It's almost certainly Anna Kournikova's firm backside we see on the back cover of Venus Envy, L. Jon Wertheim's account of the 2000 women's tennis season, and what is presumably Venus Williams' crotch on the front. These slices of cheesecake mirror exactly how women's tennis itself works these days, exploiting players' sex appeal to sell a quality athletic product. Unfortunately, the ploy may turn off the very readers who would likely relish Wertheim's insightful survey of the first women's sport to surpass its male equivalent in popularity and economic clout. (On Sept. 8, a Grand Slam women's tennis championship final was broadcast on American network television in prime time for the very first time, while the men's U.S. Open final was kept in the usual afternoon slot.)
Wertheim, a Sports Illustrated scribe, is blessed with a charismatic cast of characters: Martina Hingis, the savantlike No. 1 and tactless "Uzi of candor"; Lindsay Davenport, the affable but tough player favorite whose popularity Hingis craves; Venus and Serena Williams, the phenoms determined to lead lives that aren't all about tennis; Kournikova, the athletically middling yet surprisingly hard-working pinup girl; and Monica Seles, a gentle soul still imprisoned by memories of her 1993 stabbing. While glibly summing up the current field as "Serena hates Martina, and Martina hates Venus, and Venus hates Lindsay, and everybody hates Kournikova," Wertheim also reveals that it's not that simple. Through a wealth of pungent anecdotes, he captures the ongoing soap opera but also etches full-dimensional, empathetic portraits of the major figures (except perhaps the proudly shallow Kournikova). Most importantly, he demonstrates why women's tennis has exploded in the last few years: It's been willing to sell its champs as stars, and has had no shortage of eager accomplices in that effort. And he carefully details the fallout from that explosion, for the sport and the human beings who play it.
A decade ago, John Feinstein applied the same year-in-the-life approach to the pro circuit in his book Hard Courts, but Wertheim seems to dig deeper into the psyches of his subjects--trying to explain, for instance, the toxic phenomenon of the tennis father, or why players on the Women's Tennis Association Tour tend to personalize competition more than their male counterparts do, or even something as small but pivotal as the compact Hingis' desperation to adjust to a top 10 full of hard-hitting Amazons. Wertheim has an eye for the Telling Moment, and he knows when to step back and let his subject hang him/herself, as he does when delivering this gem from Jim Fuhse, the tour's director of player promotions: "We're never going to stop selling sex. . . . Look, if a player doesn't sell tickets because of her tennis, she has to do something else to contribute." The storyteller manages to make his job look easy--which is exactly what the women he writes about do, in spite of everything.
For more about the Williams sisters and the gossip about their "rigged" matches with one another, read "All in the family" (9/19/01).
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