LONDON — Helen Wills vs. Suzanne Lenglen in Cannes in 1926; Bobby Riggs vs. Jack Kramer in Madison Square Garden in 1947; BJK vs. Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in Houston in 1973 — exhibitions and special events have long been a part of the fabric of tennis.
But they’ve recently become a kind of adjunct or bonus to standard tournaments eager to have a new twist that would be an appealing draw. So we see John McEnroe and Jonas Bjorkman playing doubles together or Pete Sampras facing Marat Safin or, as will be the case at this year’s L.A. Open, Mac vs. Andre Agassi.
All this was quite a stretch for purists. And there is no greater haunt for purists than Wimbledon. Here for years, the mighty tournament hosted quaint tournaments called Ladies and Gentleman’s Invitational Singles and Doubles — which provided gentle reprieves for aging icons and middle aged players favored by the Wimbledon establishment.
Then last year, the powers that be came up with an imaginative idea that would prove to have far-ranging, unintended consequences. To initiate it’s new roof, Wimbledon had an appealing exo and test run, featuring Agassi and Steffi Graf against Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters. Forced to get into shape, the supposedly-retired Belgian got bit by the competition bug, and before you could say Mama-Mia, Our Kimmy was back on the tour. Her stunning U.S. Open victory soon prompted Clijsters’ great rival Justine Henin to think, “If she can do that, so can I.” So you can easily contend that one Wimbledon exo transformed the women’s game.
Now Wimbledon is at it again.
Two of the most charismatic women in memory teamed up to play doubles in the Invitational Ladies Doubles — Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis. Just before Big Babe Tennis (the Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova, etc.) came into its own, there were the game’s two catty kittens, the Spice Girls if you will, who drew much of the oxygen in the game. John McEnroe once claimed that Sampras and Michael Chang “are never going to be big personalities even if you punch them in the head 100 times…[Male players are] a boring bunch of clones. They don’t realize just how boring they are…Young players like Williams, Hingis and Kournikova definitely have more appeal.”
Kournikova, 29, and Hingis, 28, were once linked at the hip, enriching the game with an abundance of ‘tude ‘n curves. The duo won the Aussie Open dubs titles in ’99 and ’02 and rose to No. 1 in the doubles rankings. Hingis, who went on to win five Slams and be No. 1 for an imposing 209 weeks dropped out of the game when she was suspended for a positive cocaine test in ’07. A great career grinds to an end tinged with shame. Kournikova, the ’97 Wimbledon semifinalist, never won a single title and was viewed as a massive underachiever by the tennis net and an astounding overachiever on the Internet.
Unfortunately, Hingis and Kournikova — who scored a 6-2, 6-4 win over the all-Brit duo of Ann Hobbs and Sam Smith — say that, outside of World TeamTennis and the occasional exo, they have no comeback plans. But for a few brief moments on Court 2, it was nice to catch a glimpse of two players who once brought plenty of spice to the game.
“The commitment is totally different,” said Hingis of the possibility of a third return to the tour. “Being on the tour full-time, you can’t pop up and say, I’m going to come back and win Grand Slams, even if you have a great partner. It’s great fun to be out there again with Anna. We had some great times. We’re sharing some good time again. Totally different ballgame.”
Of her lead role in a Russian Revolution that has seen many a Muscovite follow in her footsteps and rise to the top of the sport, Kournikova said, “It was all about the timing. I was kind of the first one after the Soviet Union to leave outside of Russia, to be able to practice in better circumstances, in a better environment, to go to the academy at a young age. Before that, we still had great players. We had Likhovtseva, Makarova, who were top 20, 30, 50. They were there. They just weren’t as noticeable. We always had an amazing tennis school and clubs in Russia. It’s just the opportunities never were really there when it was still the Soviet Union for them to travel. Everything was controlled by the federation. I think once people and the kids and the parents saw I was the first one to kind of get out, they realized that there is that opportunity to be able to travel, to be able to go outside and compete internationally. I’m looking at all our girls. I’m so proud. It’s so cool they’re able to showcase their talents, they’re able to travel, they’re able to make a great living, to do what they love to do, keep all of their prize money. During Soviet Union, you had to share all of it with the federation and everybody. I’m just so proud of the girls. They worked their asses off. Tennis is a grind. I think women in general don’t get enough credit.”
And of life in the spotlight, the Russian-Floridian said it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: “It’s a full-time job, it’s 24/7. You’re week in, week out on the road for 10, 11 months out of the year. You have no personal life. You have no home life. It’s very difficult. It’s not glamorous at all as a lot of people think.”
A FEW GEMS FROM THE KOURNIKOVA/HINGIS GLORY DAYS:
•Hingis told Detour magazine that she was glad they were doing stories on tennis’ Spice Girls rather than on the WNBA because “we’re so much prettier than all the other women in sports.”
•Kournikova predicted, “In about 10 years every woman tennis player will play topless.”
•Mary Carillo once said Kournikova feels “everybody’s there to serve her; everybody’s her underling. Her attitude toward everybody is, ‘Peel me a grape.'”
•Hingis on Kournikova: “I’m sure she would like to change places with me, if she could, and have four Grand Slam titles.”
•Backing a new product, Kournikova contended, “Women should wear this bra in all circumstances.” When a reporter asked a question about her personal life, Anna shot back, “We are here to talk about bras.”
•Regarding Anna, Nathalie Tauziat speculated, “If she gets results as impressive as her beauty, she will be the most adored player in history. But if she fails, the system will crush her.”
•Frank DeFord wrote that Anna looks “like a trim sloop, skimming across the surface, her long signature pigtail flying about like a torn spinnaker in the wind. Her lines are perfect — especially now that she doesn’t jam the second-service ball up her knickers.”
•Andrei Medvedev once claimed, “Kournikova is not going to make the cut anymore. There are much prettier Russian girls. They hit harder, they play better and they have the instincts of winners.”
•Kournikova said, “I’m like an expensive menu. You can look at it, but you can’t afford it.”
•The London Times contended, “Any woman who would not want to swap places with Kournikova is either lying or needs to get her pulse checked.”
•Alix Ramsey noted, “Kournikova looks like a million dollars. She is worth considerably more. She has most of the male population falling at her feet, she plays tennis rather well and yet, poor dear, she feels rather done by. The world knows her for her looks rather than her tennis. It must be awful for her. How my gums bleed for her.”
•Henin asked, “What should I be envious of? Her body? Her income? Her boyfriends? No thanks. I wouldn’t exchange anything with her. I feel good the way I am. I don’t need a boyfriend every week. I am serious and try to keep certain principles, to be generous and loyal and love. I don’t drink and I hate discos. Some teens think their path to maturity is to pass by discos.”
•A letter to London’s Daily Sport contended, “It matters not a jot that Kournikova is about as good at tennis as I am at finding artifacts on the Peruvian trail. Her talent really lies in the way she can bend over to pick up a ball and not blush one bit while 12,000 people on Centre Court strain to catch a glimpse of her.”