<
>

THE SPITE GIRLS

THE TERRIBLE TEENS OF THE WOMEN'S GAME TRAMPLE CIVILITY WHILE PLAYING SOME TERRIFIC TENNIS

Thank Heaven for little girls.-Maurice Chevalier

Yeah, okay, Mo. At least they're not the ones shooting up the schoolyards. But in tennis, for a contrary example, a burgeoning set of brash and beautiful bad-asses has infiltrated the perimeter (envision the gates of hell): infant terroristas decked out in arresting mini camouflage and

engaged in an obvious coup to rid the women's tour of not merely any old maid past puberty, but most of the game's traditional and self-treasured grace, class, sophistication, diplomacy and mutual respect among competitors. And heaven can hotdamn wait. "What's a good acronym for this bunch? TABSAW? Teenage Babes At War?" laughs Pam Shriver, an old battle mare herself who retired to the television booth just in time. Luckily for Shriver's health and well-being, she has avoided such remarkable episodes as Venus Williams, 18 now, crashing into Irina Spirlea during a jointly deliberate bump on a changeover at the U.S. Open; Serena Williams, 16, first screaming in the face of, then nailing a sitter at the terrified head of, soon-to-be champ Arantxa Sanchez Vicario at the French Open; the ultra-alluring Anna Kournikova, 17, begging for a "bathroom break" in the same tournament ("Le pause pipi," according to L'equipe), then crying when she was rebuffed by the umpire (Stop the presses: Man Rejects Anna); mysterious Mirjana Lucic, 16, pumping her fists and glaring evil staredowns at an outclassed Sandra Cacic, whom she then called "bitch" in her native Croatian, at the Italian Open; and Martina Hingis, 17, the doyenne of dis as well as champion of the world, ultimately denigrating all her contemporary rivals for No. 1. "Rivalries?" says Hingis in her now familiar smirk. "Look at the rankings. I'm like 3,000 points up. There are no rivalries for me."

Bump. Scream. Pout. Stare. Let's give it up for The Spite Girls. Are they the cause of the women's tour becoming what Peter Bodo describes in his1995 book, The Courts of Babylon, as "an ugly smoking battlefield of abuse, greed and venality"? Or are they simply the result? Actually, the veteran Shriver, 35, did receive a dosage of all this upon playing the final match of her career last year, paired at doubles in Tokyo with Steffi Graf, 29, against Gigi Fernandez, 34, and the dazzling Hingis, who has become as renowned for her hitting off court as on.

Shriver and Graf led, but ultimately lost the match. Shriver learned quickly not to expect sympathy from Hingis: "Martina's not selective. She's universal with her lip; she dishes it out to everybody just about the same. I didn't mind before when I told her I was once ranked No. 3 in the world and she said, 'You? No. 3?' like I was some Martian. But when she goes after Steffi Graf, one of our greatest champions that's a bit much."

Normally the coquette, when Hingis recently met another fellow (former) prodigy, Tracy Austin, in Florida, she fairly squealed, "Hi, Tracy. I'm the one who's breaking all your records." But Hingis has moved from sass to crass in the manner in which she has detoured well out of her way to chide the oft-injured Graf, who has only won 21 Grand Slam titles, 17 more than Hingis. The Swiss Miss has spewed forth such stunning dis as having "never learned anything from watching" Graf to her most recent view that the game has gotten "more athletic" and "[Graf] is old now. Her time has passed."

The fact that Graf could destroy Hingis in any endeavor involving strength, speed, running, jumping or even ball-and-jacks flipping seems to have escaped the reigning monarch. "Europeans have always been more blunt than the rest of us," says Chris Evert, who, like Shriver, has become an official menmentor in a Women's Tennis Association program aimed at pairing off retired champions as advisers to the young guns. While Shriver has Venus Williams as a ward, Evert has Hingis, whom she has advised to be somewhat more gracious when discussing her ancient predecessors. As if it has done any good. "But I think it's a generational thing, as well," says Evert. "Nowadays these young girls go ahead and say what we were only thinking."

