“Who’s the prettiest?” she says, buttering a roll, her slim wrist holding up a Rolex the size of a child’s fist. “Who’s the most popular, the most fashionable, who’s getting the most coverage?” She smiles sorrowfully to acknowledge that, when it comes to these contests, she tends to do quite well. “In the men’s game, they’re all friends. But we’re not friends. You can be on the tour for 10 years and still not be friends. It’s sad.”
Everyone is being friendly today – Kim Clijsters in a spangly wool top at the end of the table and Williams, smiling at guests with the noblesse of a queen. Those present aren’t sports journalists, but the ladies of the New York fashion press, convened by the WTA to meet the top players and consider them for coverage. Any ironies in the room are smoothed away by how good we all feel about the strong-woman narrative.
Williams, naturally, is the one to make a speech. In a quiet voice, she recounts her negotiations for equal prize money at Wimbledon (“I was ready for the rejection stamp, and then they gave way”) and at the French Open (“I had the placards ready, and they gave way, too”) and outlines her general philosophy which, Allaster says, anoints her as the heir to Billie Jean King, moral leader of the women’s game: “We all have the same heart beating inside us,” she says. “We should be equal.”
Afterwards, I ask Williams about an incident that got far more coverage recently than anything she has talked about. At the Australian Open, she lunged for a ball and briefly exposed her skin-tone pants. Did it annoy her when the photo went round the world? “No.” She laughs. “I designed that skirt with the slits so it would do that.” When lesser players talk in awe about the Williams sisters, it’s not just the tennis they mean but this, the leisurewear range, and how it profits from coverage officially frowned on. It’s either brilliant exploitation of a sexist media or a complete sellout, but in any case is considered, by most players, to be the site of real empowerment in the women’s game. “Next time,” Williams says, “I’m going to put some lace in there, and maybe some light whalebone.”
But Venus, people thought you weren’t wearing any knickers. She looks puzzled. “Yeah, weird, right? I mean, who would do that?”
Spend any time backstage at a major tennis tournament and you will see the first-class players glide around like royalty while everyone else fights for space.
At the Crandon Park tennis centre in Florida, crowds gather for the first week of the Sony Ericsson Open, one of the glitziest tournaments outside the grand slams. It is on Key Biscayne, a palm-fringed spit off the coast of Miami, co-sponsored this year by Bombay Sapphire and with $700,000 in prize money for the women’s champion. Outside, it is 90F. In the warren of changing rooms beneath the stadium, it is cool and dank, there is no phone reception and flocks of tennis players fly by like the corps de ballet, wet-haired from the shower and en route to five minutes of interviews with journalists from their home countries. Over the course of three days, I will hear a former Czech champion complain of lack of respect from younger players, Australia’s No1 disapprove of Venus’s pants stunt, almost everyone bemoan the “Kournikova effect” on coverage of the women’s game and the English No1, Elena Baltacha, suspect someone of stealing her lunch voucher. Above ground, the tournament progresses and the car park fills up with Porsches.
Any discussion of hardship on the WTA tour comes with a necessary eye-roll – the plight of women legally resident in Switzerland or Dubai for tax purposes is not the most pressing in feminism today. Still, if the symbolism of what happens to women at the top of a profession trickles down to the culture at large, there remain a few anomalies to address: the nature of the coverage, the earning opportunities within the women’s game and the argument that won’t quite die, that male players should be paid more because a) their matches get more viewers and b) they play five sets. Can we settle this once and for all? The women’s final at Wimbledon is routinely watched on TV by more people than the men’s. And what has the length of matches got to do with it? As Baltacha says, “You go to the cinema and you watch a film for three hours and it’s crap. Or you watch a film for an hour and a half and it’s unbelievable. You can’t say that in a five-setter the men are doing a better job. We do the same job, so we should get the same money.”
