The Power Game

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catfight after the flower-throwing incident. But, really, didn't Shaq and Kobe say some pretty awful things about each other? And didn't manager Lou Piniella wrestle one of his players in the locker room? Didn't the Portland Trailblazers self-destruct arguing over playing time? And these were all teammates.

In most women's sports, including, until recently, tennis, the women are all huggy and super supportive and special to one another because they are struggling to gain legitimacy. But when a women's sport starts to make serious money, poison darts start looking for targets. "In the Billie Jean King era, they were missionaries," says WTA coo Josh Ripple. "Now the players are more difficult to deal with."

That is a sign of the women's power and popularity. A recent USA Today poll showed that 75% of tennis fans prefer the women's game. Its TV ratings are routinely higher than the men's. Forbes Celebrity 100 list, which tabulates fame in America, includes five women's tennis players: Kournikova, No. 54; Venus, 57; Hingis, 65; Serena, 71; Davenport, 72. No other sport, male or female, has as many on the list. Non-tennis fans know Hingis, Kournikova, the Williamses, Capriati, Seles and maybe Davenport. The No. 1-rated male player is named Gustavo Kuerten. Seriously.

The men's game has great players, but it has suffered from a lack of interesting personalities and gripping rivalries. The Top 20 list is clogged with Spanish clay-court matadors and nondescript Europeans. Goran Ivanisevic, who won Wimbledon with a thrilling five-setter, was ranked 125th, but who wants to memorize 125 names? Names like Gustavo Kuerten.

While the men serve ace after numbing ace, the women have a powerful game that still allows for some volley. cbs commentator and former player Mary Carillo says of a recent tournament, "They were playing a brand of tennis that I was totally unfamiliar with. The pounding was so concussive and the running back and forth so athletic - everything about that match was so much more ballistic than I could have scared up. I played another sport."

When it comes to business matters, the sport is still very much the same. Some women have been disappointed by the WTA, which cedes most of its power to the individual tournaments and hasn't run a very sharp operation. Even as the women's game was flourishing, the WTA was unable for two years to find a lead sponsor for the tour. After losing Virginia Slims, it rejected Tampax for being "too feminine," instead teaming up with a Canadian software company named Corel. For U.S. tournaments, it went with, which has folded. After another sponsorless year, the WTA finally signed with Sanex, which is some kind of European soap. "Places were selling out, and they still couldn't get a sponsor," Davenport says. "Players were getting fed up. As far as a leader of women's tennis, they've totally failed us. Nobody has helped us get there except the players. The success is pure luck for the WTA."

Furthermore, Davenport feels the WTA hasn't used the women's success to build the sport. "Tennis isn't fun for teens to go to," she complains. "There's no music, no excitement. At halftime in the NBA, they throw out T shirts and play rock music. The WTA should be doing more to bring in young people."

And the tour hasn't been able to persuade Wimbledon or the French Open to give the women prize money equal to the men's. While some of the women, like Davenport, make an issue of it, many don't. Of the discrepancy, Kournikova says, "Women get better ratings, but men play five sets, and it's tougher for them. Men work really hard and play five sets and everything." But John McEnroe, who spent decades dissing the women's game, now thinks they deserve the cash. "It's irrelevant if they play best of five or best of three," he says. "If the women entertain people just as much, and you're playing at the same time, we should forget about that issue, get it over with, have equal prize money and start trying to improve the sport even more."

Even though the women players have better Q ratings than the guys, they still aren't getting the same kind of sponsorship deals. And, according to Forbes, none of the women - not even Kournikova - gets as much in endorsement cash as Andre Agassi. "Who's running the game? Men," says Navratilova. "How many men are going to step up to the plate for women? Not very many. It's Madison Avenue. The money will first go to the men, and if money is left over, it goes to us." It's more complicated than that. "There's not too many women who really sell product," says Claus Marten, an Adidas marketing executive. "Men move more merchandise. Men have a different buying attitude. If four men go on a tennis court and they all have the same thing on, they laugh. It's not like that with women. Women want to be different."

The women are getting closer, and they have been given a gift that every sport is trying desperately to create: drama. This week the back story will be whether Capriati can use her booming serve and aggressive baselining to peel away the top ranking from Hingis, the last of the chess-playing, smaller players, who hasn't won a Slam since early 1999.

Hingis has kept her title by being consistent and avoiding injury. Capriati, a prodigy who made the French Open semifinals at 14, dropped out of tennis, gained weight, got a nose ring and then was arrested for shoplifting and pot possession. But, like a Lifetime movie producer's dream, she came back with a chiseled bod and became the dominant woman on the tour, storming through the Australian Open and winning the French before losing in the Wimbledon semis. "I think she's the greatest story in sports in the last 20 years," says McEnroe, who believes she'll do very well at Flushing Meadows. "This court is good for her; she's going to have a lot of support from the fans. I think she'll meet Venus in the semis. It will be a hell of a match."

The Slam wins have given Capriati plenty of confidence, which she needs, since her game is based on not holding back on her second serve and aiming right at the lines. "I wanted to show the world that I'm not this has-been or this burnout or this total, like, rebellious teenager," she says. When she talks about her past, she still tenses up. "I had to learn to like myself, to love my family. Now I enjoy playing, and it's shown up in my results."

This being the WTA tour, she's also learned to enjoy sparring with the Williamses. After Serena blamed her quarterfinal Wimbledon loss to Capriati on yet another ailment, Capriati could barely contain herself. "Every time I play her, I'm pretty much used to something going on there. I think I know the truth inside. I think most people do," she said.

Every one of these tabloid-TV press conferences is good for the sport. And despite the fact that some lessons in sportsmanship may go absent, these are great role models for young women. This is the first women's sport in the U.S. to become more popular than its male counterpart that doesn't involve doing pretty leaps on a mat or an ice rink. It's far better to be filled with arrogance and aloofness and tension than to flash a saccharine Dorothy Hamill smile. If people turn to sports for real-time Aristotelian catharsis, then perhaps the women's tour - with its grudges and crying and accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia - is the most interesting drama of all. We've had decades of hypotheticals about whether, if women ran the world, there would be no war. Now it's cool to see that women make the most interesting wars of all. Wars in which women hit cross-court bullets and then throw flowers at each other.

With Reporting by Jennie James/Berlin and Amanda Bower/New York

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