Shriver, who was 16 when she reached the U.S. Open final in 1978 against Evert, has a somewhat different take. "I had nothing but awe for my elders. When I beat Martina Navratilova in the semis that year, it was the biggest win of my life," says Shriver. "But I couldn't even enjoy it. I went to the net with my head down, sheepish. I felt sympathetic, awful. When I lost to Chris, we came to the press conference together. I could no more disrespect her than the woman in the moon."

But present-day tennis teens, Clueless-born, Buffy the Killer Vamp-bred, do everything except moon their foes:

Venus Williams (after losing 6-3, 6-4 in the French quarterfinals to Hingis, who disputed several line calls): "It's her custom to dispute calls."

Hingis: "Yeah, it's my custom when she is standing there saying, 'This isout,' and it was, like, right on the line."

Serena Williams (after losing 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the acrimonious French fourth round to Sanchez Vicario): "Every time I see her play a match, she argues about almost every call."

Sanchez Vicario, 27: "She shows no respect at all. She cannot come with that attitude. I'm glad I beat her. I teach her a lesson."

Kournikova (after losing to Venus in the Lipton final 2-6, 6-4, 6-1): "This gives me some confidence that I could play better. She didn't beat me. I lost. It's good she didn't really beat me because I made all the mistakes, right?"

As for Lucic, the youngest, rawest and hardest-hitting of the bunch, she was born in the Adriatic seacoast town of Makarska-not far from Toni Kukoc's Split. But she played much of her junior career in Germany under the watchful eye of her father, Marinko, a former Olympic decathlete for Yugoslavia. "Is Lucic annoying?" asks tall, blond Mary Pierce, the 23-year-old with whom the Meryl Streep-lookalike, rockets-slugging Lucic is most often compared. "You ever see her? The histrionics? Those stares? She needs to cool out."

As this theatrical teen gene pool rises and engulfs all normalcy, tradition and humility-even as the TABSAW scorch each other at the top of the rankings the women's tour becomes a kind of ironic cross between nifty and horrific. Mud wrestling absent mud. A newfangled breed virtually blowing

estrogen out their ears in some weirdly distaffian version of Iverson and Marbury going femina-a-femina.

"But listen to the tone of voice. It tells you everything, whether these girls are joking or nasty," says Bart McGuire, the newly installed CEO of the women'stour, attempting a spin worthy of the Clinton White House. "I don't get the flavor of unfriendliness. This isn't NBA trash-talking here."

But, truth be told, that's exactly what it is, according to Lori McNeil, who, at 34, is a kind of Charles Barkley to the Kobe Bryants of the WTA. "These kids watch all the other sports. They see what's going on. There's lots of trashtalking, smack and jive out there. Why should tennis be any different? The teenagers see Martina on top, they see that No. 1 is achievable for a 17-yearold, and they want to go for it."

"If there wasn't friction among these girls, I'd be surprised," says none other than John Newcombe, the Australian star of the '60s who personified dignity and sportsmanship. Of course, now he helps coach Lucic. "Enmity is not necessarily unhealthy," Newk says. "The high-rankers always learn to pull rank. They all strut; it's just a different strut. They all want to strike first. So we've got a terrific cat fight on our hands. It's quite fun, isn't it?"

To claw a feline of the same size is one thing; the bullying, even if merely verbal, of lesser players is quite another. In an early-round match at the French, the 6'1E", 168-pound Venus Williams blasted one of her nearly 120 mph serves past Ai Sugiyama (5'4", 115), who protested she wasn't ready and was granteda re-play. Williams stared, glared, seemed to say something (which apparently was: "You ready NOW?" according to a courtside photographer), then blasted an even faster delivery by her helpless opponent.

"That's the way she is. That's her style. I don't ask her to change. I just think she is better off being nicer," Sugiyama says.

She is better off being nicer," Sugiyama says. After Serena Williams struggled in a first-round victory in Paris over Jana Nejedly, the younger Williams sister, half-distracted by a reggae CD she was opening, critiqued herself in a press conference: "I played bad, really bad. But if she [Nejedly] was playing somebody else, she would have won."

Hingis, however, bows to no impudent teen in her dismissiveness. After being run ragged at Roland Garros by the tiny backboard, Anna Smashnova during which she sarcastically shook her head at the gall of her opponent extending the points-Hingis said the match was "a warmup-the second week of a Grand Slam is like the real tournament for the stars."