It’s the TV commentary, however, where the discrepancies are most obvious. At Wimbledon last year, after years of incremental slippage, focus from the commentary box on women players’ clothes, style and grunting was so blatant, so incessant, that almost everyone I spoke to at the time noticed it. There was a fuss over court placement – pretty lower seeds being bumped to the show courts over plainer high ones – and while it was part of the general razzification of the tournament, it seemed to fall most heavily on women players. When veterans get misty-eyed about the good old days, they tend to mean Steffi Graf, who drew crowds by virtue of skill and not showbiz, and made no concessions to the changing nature of the game. For viewers, nostalgia goes back further, perhaps to the Wimbledon of selective memory, a place of bald grass, endless summer and the prewar vowels of Dan Maskell who, the joke in the commentary box goes, might say two words over the course of a match: “Well played.” If modern commentary is filled with trivia, says Budd Collins, 80-year-old veteran of US tennis coverage, it is a function of there being too much airtime and not enough to fill it. He blames John McEnroe. “He never shuts up!”
“And so,” Maskell said, introducing the 1973 women’s final with the gravity of a Dimbleby on VE Day, “the traditional scene, here. In a very rapidly changing world, this one doesn’t change.” Of course, that it did change was by and large a good thing, not least in the quality of the tennis. To see Venus Williams play for the first time is like watching a parallel game, regular tennis but with less gravity. Arms gangling, elbows hooked, toes turned slightly inward, she has the shambling grace of the pool shark, the virtuoso who appears not to be trying until she swoops, suddenly, for the kill. If she wears a red corset while doing it, who cares?
Justine Henin is holding a press conference in French after beating Elena Dementieva 6-3, 6-2. Outside the press bunker, photographers lounge, sniggering at the fortunes of an American player who has had to apologise after tweeting “Florida sucks” and discussing the scene that morning when a plague of umpires asset-stripped the hotel breakfast buffet. “Did you see that?” one veteran sports photographer says. “It was like locusts. I mean…” He pauses. “They even took the butter.”
In the corridor, an abandoned walkie-talkie crackles into life. “Razzano says she can go to the autograph session, but can she wear her tennis gear?” Virginie Razzano, the French No3, is prime fodder for the kind of publicity events that Venus Williams, dining tonight with her family, is too grand for. (“Bless her, she’s not Puff Daddy,” a press aide says afterwards.)
Most players are grateful to the WTA for so aggressively marketing them, although to whom isn’t always clear. After each match, players are required to hold a press conference, even when there is no demand for one, and I see journalists from low-ranked players’ home nations deciding, loyally, to put in an appearance. “We’ve nothing to ask her,” an English sports writer says, “but we feel bad if she turns up and there’s no one there.”
The rumour of locker-room bitchiness in women’s tennis plays into all the usual dreary stereotypes, but Baltacha – who was born in Kiev and moved to Britain as a child when her father, a professional footballer, was sold to Ipswich Town – says it is more or less true. There is a natural barrier to being friends with someone whom you may, shortly, be called on to destroy in public, but the men seem to manage it better. “I was chatting to one girl the other day, and she’s going through a stage where’s she’s like, you know, this is so tough to be among these girls and I’m struggling a bit. I said, oh, come on, you’ve got a good ranking. And she said: you need a medal just to be in this environment. To actually survive.”
What does she mean? Baltacha smiles. “I have had a couple of experiences, and I now keep myself to myself. I wouldn’t go out of my way to start [a fight], but if I feel someone has done or said something on purpose, then I will react. I wouldn’t just take it. I would defend myself.”
Hang on – what are we talking about here? “I’ve heard stories where one girl’s strings got cut. Even really stupid things, like we get given lunch vouchers and the other day I went to the players’ restaurant and said, ‘Baltacha’ and they said, oh, someone’s taken it for you. And I was like, have they? And I said to my trainer, did you take it? He said, no. Someone had even signed for it. Honestly, I was laughing. These things go on all the time. I think it’s hilarious. Because everyone is trying to get an edge over you. You’ve got to react in such a way that it doesn’t bother you. If you get into that – what did that person say about me in the locker room? – it would drive you mad. Totally destroy you. I’m here to do business; I’m not going to get close to any of you. I’m not a pushover.”
For now, the better players (Baltacha is currently ranked 62 in the world) want to be her friend. “Yeah. And you think, are they saying hi because they’re worried, or why? Because one week they say hi and the next they walk straight past me.” She shrugs. “That’s the game.”
The seasoned player’s anxiety dream is of the unseeded 16-year-old who swans on to court, no history, no fear, and takes them down in front of a capacity crowd. That was Monica Seles in 1989, Jennifer Capriati in 1990, Martina Hingis in 1995 and Caroline Wozniacki in 2005. The 19-year-old Dane and world No3 now herself feels under pressure. “Women’s tennis,” she says, “has improved so much that if you’re top 10, you don’t beat everyone else so easily. Even yesterday, I played a girl who was ranked 100 in the world and still I had problems. It’s very competitive.”
