These Days, Itís the Men Who Are in Vogue
It was not exactly a panty-raid prank ó after all, substance is the allure of the menís Tour ó but somehow the sly fellas have stolen the secrets to popularity from the women.
The guys now possess drama and style as they glide sleeveless and hip into the United States Open. They are the page turner in progress, with the one-name foils Roger and Rafa ó one dressed by Armani, the other by Arm & Hammer ó as enthralling rivals and text-messaging pals.
They are the thriller, with Jimbo Part II in Andy Roddick
ís box and James Blake
baring his authorís soul and a young Serb spoiler with a name fit for a Bond film spy, Novak Djokovic.
The women slink into Queens as a potboiler pop-up book of cardboard characters and make-believe rivalries and slapdash sagas, all glued together in an effort to be eye-catching for a two-week burst of attention.
You will see sequins and spandex and lace as camouflage for the wounded and weary and apathetic. You will be told of the enmity between Justine Henin
and Maria Sharapova
, even though No. 1 and No. 2 havenít played each other all year. You will see the inspiring comeback footage of Venus and Serena Williams, even though the Tour is a temp gig for many players, creating resurrections of them all.
Indifference can be contagious. If the top players arenít committed and passionate, why should the fans be? Attendance has been spotty and the pre-Open buzz has been reduced to the low hum of background noise.
And yet, not long ago, the United States Open was the rip-roaring runway for powerful women on their game. The ladies were such a hot draw that officials moved the final to prime time. Was there any air left in a room after Martina Hingis
, Lindsay Davenport
, Serena Williams
and Jennifer Capriati
whisked through? The ladies were so consuming, the wallflower guys groped for love with their ďNew Balls, PleaseĒ campaign in 2000.
What changed? Now the menís Tour is authentic and the womenís Tour is almost imaginary.
ďThere are real, valid story lines on the menís side,Ē said Mary Carillo, a former player and an analyst for CBS. ďOn the womenís side, who knows? Itís like a grab bag. It seems so much more random than it should be.Ē
Unpredictability might be a selling point if it were based on tight competition, not tight hamstrings. True, the rise of the Serbian women is uplifting, but there is a credibility problem when Tour supernovas can use the first week of a major to play themselves into mental and physical shape, when the ranking stars canít even blow out cake candles after a match.
And yet the men flaunt the body mass index of Rodinís Thinker.
ďThe fact is, if you want to be any kind of professional menís tennis player, you have got to be fit, you have got to be strong, you have got to be fast, you have got to be healthy,Ē Carillo said. ďIf you are not any of those things, you donít have a chance, because everyone else is. With the women, you canít say that. Theyíre not all fit, theyíre not all fast, and Lord knows, theyíre not all healthy.Ē
This is not your Martina Navratilova
ís Tour. Some players confuse thin with fit; others mistake Nutella for nutrition. What does it mean when Hingis, a beloved figure whose guile was last effective during the dot-com boom, can resurface after three years away and be a top-20 player? No one is consistently competing.
The Tourís Serial Withdrawal Syndrome undermines quality and rivalries and turns a major like the Open into a promo spot. In the last few years, some corporations have decided on a boutique method of marketing, signing endorsement deals with stars instead of the Tour.
Itís about maximizing face time. If Sharapova ignores, say, the Pilot Pen in New Haven, it doesnít make Nike or Canon or Motorola flinch. Say this for Sharapova: She is money. She has not missed a major in four years. She is also an aberration. Combined, Serena and Venus
have withdrawn from seven majors in four years. Henin has bowed out of three in two years.
Money has bred an odd liberation for the elite women. They donít have to play all the time, so many donít. Cash seems more irrelevant at the top of the menís Tour, where records and rivalries provide an incentive to grind.
Federer, for one, hasnít missed a Grand Slam event since 1999. Does he ever skip a small stop? Yes, but his schedule is generally written in stone, not on a grease board.