learn about Monica Seles trying for a comeback;Mary Pierce attempting to overcome lack of confidence from her dysfunctional father;Martina Hingis's standoffishness and her thoughtless remarks about other players;and Anna Kournikova' s self-absorption and self-promotion, which does not endear her to her fellow players. These and other players are given focus, but sometimes-peripheral characters garner attention. Richard Williams, Venus and Serena's father, comes across as either a shrewd but illogical promoter or a pathological liar given to outrageous statements. Jelena Dokic's father, Damir, was banned from the tour because of violent disturbances brought on by drinking. The tennis touring life is a world of its own, not suitable to everyone. Perhaps this unusual lifestyle explains why the players seem to be getting younger (and stronger), and of course, accounts for the presence of a parent accompanying those teen players. This situation creates the possibility of conflict—between parent and child, between parent and other players, or between parent and promoters. Wertheim presents a fascinating look at the game from a different perspective. Anyone who follows and enjoys tennis or hopes to join the professional ranks might find this book an eye-opener.Photos. VOYA CODES:4Q 2P J S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses;For the YA with a special interest in the subject;Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9;Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12;Adult and Young Adult). 2001, HarperCollins, 225p, $25. Ages 12 to Adult. Reviewer:Jane Van Wiemokly—VOYA, December 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 5)
Kirkus Reviews
The actual playing of tennis becomes a sideshow in this gossipy profile of the women's pro tour, from "Sports Illustrated "writer Wertheim. Years of uninspired play by "moonballing baseliners" on the women's tennis tour was eclipsed, Wertheim posits, when a cohort of electrifying young players sent a considerable buzz through the circuit. Burning bright was Venus Williams, who took both the US Open and Wimbledon as well as both gold medals at the Sydney Olympics. And as an African-American, she and her enormously talented sister Selena blew fresh air through the musty precincts of the Women's Tennis Association. Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, and a host of newcomers were also playing numinous tennis, with Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati making comebacks. Yet Wertheim is primarily concerned with the hype, the money, the glamour, and the dirt as he follows these players and others through the 2000 tour. (Which is a shame-when he lets his tennis writing peek through, such as in describing the US Open, it shines.) What we learn from these pages is that Hingis is "an Uzi of candor" who needs an image consultant; that Seles is "an unregenerate capitalist"; that Anna Kournikova "has a magnetic force field that can pull grown men out of their orbit"; the earthshaking news that women's professional tennis has deplorable dads and a whole lot of bed-hopping; that the players are "sassy, brassy divas" who are "ready for the catwalk." Of course, there are also the Williams sisters, tennis's "urban legend," but Wertheim lets "the tennis father from outer space," Richard Williams (famed for "blowing smoke in all directions"), dominate the story. Unfortunately as well, Wertheim is given tosnickering inanities such as "men's tennis could use some Viagra," not to mention the title. Long on the human-interest angle, trivial as a piece of tennis writing.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060197742
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
08/07/2001
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Land of Oz

A cross between a green room and a rec room, the players' lounge is the equivalent of backstage in tennis. With no home clubhouse or permanent locker room, it is here that the nomads on the WTA Tour while away downtime at tournaments and minimize their social displacement between matches. They shoot pool, gab on their cell phones, surf the Net, play Ping-Pong, nap on comically overstuffed couches, and nibble snacks as they await their next court call.

The 2000 Australian Open is the first major event on the calendar, and the indoor/outdoor, two-tiered lounge in the catacombs of Rod Laver Stadium percolates with activity, adrenaline, and anticipation. As though it were the first day back at school after a long summer hiatus, the players arrive on the Melbourne campus happy to see their pals — exchanging hugs, showing off their new outfits, hairstyles, and tans, and telling tales of newly minted romances. Just as in a high school cafeteria, there's an "in table" in the lounge where players like Lindsay Davenport, Lisa Raymond, Mary Joe Fernandez, and Corina Morariu catch up. Mingling around them are both Tour veterans with the confident, forceful personalities of seniors and Tour rookies with the endearingly awestruck look of freshmen. Everyone discusses who's wearing what labels, who's eating what, who's sleeping with whom, who's dissing whom. Gossip and rumors bounce around the room at warp speed: Did you hear Arantxa is getting married in July? I heard Steffi was going to be here with Andre. Julie will probably quit after thisyear, you know. Nathalie is supposed to be writing some kind of tennis book. Joe is coaching Alexandra but Samantha is driving him absolutely nuts. Is it true Mary fired Michael and needs a new coach?

