WIMBLEDON, England — Since I never keep score in the battle of the sexes, I can’t tell you who’s winning. I can tell you this: When it comes to tennis, the women, at the moment, have it all over the men.
They are more interesting; their personalities more compelling. Or didn’t you watch the Wimbledon final Saturday morning, a terrific display of gunfire and an even better study in psychological warfare? Everything you want in a match: great shots, mistakes, overtime, and a pair of combatants who could be meeting like this for the next 10 years.
Remember when women’s tennis was just Chris, Martina and bunch of gum-chewers?
Here, on one side, was Steffi Graf, who seemed to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. She frowns all the time now, trying to rediscover her teenage glory — what does that tell you about how early they start these kids? — burdened with a domineering father whose recent affair with a model was the ultimate shame for a daughter who lives under the spotlight.
And on the other side, Gabriela Sabatini — or, as they refer to her in the British press, “the dark-haired Argentinian beauty, Gabriela Sabatini” — finally, after years of childish moods, coming into her own as a player, having defeated Graf the last five times they played, including last year’s U.S. Open. Sabatini’s had the best won-loss record of any woman this year. Now she was at Centre Court, Wimbledon, before the royalty, before a worldwide audience, her first crack at the most important title in tennis.
Pretty good set-up, huh?
Graf, Sabatini lead the way For two hours, Graf and Sabatini battled in the sunshine, trading volleys, trading nerves. Graf captured the first set convincingly, but Sabatini surged in the second, broke Graf’s serve three times, and suddenly the Wimbledon chase, all two weeks’ worth, was down to one final set, winner take all.
It went to extra innings, with Sabatini missing several chances to capture her first Wimbledon title, and Graf coming back over and over, finally winning in the 14th game with a blistering forehand that might have been shot from a cannon. When the announcer bellowed “GAME, SET, MATCH, MISS GRAF,” instead of leaping in the air, Graf dropped her head backward, like a diver floating toward the surface. “I needed to do this,” she would say. “I needed to know what the feeling was like again.”
Now. OK. That’s a bit melodramatic for a 22-year-old who makes more money than General Motors. But the thing is, it provides a story line. Graf, the slipping champion, finds herself in the last game at Wimbledon. Tennis desperately needs this kind of drama. It is the only thing that keeps the game from being two strange people smacking a ball over a net.
Story lines. Personalities. The game has always been most popular when these things were strong. And, recently — by design or coincidence — the women have been better than the men. Think about it. In women’s tennis today, you have a bagful of real contenders: Graf, Sabatini and Monica Seles, the No. 1-ranked player in the world whose disappearance before Wimbledon probably got more attention than tournaments she’d won.
You have 15-year-old Jennifer Capriati, the kid who served notice this week, beating Martina Navratilova in the quarterfinals. And, oh yeah, you have Navratilova, the elder stateswoman. Throw in America’s Zina Garrison (a Wimbledon finalist last year) and the Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (a French Open champion) and you have seven women, any one of whom can win the major tournaments.
And five of them are under 23.
Connors, McEnroe then what? Now compare that to the men. The most ballyhooed figure on the men’s side today is Andre Agassi, who has terrific talent but, let’s face it, still hasn’t won a single major title. Stefan Edberg puts people to sleep. Ivan Lendl leaves people cold. Boris Becker is a great player and a fascinating guy, but people seem tired of him already, at age 23. And after him? You have a bunch of guys who play great but who the average sports fan wouldn’t know if they dropped into their living room. Jim Courier? David Wheaton? Michael Stich?
This situation even amused Jimmy Connors, who, at 38, rouses the crowd as much as anyone. “I’ll tell you what,” Connors said last week. “If men’s tennis needs a 38-year-old like me and a 32-year-old like (John) McEnroe to keep it afloat, then it’s in trouble.”
Not trouble. Just a lull. These things go in cycles, always have. They usually require a great rivalry as a cornerstone. Maybe this morning, the men will find one of their own. For now, in the wake of Graf and Sabatini, the women have center stage.
Centre Court, too.