- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

NEW YORK From the bureau of jaw-dropping surprises and wholly unexpected plot twists, we bring you the following bulletin: Women's tennis is in a lather over a pouty-lipped blonde who hits like a Williams and looks like an extra from "Baywatch: Prague."
And no, we're not talking about Anna Kournikova (look, when we say Williams, we mean Venus and Serena. Not Barry).
Rather, the ingenue in question is one Simonya Popova, a 17-year-old junior player from Uzbekistan who was profiled in last week's Sports Illustrated.
According to the story, the heretofore unknown Popova has oodles of ball-busting power, the cocky swagger of a seasoned pro, a face to launch a thousand Google searches and perhaps most importantly "ample decolletage."
The only catch? She isn't real.
From her long legs to her huge serve, from her meddling father to her perfectly sculpted cheekbones, Popova is purely fictional. She's an amalgam of attractive traits, qualities that the article implies are in short supply on the WTA Tour.
Needless to say, tour officials were less than thrilled with the piece.
"It was misleading and irritating," tour spokesman Chris De Maria said. "There are a lot of great stories out there. We didn't need a fake one."
Maybe not. But beyond the obvious irony of the above statement an organization that has ridden Kournikova's fraudulent, skintight coattails is now carping about a sex-soaked bait-and-switch the tour would have been better off keeping its mouth shut.
After all, the fact of the matter is that the WTA doesn't have a surplus of great stories, great personalities or great competitors. At least not outside the Sisters Superior.
And that as opposed to SI pulling some ridiculous hoax is what the tour should be worried about.
Start with competitive balance. Or, more specifically, the WTA's decided lack thereof.
In the NFL-esque world of men's tennis, almost any player can win on any given day; in the women's game, that only applies to players named after planets and tranquil emotional states.
Consider this week's U.S. Open quarterfinals, which were slightly more compelling than international cricket. Venus Williams dismissed Monica Seles reportedly the sixth-best player on Earth like so much pocket lint. Sister Serena trounced touted up-and-comer Daniela Hantuchova in just 55 minutes.
At one point during the Seles match, a bored-looking Richard Williams even left his seat, preferring to wander around Arthur Ashe Stadium. Exchanging high-fives with his fellow spectators, he seemed utterly oblivious to the carnage below.
"[The Williams sisters] have proven over the last year that they are the two best players in the world," Lindsay Davenport said. "If anyone else wants to get into that mix and really be talked about in the same breath as those two, you have to raise the level of your game and you have to do it at the big moments like the U.S. Open, like any Slam.
"I think it's very similar to Tiger [Woods], if Tiger had a little brother that was always going down the 18th neck and neck with him. It's going to be tough."
Particularly when many of the tour's top talents are in a state of flux. Like Davenport, former world No. 1 Martina Hingis is coming back from injury; unlike Davenport, she's nowhere close to winning form. Seles, one of the game's most popular players, has entered the twilight of her career.
Kournikova, of course, is a punch line. And a tired one at that (though her future in music videos appears promising).
Even the player best equipped to blunt the Williams sisters, hard-hitting Jennifer Capriati, has regressed since winning the Australian Open. Following her Open quarterfinal loss to Amelie Mauresmo, Capriati admitted that she choked away the match and sounded less like a confident comeback artist than a candidate for career burnout No. 2.
"It's not good to just want to win so bad that it just puts too much pressure on yourself," Capriati said. "You've got to find the right balance."
Then there's the WTA's flagging soap opera subtext. In the late 1990s, women's tennis rose to prominence on the strength of its frothy rivalries, off-court intrigue and unabashed cattiness; today, those elements have grown stale.
Skin is out. Skill is in. As the SI article points out, potential tour sex symbols like Hantuchova and Jelena Dokic have refused to be marketed as such. And despite Capriati and Richard Williams' best efforts to the contrary, post-match trash talk is a dying art.
(Where have you gone, Martina Hingis?)
Ultimately, the surest sign of what SI dubs the WTA's "lost mojo" might be another incident of fakery. We refer, of course, to Kournikova's recent tete-a-tete with Penthouse Magazine over faux topless photos, a story that was more embarrassing than, well, titillating.
The sort of buzz-producing boondoggle that once made the tour go 'round, l'affair du Kournikova came and went with remarkably little fanfare, far less than what greeted the scantily clad Miss K at a WTA awards banquet a few years back.
That's a bad sign for Popova's equally unreal if ample decolletage and perhaps for the tour that claims it doesn't need it.

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