Whew! And all of tennis thought Sergei Fedorov's monster girlfriend, the liquidly gorgeous Kournikova, was the vain one. "Anna wears out that mirror in the locker room," says Shriver. As for all the Fedorov stories "Sure, Sergei wishes," says Kournikova. "At this year's U.S. Open, I'll have five boyfriends. [I'm] like a menu. You can look but you can't afford it."

As a courtside aside, the Hingis-Kournikova humble-off has been something to behold. In the past, the Russian-born Kournikova mocked Hingis' changing hair colors-her recent peculiar jet-black hairnet 'do resembles the hair-netted waitress at your local diner-and still obvious baby fat. "Anna has never idolized anybody. She's her own idol," says Nick Bollettieri, the coachingguru who started out with Kournikova but now serves as an "adviser" to the Williams sisters.

Hingis has said she is positive "Anna would like to change places with me and win four Grand Slam titles." In May in Berlin, when Kournikova upset Hingis for the first time in five meetings, the loser ridiculed the outcome. Hingis said she'd have "lost to anybody that day." And she told the Swiss press she only played Berlin because her mother forced her to, that she didn't care whether she won or lost and that Kournikova's victory "didn't count."

Switzerland's Patty Schnyder, still another breezy teen on the way to the Top 10, defends Hingis, her countrywoman. "Don't pay attention to all this garbage. We all like each other, except Kournikova. She is not nice. I don't talk to her. I don't need her."

"This is what I find a problem," Evert says. "Some of these bad feelings sound serious. And nobody gives anybody else any credit. Okay, respect is one thing. Do any teens give other teens respect? Is it respect to not think you can beat the opponent? Well, as a player you're not going to do that. I remember Arantxa had her first big win over me at the French. I was hobbling with a bad heel and she knew that. But she's milked that ever since. And she stares downlinespeople more than anybody. So now she's bitching about the younger girls. But she's right. They could show a lot more grace and class."

Not to mention manners. Kournikova has turned her back on more media than she has on all those Clearasiled, gasping, pseudo-suitors. Bud Collins, the game's most-respected chronicler, once uttered the classic bottom line on Kournikova: "Does she play with a racket? I've never noticed." But when Collins, in a taping for NBC, asked Kournikova, "Are you dating?" the Divine Ms. K bolted upright and stalked off. At the Lipton, having upset Monica Seles, Conchita Martinez, Lindsay Davenport and Sanchez Vicario-an unprecedented four Top-10ers leading to the final-Kournikova was sought out by her native Russian TV, with Collins again the interviewer. "Anna just raised her delightful nose and sauntered away," Collins said. "What's aggravating is her lack of professionalism."

The explosion of public interest in all this attitudinal badinage is usually traced to the emergence of the Williams sisters from the cocoon imposed by their father, Richard, who self-taught them amid the squalor and gang warfare in Compton, Calif., before moving to a secluded 10-acre estate in rural swampland outside Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Richard labeled the girls "Ghetto Cinderellas" and himself "King Richard" in a newsletter in which, three years ago, he also wrote that Venus "should go straight to the Hall of Fame." Of course, he also dubbed Serena "Blackenroe" for her rough-and-tough athleticism and said she would wind up a more accomplished player than Venus.

But upon joining the tour, the Williams sisters, according to Pierce, "acted like nobody else existed, like they held some kind of titles." Early on Venus announced that her main rival for No. 1 would not be the current champ, Hingis, but her sister. "She speaks the truth," Serena said recently in Paris. "What? Did you want Venus to lie?" From Florida, Richard Williams continued to chime in with: "Hingis' legs are too short to go the distance with either of my girls." And even Oracene Williams agreed with her daughters. "We brought the girls up to be confident. We didn't even allow babytalk. There's too much Ms. Prissy in tennis. I love their brashness. And I know the marketing people love it."

But wait.

"Long before we came out here," Serena says, "Hingis was trash-talking everybody." And she's right. From debut to denouement, Hingis continues to pile on shocking soliloquies of self-confidence.

After winning her first tour match in Zurich in '94 over Patty Fendick, the 14-year-old Hingis said, "I'm not that surprised. I've beaten better players." After winning both singles and doubles championships at the '97 Australian Open, Hingis said, "I'd play mixed doubles next year, but I should give someone else a chance to win an event." At last summer's Wimbledon, she apologized to the beaten Sabine Appelmans: "I've got to play two more matches. Sorry I had to make it short."

