By Darren Rovell
In 1973, the United States Tennis Association took the extraordinary step of awarding equal prize money -- $25,000 to each singles winner -- to both the men and women in the U.S. Open. However, the move was due more to political correctness than as a reflection of ticket sales.
Thirty years later, it's a different story. It's possible more fans will come through the turnstiles at the U.S. Open the next two weeks hoping to catch a glimpse of Venus and Serena Williams than Lleyton Hewitt and Pete Sampras.
Although both sexes play a sport called tennis, the growth of the power game thanks to racquet technology seems to have, ironically, helped the women's game more.
"Our game, like the men's game, certainly has its elements of power in it," said WTA CEO Kevin Wulff. "We have dominant serving performances from time to time like they do, but the women's game is more defined by the great rallies."
That's one of the primary reasons why Steve Utterwulghe, a 33-year-old Belgian fan who was watching women's tennis at the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Conn., last week, prefers the women's variety of tennis.
"The ladies game is closer to my own game," Utterwulghe said. "You watch the men and it's like an entirely different game from another planet."
The rise of the women's game can be attributed to a combination of on-court player dominance and unique off-the-court personalities, mixed with a whole lot of sex appeal. On the decline is the men's game, which is going through a rough period that critics primarily attribute to an abundance of parity and not enough consistent performances among the sport's best in the biggest of tournaments.
"Fans like to see players that they know will win a lot," said Meghann Shaughnessy, who is ranked No. 31 on the WTA Tour. "I think in the men's game this year, they've had all different players in the finals of the Grand Slams and people don't always like that."
If U.S. television ratings are any indicator, Shaughnessy is right. For the past eight Grand Slams, the women's singles finals have drawn more eyeballs than the men's matchup and through the first three Grand Slams this year, the women have outdrawn the men by about one million homes. In June, 1.5 million more homes tuned into the women's final between Venus and Serena Williams than watched the men's final between the Spaniards, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero.
And it's not just about nationalism. It's also about consistency. Over the past two years, only six women -- the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Martina Hingis -- have played in Grand Slam finals. Over the same period of time, 13 men -- Ferrero, Costa, Hewitt, Sampras, David Nalbandian, Thomas Johansson, Marat Safin, Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten, Goran Ivanisevic, Patrick Rafter, Alex Corretja and Arnaud Clement -- have played in the seven finals.
"Guys who, a couple years ago, were in the top 10 are barely playing, so it's been a bit confusing to try to embrace this type of total openness as opposed to finding some rivals, which I think in an individual sport is really important," said John McEnroe, who won four U.S. Open singles and doubles titles and will serve as match analyst for the U.S. Open on CBS and USA networks.
ATP Tour players and fans are often proud of the fact that every match has the potential to be a bloodbath and there is not a steep decline in talent after the top 10, as there is in the women's game.
"I don't think upsets are a problem for our game," said Andy Roddick, who is ranked ninth but has lost to players ranked 65th and 81st this year. "In every other sport, they are celebrated, so I'm not sure how having eight of their top 10 players in the quarterfinals is always beneficial to the sport."
In 2001, overall attendance at ATP Tour events was still stronger than attendance at WTA events. In 2001, 5.89 million people attended 73 ATP events including the Grand Slams, while 4.2 million fans attended 66 WTA events. But the women are rapidly gaining ground. From Aug. 12-18, at the Rogers AT&T Cup in Montreal, 163,938 people attended the weeklong women's only event -- a WTA record.
Female players are definitely better known than the men these days, which is due to greater accessibility with media and fans, tight outfits and perhaps even better life stories to tell.
"We're lucky to have athletes that are interesting on and off the court," said the WTA's chief executive officer Kevin Wulff, who took over the post in January after eight years at Nike. "It's great to see our players in the fashion and business magazines almost as much as they are featured on the sports pages."
As of March 2002, only two men's tennis players, Sampras and John McEnroe, were among the top ten most recognizable players among Americans aged 12-64, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc., a company that compiles the Q Score ratings.
"You need to feel like you know the person out there that's playing to have a passion to watch them and I think that the women's game has promoted themselves better as individuals," said Tracy Austin, winner of two U.S. Open singles titles and analyst for the USA Network.
Marketing the men's No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt has been a tough task for ATP officials, given that he isn't known for embracing the media. After Hewitt was fined by the tour for not doing a required interview earlier this month in Cincinnati with the host broadcaster, which was ESPN, he criticized the ATP. Last week, he called the tour "a circus" and said that the sport would be better if "the ATP would just get out the way."
Steve Bellamy, founder of The Tennis Channel, a 24-hour cable channel that debuts in the fall, believes that women's tennis is more popular than the next nine most popular women's sports.
Bellamy put together 30 pictures, 10 pictures of the top women tennis players, 10 pictures of the top women golfers and 10 pictures of the top WNBA players and showed them to the average sports fan. "Most people can get at least six tennis players, but they can only get one or two golfers and maybe one WNBA player," Bellamy said.
The men also don't have any equivalent to Anna Kournikova, who helps pack the stands and gets top billing despite the fact that she has yet to win a singles title since turning pro almost seven years ago.
"Many people come to see Anna Kournikova and, even though she hasn't been winning, when they come to see her, they're introduced to us," said Iroda Tulyaganova, a 20-year old from Uzbekistan who reached the finals of the Pan Pacific Open last year when she teamed up with Kournikova in doubles.
Despite her lack of success on the court, Kournikova -- who is ranked No. 37 -- earns about $15 million a year in endorsements from adidas, Yonex, Omega and Berlei.
Kournikova has created such buzz in the sports world that fans are already eyeing the heirs to the 21-year-old's tennis beauty throne, including 15-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova, 17-year-old American Ashley Harkleroad and 19-year-old Slovak Daniela Hantuchova.
"We don't try to sell sex appeal on our tour," Wulff said. "The girls are who they are, stretching the limits of the fashion world on the court, like a lot of them do off the court."
Investing in the top women tennis players these days can be seen as less of a risk than giving large endorsement contracts to the top men. Because of talent differential between the top players and the rest of the field, companies arguably get the best bang for their buck out of the women.
"There's guaranteed international visibility for a women's tennis player in the top eight," said Patrick McGee, vice president of athlete marketing for Octagon, a sports management firm that represents Kournikova, Hingis, Hewitt and Kuerten. "Every time they go out they'll likely make it to the quarters or semifinals. That's not necessarily the case with the men."
Others say the public, media and corporate America, appreciate the backgrounds of the women more than the men.
"They simply have better stories," said Howe Burch, senior vice president of sports marketing for Fila, which has Capriati, Clijsters and Jelena Dokic endorsing its brand.
"How much better can you get than Venus and Serena being pushed by their father, coming out of Compton, California and rising to number one and two in the world?" Burch said. "Then you have Jennifer, her tough times and her comeback and Monica Seles getting stabbed on the court and making a comeback. I just don't think the same stories are there on the men's side."
The story of the Williams sisters -- who have faced each other in three Grand Slam finals -- is so good, some say, that fans can will never get bored of their winning.
"If Tiger Woods had a kid brother who was number two in the world at golf, that is basically what Venus and Serena have done," said TV tennis analyst Mary Carillo. "That is just one of those remarkable stories that it's so improbable it almost seems impossible."
Others say too much of a good thing could be too much.
"If it's only Venus and Serena, the women's side will lose its appeal," McGee said. "Tiger Woods is taking on other golfers, but he's also taking on the golf course, as well."