Season finale exposes WTA weaknesses (C/P)
Season Finale Exposes WTA's Weakness
By SELENA ROBERTS
JENNIFER CAPRIATI decided to shake off a loss with a wild hair toss to the beat inside a Manhattan nightclub two months ago, stepping out on disappointment by slipping into a sheer ensemble from the "I Dream of Jeannie" collection.
Grooving in a satin bra, holding a cigarette like a party favor, that's the image captured by paparazzi hours after Capriati lost in the United States Open quarterfinals.
When she awoke to see the photo in a tabloid, she directed a brief burst of outrage at WTA Tour handlers who were at the same party: "How did you let this happen?" Then, there was a pause in her fury, followed by, "My abs looked flat, didn't they?"
After winning three majors, after receiving adulation for her 2001 reincarnation, Capriati is still the same paradox of insecurity and petulance that she was at 13, a blend still as infuriating as it is appealing.
The public sees her unvarnished edges — the way she curses umpires, how she blasted Billie Jean King — but embraces her unconditionally after standing by Capriati from teenage darkness into a 20-something recovery. They feel they know her, understand her. And if she is irascible, it's no wonder. Her barrel-chested father is as blustery as Bluto. If she is aglow, there's a reason. Her serene mother is more soothing than aromatherapy.
The contradiction is in the genes. And when her conflicts have played out in the open, it has made for intriguing, if dysfunctional, theater over the last decade.
What a coup for the WTA. In recent years, the leaders of the Tour have embraced the salacious if it means ticket sales and ignored the code of good taste if it means TV ratings.
Anna Kournikova recently chewed the enamel off the teeth of Enrique Iglesias in a music video; somewhere, a Tour exec was smiling like Mayor McCheese. The romance between the cagey Martina Hingis and the waggling golfer Sergio García just ended; somewhere, a Tour official cringed at the end of a gossip column item. Serena Williams squeezed into a cat suit for the United States Open; somewhere, a Tour suit was perfectly thrilled.
But what happens when Kournikova keeps disappearing with injuries, and Hingis has also faded from view? What happens when the public grows numb to sex appeal in a society where everyone from former Enron employees to rock stars is preening in the buff?
And what happens when Capriati is between sagas, and there is no threat to the Williams sisters?
You get the Staples Center, a tennis arena as bare as a bachelor's fridge.
In the opening days of the Tour's year-end championships, which culminate tomorrow, the Lakers' cavernous den was filled with only a few hundred fans.
"It's L.A.," Serena Williams explained Thursday night. "Everybody is Hollywood. Everybody is home doing something or going to a premiere."
WTA Tour events are not shows, but they have been treated like traveling lounge acts by officials who have trumped poor decisions with horrible choices. Until the fall of 2001, the Tour could count on nearly 100,000 fans to show up for the season finale at Madison Square Garden after years of building a solid fan base in New York.
Last year, the Tour wizards took it to Munich only to watch total attendance plunge below 37,000. Now, in the backyard of the Williams sisters' childhood home, in the playground of celebrities who usually crave courtside seats, in a cosmetic land where it's hip to be young and athletic, no one is buying women's tennis.
The scene is a sign of trouble, if the WTA chief executive, Kevin Wulff, wants to admit it. With two bold moves, he could perk up his product: one, find a way to take the championships back to the Garden; two, put his ego aside (because the men's tour chief won't) and invite the fellas to have their big finish with the women.
Wulff can take steps, or pray to Vogue that Kournikova heals. He can be proactive, or cross his fingers for another Capriati renaissance.
Until Kournikova can shuffle along a baseline, the health of the Tour may be up to the second most popular player, Capriati. More than Lindsay Davenport, Capriati has the power and speed to split up the all-Williams finals, infusing the sport with a sense of rivalry that is missing right now.
But throughout the week, Capriati has been inspected for signs that she is on the verge of another career caving. Her nails are painted black. Is she spiraling back into her gothic teenage abyss? She won just one match in five before last week. Has she misplaced her love for the game again? In mood and attitude, she is a long way from the wonder story of 2001.
"There's been a few more losses and a little more pressure this year," said Capriati, ranked No. 3 behind Serena and Venus Williams. "It hasn't been the whole up-and-up year.
"Who knows? Next year, it could be my comeback from this year. Maybe that's what I need. Maybe I do this on purpose."
Self-sabotage, it has been the perfect pick-me-up for Capriati. No one unravels only to regroup as well as she does. A public that can identify with her insecurities (who doesn't want flat abs?) laps up each and every Capriati makeover. In a sign of its fragile state, the Tour is banking on her next one
I would love the men and women to have their events together. Then it really would be the fifth slam. They could change the venue because it doesn't have the number of matches that the slams do, and the men could have the doubles championship at the same time, instead of getting shafted at the last minute.