Sunday, August 26, 2007

These Days, It’s the Men Who Are in Vogue

Sports of The Times
August 27, 2007

It was not exactly a panty-raid prank — after all, substance is the allure of the men’s Tour — 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 — one dressed by Armani, the other by Arm & Hammer — as enthralling rivals and text-messaging pals.

They are the thriller, with Jimbo Part II in Andy Roddick’s box and James Blake baring his author’s 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 haven’t 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 aren’t 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 “New Balls, Please” campaign in 2000.

What changed? Now the men’s Tour is authentic and the women’s Tour is almost imaginary.

“There are real, valid story lines on the men’s side,” said Mary Carillo, a former player and an analyst for CBS. “On the women’s side, who knows? It’s like a grab bag. It seems so much more random than it should be.”

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 can’t even blow out cake candles after a match.

And yet the men flaunt the body mass index of Rodin’s Thinker.

“The fact is, if you want to be any kind of professional men’s 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,” Carillo said. “If you are not any of those things, you don’t have a chance, because everyone else is. With the women, you can’t say that. They’re not all fit, they’re not all fast, and Lord knows, they’re not all healthy.”

This is not your Martina Navratilova’s 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 Tour’s 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.

It’s about maximizing face time. If Sharapova ignores, say, the Pilot Pen in New Haven, it doesn’t 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 don’t have to play all the time, so many don’t. Cash seems more irrelevant at the top of the men’s Tour, where records and rivalries provide an incentive to grind.

Federer, for one, hasn’t 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.

“You never want to disappoint,” Federer said recently. “I owe the fans and the Tour for what I have.”

There is something alluring about the commitment to competition by the men. Seduction: The women used to own it until they stood up the game.



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