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Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Return of the Beast

Forget the Super Bowl. I'm sick of Peyton Manning, and whoever cared about the Bears with their pasty-faced prepubescent quarterback? No, the sports event for me in the opening months of any year is the Australian Open, played as usual this year in the middle of the Sydney summer, this time featuring players suffering on Day 2 with heat and dehydration while America digs out from a foreshadowing of the coming Long Winter. Of course the men's game suffers from the oppressive dominance of Roger Federer, whose friendly Swiss arrogance reminds me of vintage Hingis; but the women's game as usual provided the full panoply of personalities, which distilled down to the final with the World's Pin-up Maria Sharapova meeting American Gorilla Serena Williams in the final.

For me, a fan since the seventies, tennis has never had villains like the Williams sisters. Every sport needs a villain, but the entry of Venus and Serena onto the scene in the late 90's brought the WTA into the world of the WWF. Long after the Martina Navratilova and Chrissy era, and following upon the heels of Steffi Graf's long dominance, tennis prodigy Martina Hingis burst on the scene in 1997 at the age of 16, winning everything with the assurance of an undefeated child and possibly the best tennis mind of all time. Then, from the darkness which had given us Darth Vader in the previous generation and the New World Order in pro wrestling, emerged Richard Williams with his offensive progeny and his mission to prove that grace and intelligence meant nothing besides raw power and ghetto trash talk.

Richard Williams was the Don King of tennis. He nurtured his evil brood in some hidden compound somewhere; the Williams sisters were never allowed to compete in the juniors, gestating in some private hell while Hingis and Anna Kournikova were evolving toward the non-rivalry of the late 90's (said Hingis, in classic style, "What rivalry? I win all the matches."). Then first Venus, then Serena emerged to throw Hingis into mediocrity and despondency as brain yielded to brawn and the Sisters dominated for several years. They were hailed as the return of the great American tennis player, though what their trash talk and oppressive power had in common with Chris Evert's grace, I'll never know.

The Williams sisters, victims of their own success, began to languish a few years into the millenium. As usual with rich people with no culture, they flaunted their ignorance in a variety of ways, the most hilarious of which is Serena's entry into the field of fashion. Serena has the fashion sense, particulary with regard to color, of a technicolor hooker on meth (witness the black leather with studs look or the blue hoop earrings with the green head scarf last night. Sassy.). Sadly, no one rose to prominence in the sisters' decline, leaving us with the mediocrity of Amelie Mauresmo as temporary world number one. The field in women's tennis, decimated by the Williams dominance, became reminiscent of the seven dwarves era of the 1992 presidential campaign. But even as the dwarves ultimately gave us Bill Clinton, who may turn out to be the last rational President, the lukewarm broth of post-Williams tennis gave us Maria Sharapova, who at 17 kicked Serena's erratic ass at the 2004 Wimbledon in the greatest underdog victory since another 17-year-old named Boris Becker won the same tournament unseeded in 1985.

Sharapova at her best combines grace with beauty and power in an unprecedented manner that sports marketers had only dreamed of until her. Anna Kournikova actually was a rival to Hingis in the Girls game, but turned out to winless and unable to cope in the WTA, and whatever motivation she may have had to get her game on track was doubtless drained by her celebrity in spite of her lack of success, and her career as a model. Sharapova is the highest-paid women's athelete ever and only a fraction of that comes from her tennis success. She is the beautiful face of women's tennis, and has the skill to back it up. This year, with Justine Henin finally breaking up with her effeminate husband (was he a beard? dunno), Sharapova came into the Australian as the top seed, and does in fact emerge with the number one ranking, despite her ignominious loss last night (today, actually).

But Serena came back. I hesitate to say she is back; every since the Serena Slam of 2002-03, her career has been checkered by stops and starts, erratic performances, bizarre outfits and fits of ball-spraying, mixed with sheer exhibitions of power and yes, skill, like last night. Watching Serena curse Maria after Sharapova finally won a rally with a direct shot to Serena's body, watching Maria roll her eyes to the heavens as Serena's victory speech sank to the level of thanking all the little people, I can't think there's any love lost between these two, despite the respectful speeches belied by their facial expressions. Maria will come back to battle the darkness; may the Force be with her.

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