After slumping, women's tennis may be entering bright, new era

Despite all the glowing reports from corporate sponsors and P.R. types in recent years, women's professional tennis hasn't really enjoyed steady improvement, at least not in this writer's opinion. Artistically and competitively the women players have fallen short of expectations. Monotonous baseline rallies have too often predominated, and there's been a hollow ring to much of the talk about increased depth on the tour. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd have monopolized the game. Greater prize money and larger crowds would appear to point to a healthy state of affairs, but I would argue that the game has stagnated, even gone backwards in the aforementioned areas. Happily, however, brighter days are dawning

Positive signs have already occurred.

Most encouraging perhaps are the new faces appearing in the Top 10. Five made their way into World Tennis magazine's '84 rankings: No. 5 Manuela Maleeva of Bulgaria; No. 6 Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia; No. 7 Claudia Kohde-Kilsch of West Germany; No. 9 Carling Bassett of Canada; and No. 10 Zina Garrison of the US.

Navratilova has been handed defeats in two of her last three tournaments, an indication that her grip on the sport may be lessening. Even the world's No. 1 player can see benefits in this development. ``It gives a little suspense back to the game,'' Martina acknowledges. Of course, Evert Lloyd and Navratilova still make embarrassingly short work of early-round lambs.

Let's look at what has happened and why change is so welcome at this point.

As you may recall, Billie Jean King and seven compatriots helped launch the first women's pro tour in 1970. The Virginia Slims circuit, with its veteran stars, eventually added teen sensations Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong.

This entourage enjoyed a nice mix of talents and ages. A good deal of parity was evident as well, with King, Evert, Goolagong, Navratilova, Margaret Court, and Virginia Wade all claiming titles on the 1975 indoor tour.

Gradually, however, the Old Guard began to retire, only to be replaced by a generation of youngsters in a hurry to achieve fame and fortune. Women's tennis evolved into teen tennis, and every year it seemed some player would turn pro at a younger age.

The role model in most cases was Evert Lloyd, who became a media darling as a 16-year-old US Open semifinalist in 1971. It wasn't long before the American tennis landscape was teeming with girls imitating Chris's two-fisted backhand and baseline game.

There was one problem, though. Few players came close to matching her level of skill. Instead of attacking from the baseline with precise passing shots, they developed almost purely defensive games. A September match between Vicki Nelson and Jean Hepner perhaps best illustrates this type of strategy. Nelson won the 6 hour, 31 minute marathon 6-4, 7-6 (13-11). One point in the tiebreaker lasted 643 shots and took 29 minutes to play.

This, of course, is hardly typical, but it hints at the tendency of many young women to stay back and wait for their opponents to make mistakes. Hugging the baseline like a security blanket, though, has probably stunted the development of some players and the game at large.

Navratilova's emergence as the big star of the '80s, therefore, has been a timely one. She has proved the value of a diversified, attacking style and also the twin virtues of patience and hard work.

``I was gifted five years ago and I wasn't doing that much with it,'' she says. But now, after several years of intense training, she has become the pacesetter for a new breed of athletic players such as 6-footers Sukova and Kohde-Kilsch.

There's no reason girls can't continue to improve their games well beyond their teen years. Even Evert Lloyd, now 30, feels her tennis recently achieved new heights in breaking her 13-match losing streak to Navratilova.

The challenge is for young players to unhurriedly pursue their goals, rather than run themselves into the ground. Presently, Pam Shriver and Jaeger are taking tennis sabbaticals, a growing trend. This is a step in the right direction, one that career-minded players will find beneficial not only individually, but for women's tennis.

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