The lounge, which features a melange of tongues and a medley of nationalities, is as close as tennis gets to a nerve center. Genial and modest Lindsay Davenport is getting the third degree from her friends about her fledgling relationship with Baltimore Ravens tight end Ryan Collins. Pressed for details by Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver, Davenport blushes and gets up from the table. "Don't bring it up again," she pleads. Suddenly there's a hush worthy of an E. F. Hutton ad. Trailed by an entourage of her mother, Alla, her coach, Eric Van Harpen, and two representatives from an endorsement company, Anna Kournikova sweeps in. All eyes fix on her, mostly to see which male player is by her side. A few days ago, she was seen locking lips with Australian Mark Philippoussis in the tennis center's courtesy car area, but other players spotted her earlier in the week with Ecuadorian Nicolas Lapentti.

Across the room, Martina Hingis sits quietly with her mother, Melanie Molitor, and Molitor's companion, Mario Widmer. Like Nick Carraway eyeing the lights of East Egg, Hingis stares longingly at Davenport holding court at the popular table. Before anyone can meet her gaze, Hingis turns back to her pasta lunch. Off to the side, removed from the other clusters, Serena Williams and her mother, Oracene, laugh uproariously at some private joke. Serena's older sister Venus, the other half of the small but self-sustaining Williams clique, is conspicuous in her absence. There are already rumors about why Venus isn't playing at the Australian. It has been four months since Venus watched sullenly as her little sister won the 1999 U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam title for the House of Williams. The following day, Venus and Serena won the doubles title but the older sister was still glum. Asked whether the doubles trophy was any consolation for her loss in singles, Venus shook her head. "It doesn't help at all," she said bitterly. "It never helps. I'll never forget."

Venus insists that there is no sibling jealousy in her heart, but it had to sting when she double-faulted during the doubles final and a fan yelled, "Let Serena serve!" A few weeks after the U.S. Open, at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich, Serena beat Venus for the first time in four meetings. Now, Venus' official explanation for missing the Australian Open is tendinitis in her wrists; but it is no secret that the psychic wounds she suffered at the U.S. Open haven't fully healed. "Maybe she's lost interest in tennis," suggested Davenport. "Right now, no one really knows."

Scheduled in December at the end of a grueling season, the Australian Open used to be played on the sloping grass courts of Kooyong, a tony, private suburban Melbourne club that, not unlike Forest Hills in Queens, was ill-suited to host a big-time event. Many players balked at making the trek to Australia at the end of a wearying year. Chris Evert, for instance, made only six appearances in Melbourne in her nineteen-year career. (Though she did reach the finals every time there.) That Barbara Jordan and Chris O'Neil — who? — are former Australian Open champions says plenty about the diluted fields. In 1988, the tournament turned things around. It moved to a state-of-the-art, downtown facility, the National Tennis Center at Flinders Park, and changed from grass to the more democratic rubberized surface Rebound Ace. The center court has a retractable roof, obviating rain delays and, at times, protecting players from a merciless sun that can push on-court temperatures to over 110 degrees. Organizers also rescheduled the tournament to the beginning of the year. Within a decade of that move, the Australian Open became the country's most popular annual sporting event.

And now, the players like it too — once they get over the biorhythm-bending, twentysomething-hour flights from the United States and Europe, and recover from the inevitable jet lag. Although they are tethered to their rankings from the previous fifty-two weeks' worth of results, a cumulative GPA...

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Meet the Author

L. Jon Wertheim is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a tennis columnist for cnnsi.com. He lives in Manhattan with his wife.

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