- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

NEW YORK — For those of you bored silly by the stultifying state of the U.S. Open’s women’s draw — in other words, everyone not anticipating the thrilling conclusion of the rain-delayed Ai Sugiyama-Francesca Schiavone throwdown — we offer the following consolation.

Belgium is just enthralled.

“It’s unbelievable for a little country to have two players number 1 and number 3 in the world,” Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne says, referring to herself and top-seeded countrywoman Kim Clijsters. “Kim has a lot of fans. I have a lot of fans. We are just two different kind of players, two different kind of personalities. We both play great tennis. That’s very important for everybody.”

Everybody with a vested interest in the Euro vis-a-vis world chocolate prices, perhaps. As for the rest of us, the Open thus far has been a vast, Williams-free wasteland, a women’s tournament so soporific that the last two days of wet weather have come as sweet relief.

And that’s without mentioning Anna Kournikova’s short-lived tenure as a roving reporter for the USA Network, an ill-advised star turn that surely will jeopardize her long-term career prospects of succeeding the loquacious-by-comparison Brooke Burke as the host of E’s “Wild On.”

Given the chance to vamp and giggle — two tasks that ought to be in Kournikova’s coquettish wheel house — the pouty-lipped download queen struck out, flubbing lines while making Eric Dickerson look like Jim Gray. Not even an adoring camera, backed up by equally adoring interview subjects, was much help.

Really — Anna K. was just that bad.

Likewise, the ladies of the Open have left much to be desired. Nearly enough to send us out onto the side courts, lamenting and gnashing, searching for a David Nalbandian match. Which, quite frankly, is madness. But increasingly tempting.

First and foremost, the Williams sisters are regrettably absent, hanging out in Manhattan but MIA in Flushing. Then again, which would you choose: Playing tennis with a bum knee/stomach, or enjoying a VIP seat to the first round of the Madonna-Britney Spears tonsil hockey playoffs? Rhetorical question, we know.

Still, the absence of defending champion Serena and two-time champ Venus has left a gaping hole in a draw — and a sport — already reeling from career-threatening injuries to Kournikova and Monica Seles, plus the ailment-induced departure of all-but-retired Martina Hingis. Jennifer Capriati admits as much, saying that whoever wins the tournament will have an “asterisks” next to her name. Lindsay Davenport concurs.

“It’s just a feeling that we haven’t had in a number of years,” she says. “I think since ‘99, when Serena won the first one, one of them’s always been in the latter rounds. Now suddenly not to have both, it’s a very — I think it’s disappointing for people.

“It’s always fun when you win a Slam to then beat the best players. I think that Kim and Justine and Jennifer are still some really great players left. Unfortunately, it’s always gonna be known as ‘the one that the Williamses didn’t play.’”

To their credit, Davenport and Co. are keeping up their end of the bargain, for the most part playing to seed. Problem is, the rest of the field — which is to say, the WTA’s Generation Next — is doing likewise. And that’s a scary sight. In fact, the vast talent gap between the game’s stars and scrubs has never loomed larger.

Elena Dementieva, an Open semifinalist in 2000, came into the tournament as the No.11 seed. She was drubbed in straight sets by the sixth-seeded Capriati, largely because Dementieva’s feeble, corkscrewing second serve wouldn’t hold up in slow-pitch softball. Russian teen Maria Sharapova, the WTA’s next big thing, was ousted by French junkballer Emilie Loit — who also lost to Capriati, managing to take a set when Jen-Jen got distracted by an overhead blimp.

Which is understandable, given that blimps seldom, if ever, show up at major sporting events.

Even though she needed a little, er, help from above, Loit was better than most. Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne and No.5 seed Amelie Mauresmo have yet to drop a set. Capriati dismissed first-round foe Cristina Torrens Valero in a little more than a half an hour. Hobbled by a bad foot, Davenport bagled French Open semifinalist Nadia Petrova in the first set of a fourth-round match. Henin-Hardenne did the same to Marat Safin’s little sister, Dinara Safina.

Speaking of the injured Marat, the women’s game looks even duller when compared to the men’s, which never has been more competitive — or compelling, assuming you can wrap your Freedom Fries-loving head around the fact that many of the tour’s most watchable players don’t hail from the United States.

A fourth-round match between Morocco’s Younes El Aynaoui and the Czech Republic’s Jiri Novak, for instance, was as good as it gets, a five-set thriller that ended in a tiebreak and saw the triumphant El Aynaoui toss his shirt and his rackets into a roaring, raucous grandstand. Two days earlier, Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic gave the Open its first dose of honest-to-goodness back-stabbing intrigue, wishing third-round conqueror Andy Roddick a happy 21st birthday, then ripping Roddick for showboating in a subsequent news conference.

That sort of cattiness — oh, snaps! — used to be commonplace in women’s tennis, usually when Hingis opened her mouth. Today, by contrast, it’s sorely lacking. So is the irresistible sauciness that made the WTA must-see TV, landing the tour on the cover of Time. Without the Williamses, without the soapy subplots, without a new generation of stars, we’re left with a song in the key of ZZZZ — a tournament as intriguing as Kournikova with a microphone, dramatic as the toothless, oh-so-Belgian half-rivalry between Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne.

“Even without [the Williams sisters], I still think that we have so many, you know, personalities and different type of players,” Clijsters says. “I think this could definitely be, even without them, a very interesting Grand Slam.”

Belgium probably agrees. As for the waterlogged rest of us, we’re with Thailand’s Tamarine Tanasugarn. In the second set of an upset win over Daniela Hantuchova, Tanasugarn took a 5-4 lead, then jumped for joy and raced to the net. She thought the match was over. When this drag of a women’s draw finally ends, we’ll feel the same way.

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