- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — Network executives of the world, unite. Everyone else, put away your remotes.

Grand Slam versus Glam Slam. The reigning champion against the hungry upstart. The biggest name in the game opposing the sport’s most-photographed new face (among other parts).

No matter who holds the championship trophy aloft following today’s Wimbledon final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the real winner should be NBC — since viewers may actually tune in — and, by extension, women’s tennis as a whole.

Beyond the Magna Carta and fried toast, jolly ol’ England has given us a reason to care about the WTA Tour again. Or, to put it in the terms of the WTA’s ongoing marketing campaign, a rationale for getting in touch with our feminine sides.

And mercifully, the aforementioned touching has nothing to do with glossy snapshots of Anna Kournikova.

Once, long ago — like, Pets.com-still-solvent long ago — women’s tennis was the belle of the sports ball. Catty rivalries, sudsy drama and compelling late-tournament matches made for irresistible viewing. And that’s without mentioning Kournikova, who also made for irresistible downloading.

Time magazine put the Williams sisters on its cover. GQ, a men’s magazine, followed with Martina Hingis. CBS moved the U.S. Open women’s final to prime time Saturday night. Kournikova put out a well-received — at least in these quarters — home exercise video.

The WTA had momentum, juice and the sort of buzz that struggling women’s pro leagues such as the WUSA and ABL could only dream of, provided said dreams involved whipping off one’s shirt after scoring a game-winning goal.

But somewhere along the way — possibly when the Williams sisters decided to take on Versace; probably when Kournikova dumped the Red Army line for Enrique Iglesias — the Tour lost its mojo.

Think back: At first, the Williams sisters were fresh, different, the coolest thing to hit the sport since, well, ever — no disrespect to Andre Agassi’s day-glo rock ‘n’ roll tennis perm. But once the Sisters Superior began to dominate, their rule proved monotonous — mostly because Venus and Serena made for lousy foils, their games too similar, their Grand Slam showdowns too wrought with sisterly emotion, little sis too able to clean big sister’s clock.

Meanwhile, the rest of the field did little to help. Ill-fitting shoes forced trash-talking Martina Hingis into early, injury-induced retirement. Lindsay Davenport labored with body breakdowns of her own. Jennifer Capriati authored a stirring career comeback, then sabotaged the feel-good story with on-again, off-again bouts of surliness. Kournikova couldn’t win a single tournament; what’s more, she didn’t seem to care, not so long as there was an FHM cover shoot to salve the pain of losing.

Belgian duo Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters gave the sport a shot in the arm, until the world realized that they were, in fact, still Belgian.

Newcomers and party crashers came and went, good but not good enough: Jelena Dokic and Daniela Hantuchova, among others. All seemed ill-equipped to handle the mental strain and emotional pressure of high-level competition. Even sturdy Amelie Mauresmo, physically imposing and impressive as they come, gagged in just about every match of consequence, save her recent All England semifinal loss to Serena.

The nadir may have come in this year’s French Open final, when Elena Dementieva sadly broke down along with her serve, and sleepless champion Anastasia Myskina essentially won a major title by keeping the ball in play.

All of which, in part, explains why today’s final means so much.

Sharapova has been painted as the anti-Kournikova; this much is true, if for no other reason than the 17-year-old Russian already has three tour titles. In reality, though, she may prove the best of both worlds. She has the blonde hair and pleasing looks to rope in casual fans (i.e., young males), plus the aggressive, hard-hitting game to keep them watching.

In fact, competitiveness is Sharapova’s key asset — unlike so many of her peers, who more or less act like the emotionally underdeveloped teenage girls they are, Sharapova seems to relish adversity. She has fight, in copious quantities. Down a set in both her quarterfinal and semifinal victories, she battled back from the brink, and did so with the screaming intensity that makes for good theater.

For her part, Serena remains the most compelling personality in the game, on and off the court. She’s uniquely explosive, possibly the best overall athlete the sport has ever seen, and certainly the hardest hitter since Monica Seles. She can make you gasp on any given point. She likes the spotlight, too, from her catsuits to her acting gigs. She has the Agassi-like, larger-than-life celebrity quality every sport craves.

Better still, Serena likes to slug it out, same as Sharapova. She’s come back from a frustrating knee injury and a frustrating loss to Capriati in the French Open quarters. When her game went scattershot against Mauresmo, she gutted out an improbable victory, relying less on skill than sheer will. In that regard, Sharapova and Williams are more alike than different, and with any luck their common bond will translate into a worthwhile final.

If not, well, there’s always Kournikova’s aforementioned fitness video. Which reminds us: Has anyone seen our remote?

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