To older players, the girls coming up behind are a frightening bunch: bigger, stronger, mouthier, more ambitious and better attuned to getting sponsorship. There is some resentment, too, that they have so little appreciation for how bad things were for women players until relatively recently. In 1970, Billie Jean King led a revolt against the male-dominated circuit, accepting a $1 contract from tennis promoter Gladys Heldman and establishing a rival tour, which led to the formation of the WTA. In 1971, King became the first female athlete to win prize money of $100,000, but no one mentions that now. Amnesia is the privilege of progress.
“We would look up more to the top players,” says Kveta Peschke, the Czech doubles player. “We’d be like, wow! You know? I remember the first time I played Steffi Graf – the only time I played her – I was so excited. I went on the court thinking, don’t worry about the score, just enjoy the game. Now they have the attitude of whoever I play, I’ll beat you. They are very, very aggressive. Sometimes you feel as if you are in a boxing arena. Oh my goodness, they are so much stronger and taller.”
“There’s been a lot of progression from 10 years ago,” Razzano says. “Now anyone can beat anyone.”
Not Serena Williams, surely. “Yes,” she says. “If you have strong balls from Serena Williams, you can beat her easy. Not easy. But when I have a good ball, I can be aggressive with my opponent. The difficulty is with someone like Henin, where it’s more touch and spin. Or Wozniacki, when you don’t have enough punch, not such high-pressure balls. You need to find solutions for beating her; you need more patience. More tactic, je pense.”
The newest player causing sleepless nights among the top 20 is 18-year-old Melanie Oudin, an American who last year got into the quarter-finals at the US Open by defeating an astounded fourth seed, Elena Dementieva, and then smartly dispatching former world No1 Maria Sharapova. The fate of teenage tennis sensations is a notoriously grim one, and Oudin is trying to stay level-headed while adapting to her new status. “It’s a lot more pressure than I used to have,” she says. “You step outside and everyone wants your autograph. You’re like, really? You want my picture and autograph? You feel you want to please your fans, you want to please everyone who is supporting you, but the real thing is to play for yourself. That’s what I’m learning.” Her idols are “Clijsters, because she’s so nice. And Henin, because I’m as small as she is.”
The sponsorship potential for the likes of Oudin – young, pretty, American, top 15, who describes herself, winningly, as “just like a normal teenager” – is huge. If she stays in the game, she will be competing for the most lucrative and glamorous deals with immediate seniors such as Wozniacki, who is dressed on court by Stella McCartney (“She’s very nice,” Wozniacki says) and Jelena Jankovic, who comes off court, slumps in a chair and examines her well-painted fingernails like a truculent teen. There is a large, diamanté crucifix around her neck. “We are entertainers, as well, on court, in our own sporty way,” Jankovic says. “We entertain the fans, they pay money to watch us play. It’s nice to see girls who are feminine, who dress nice. Maybe in the past there were only a couple of players like that, but now players pay more attention to it. I was one of those painting my nails different colours and matching them to my dress. If you are in a nice dress you can play better, feel better. More comfortable and confident.”
Sam Stosur, the Australian No1 and world No7, who this month lost in the French Open final, snorts and rolls her eyes at this logic. “I think it’d be nice if women’s tennis was recognised for how well we all play, rather than for what we’re wearing this week. All the players would agree that, at the end of the day, they’d rather be winning matches in tournaments than being at parties and showing off their latest fashion lines. Sometimes I think it gets forgotten that’s what we do.”
What did she think about the fuss around Venus’s pants? “It’s silly. Who knows what she was thinking when she was designing that skirt.”
