Game, Set, Match for Women

Women's tennis is hot. The players are not only exceptionally talented but also colorful characters - youthful, refreshing, glamorous, audacious, jolly, and marketable.

Besides, there is a high level of competition. Take Wimbledon, where Venus Williams has been serving at speeds around 120 m.p.h., which is better than many men.

In a similar manner Martina Hingis, Venus and Serena Williams, Monica Seles, and Steffi Graf are making headlines. And Anna Kournikova was front-page news when she dropped out of the tournament.

The press is laying it on thick: London's Independent wrote: "The most striking feature of Kournikova [is her] plaited ponytail of such length and constituency that it could probably keep the QEII at quayside."

This goulash of sugar and spice has given the women's game marketing muscle and television clout. Understandably, the men's tour is wooing them for a few joint tournaments. Understandably, the women are playing coy.

"Women's tennis is in the best shape in its entire history," says Billie Jean King, one of the game's all-time greats. "This is the moment. There are 10 players who have what it takes to win [Wimbledon]."

First, some context: When female players launched their fight for equal pay and attention during the '70s, Jimmy Connors was amused. "Equality?" he asked. "They ought to play the women's final on opening day."

Ponder this: In the last five Grand Slam tournaments, the women's finals outrated the men's finals in television audience. TV numbers have been solid on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, the television audience for women's tennis has increased more than 25 percent in the past year, according to the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).

Brad Patterson, executive director of Tennis Industry Association, says, "Sales of tennis goods will soar over the next two or three years." Earlier this year the WTA signed a lucrative television deal with a German network. Avis, TWA, and Chase Manhattan are among a host of new sponsors.

This is just a start. Aron Michlan, producer of the film "Pretty Woman," and an ardent tennis lover, has taken over WTA marketing rights. Michlan's company spends $500 million on film production, and he plans to promote women's tennis through his movies.

"Women's tennis is great theater both on and off the court," says Joe Favorito, WTA's director of communications. "There are great rivalries."

Women's tennis sounds like a pre-fight boxing press conference. Sample this: "What can I improve? Sometimes I ask myself. It's a little scary," Hingis was quoted as saying. Kournikova tries to one-up at every chance: "I'm more marketable [than Hingis]. I am beautiful, famous, and gorgeous." And Venus Williams dares to put both of them in place, often jokingly.

"What's happening to women's tennis is similar to what happened to men's tennis [in the '70s and '80s]," says Favorito. There were colorful characters - John McEnroe did not like Connors, Connors did not like Ilie Nastase, and Nastase did not like both of them. The game was at a high level of competition and rivalry. Today's men's tennis is comparatively tame.

Meanwhile at press conferences, women players are asked questions that have little relevance to their game. Like Venus, who is asked, "How many beads do you have in your hair?"

Meanwhile negotiations are on for joint tournaments. "If we do make a deal with the men, the women's tour will be an equal partner, not a junior one," says WTA chief Bart McGuire, alluding to the disparity of pay. " I've been saying that for months, and the men's tour is beginning to believe it."

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