"Sometimes we've wondered if Martina actually knew what she was saying," Davenport, 22, says. "Maybe it was her age or inexperience or something got lost in the translation. But I don't know. She comes out with something astounding and then just stares at you like, 'What did I say?' But

then she'll have that glint in her eye."

For sheer preening, punk-diva arrogance, though, it would be difficult to top the elder Williams in her first full season in the big time. She insulted both Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, by refusing to shake hands after a loss, and Iva Majoli, by saying, "I would have beaten her last year" after a win.

Moreover, the 20-year-old Majoli says, "both Williams need to change their attitude. They look at you like you're nobody and they're the best. I'm sure it's going to change in a year or two when they grow up, when they realize they don't have to be so mean."

It was only when Venus made her astounding run to the U.S. Open final last year that she became something more than a curiosity. In short order she became the talk of the tournament and the tour. Williams' older peers complained. (Fernandez: "It's the way she walks in the locker room. She needs to show respect." Davenport: "If somebody doesn't want to be friendly, it's not our fault.") Her mother told The New York Times, "The other players don't even look at Venus. I think they're afraid. They want her to be their Stepin Fetchit." The very afternoon those words were in print, Spirlea, fed up with Venus' haughtiness, drew a bead on her at the netpost and crunch.

"I was on my path. I wasn't going to move. We bumped. So big deal," Venus said in the locker room. But Richard Williams, watching from Florida, made it a much bigger deal, playing the "racist" card, calling Spirlea "a big white turkey" and claiming he had overheard other female pros at other tournaments using the n-word in reference to Venus.

If nothing else, the ugly incident made it clear that a younger, wilder breed, motivated by higher stakes, more competitive juices and higher tensions, had taken over the tour. So what? Why should tennis, even women's tennis, be any different from the other red-hot, red-blooded sports of the '90s, like pro basketball, or even women's pro basketball? These girls are modern athletes in every sense. "All the talk and smack is fine as long as it doesn't take away from the game," says McNeil. "It's even refreshing-if they can back it up."

Spirlea, from Romania and only 24 herself, is as tough and mean-spirited a customer as trods the circuit. She was once fined a WTA-record $20,000 for cursing a linesman in Italy, quadruple her penalty for calling Venus "the f-ing Venus Williams" in a press conference. Just days before, she had beaten Kournikova, seemingly out of sheer anger and jealousy. "I want to shut up the mouths to everybody because they just think so much about her," Spirlea said. "She is a pretty young girl who gets all the attention."

Moreover, on another day at the U.S. Open, Davenport kicked the bag of another player, high-schooler Alexandra Stevenson, and bellowed "get this junior out of here"-not because of Stevenson's heritage (she is black), but because of the threat posed by a younger rival from Davenport's own stomping grounds in Southern California. Surely this was generational enmity. And All About Eve. And really, it's been going on for, well, forever. Nobody accused all those other assassin infants, from Evert to Austin, Graf to Seles-not to mention Connors to McEnroe-of being sweetie pies before or after they slaughtered their older prey either.

But back then everybody seemed to better understand the ritual. And, of course, their dissing didn't dominate the headlines.

"I never wanted to be friends with any of the players," admits Evert. "But I soon realized I had to live with these girls for the next 10, 15 years of my life. Everybody talks about my rivalry with Martina Navratilova. I spent more time with her in the locker room than with my husbands. You live your life there, and it's hard to do that with a chip on your shoulder. These bad feelings will pass. They have to or these girls will drive each other crazy. I'm just glad I'm not playing anymore."

Even the us-against-the-earth Richard Williams, who has since apologized to Spirlea and everybody else for his statements, will find out that if he junks the family paranoia, he will understand this: that both his brilliant daughters, as well as the bubbly, snickering Hingis and the drop-dead looker Kournikova and the enigmatic puzzler Lucic, most certainly will continue to go unloved by their peers on the tour. not because they are so beaded, black, blond, beautiful, quotable, arrogant, confident and in-eachother's- face. But because, come heaven or hell or anything else, they are so hotdamn good.