“Helen Jacobs,” says Budd Collins, “in the 1930s wore shorts at Wimbledon and people were aghast, although the Duke of Windsor applauded it. He said he liked seeing female legs.” Then there was the American champion Gussie Moran. “Back in 1949, she scandalised Wimbledon by wearing lace-trim pants. And the photographers were on their stomachs trying to get the shot. Ted Tinling, who was master of ceremonies, lost his job because of that. She never tried it again. And then in 1985 Anne White wore a total white jumpsuit and looked quite nice, good figure. The committee of management was shocked. She played against Pam Shriver and they had to quit for darkness at one set apiece and White was told not to wear that costume again. And in 1972, Rosie Casals came out to play a final in a dress with purple squiggles on it and they made her go back and change. But the real precursor was Suzanne Lenglen. She was French, came to Wimbledon in 1919, never lost a match there, but shocked the hell out of them because you could see her calves. She was wonderfully dressed by some French designer, so stylish. The first final she played was against Dolly Chambers, an Englishwoman who wore a skirt down to her ankles and a whalebone corset. Casals is the reason we have the new Wimbledon, because so many people wanted to see her. Everybody said, oh, it’s awful! Let’s go watch!”
Natalie Grandin, the South African No1, and Abigail Spears, her American doubles partner, are discussing the social aspect of life on tour. Wozniacki, they agree, is one of the nicest of the top 10, as is Clijsters. As for the Williams sisters, “They have a little bit of an aura around them,” Grandin says.
“I will occasionally get a hello,” Spears says.
“But they kind of stick to themselves.”
Venus and Serena are regarded with awe and caution by the rest of the circuit. I hear them referred to repeatedly by lesser players as “aloof” and “cliquey”, and by one major commentator as “entitled”. There was resentment last year when Serena got off with an $80,000 fine for verbally abusing a line judge at the US Open (as far as one could lip-read: “I swear to God I will take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat”).
“The Americans are generally bad,” Spears says.
“The Spanish keep to themselves,” Grandin says, “and the Russians. The South Africans, we mingle, because there’s only two of us. Then you have someone like Sharapova, who’s a little bit more quiet. She’ll say hello, but you’re not going to get an in-depth conversation with her.”
And the men? “They have a drink after matches. They’ll have dinner with each other the night before they play.” Don’t the women do this? Both players laugh, as if this is the best joke ever.
Grandin and Spears were both born in 1981, making them, in tennis player years, about 150. They are amused by the suggestion that there is parity of earnings with their male counterparts, a common assumption given that all the grand slams now have equal prize money.
“Ha!” Grandin says. “Well, in grand slams everything’s fine. But in terms of overall? The men earn way more. If you look at the top 100 of men and women, it’s like the women earn half.”
“They have bigger events,” Spears says, “higher prize money tournaments during the year. They have more options than we do.”
Paternalism in the women’s game, in which they are restricted to fewer tournaments than the men, is frustrating to the lower-ranked players, who must constantly move around the world to keep up their fitness and earnings. A player outside the top 50 will play around 28 tournaments a year, while a top 20 seed will play around 15. “There is a sort of protection that we have on our tour that the men don’t,” Spears says.
Cara Black, the Zimbabwean No1, says, “We average two tournaments a week, the guys four. Our goal is to get more jobs every week. It’s a long year, and if you don’t do well in a tournament, you’ve got to look for somewhere else to play – a $25k or $50k challenge – just to get the matches in, to be prepared for the next big tournament.”
Ivanovic tells me top players are so tied to their training schedules that if she takes more than a few days off, it can take her three weeks of concentrated effort to get back her fitness level.
“It depends,” Baltacha says. “Some girls need to practise six hours a day; some don’t play for a week, then turn up to a tournament and are absolutely fine. I used to find that if I didn’t play for three days, I’d be shanking balls everywhere.”
This morning, Baltacha lost in the second round to the 12th seed, Yanina Wickmayer, and is flying home to Ipswich. “You’ve got to be careful,” she says. “A few girls have got up in the rankings and all of a sudden got this deal, and they’re doing so much modelling, they’ve suddenly dropped.”
Ivanovic is reading Paulo Coelho. “It’s a bit spiritual,” she says, “but, you know.” Her manager is trying to get her to tweet, but she’s resisting. “It’s good to be a bit private.” This morning, while Venus Williams was photographed with Alicia Keys and Clijsters, Ivanovic prepared for a photoshoot with the CEO of Sony. There were higher seeds available, including Svetlana Kuznetsova, former winner of the French and US Opens and built like a model for a Soviet work poster. “Kuznetsova has won many more grand slams,” a veteran photographer in the press room said. He smiled. “But, of course, Kuznetsova won’t do.”
Outside in the swelter, the tournament goes on.