COURTING FAME: The Perilous Road to Women's Tennis Stardom by Karen Stabiner

COURTING FAME: The Perilous Road to Women's Tennis Stardom

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Professional tennis offers talented female athletes a sporting chance to become rich and famous at an early age. As Stabiner's engrossing but distressing account makes clear, however, the price of success--and failure--comes high for both the adolescent players and their families. The author tracks a number of gifted youngsters over a two-year span ending with the 1985 US Open. She focuses on Debbie Spence, a California prodigy who at age 16 was first in the 1983 rating of amateurs in the 18-and-under category. Champing at the bit during her brief tenure at the top of the junior-miss heap, Spence turned pro at the 1984 Open. After one full year on the WTA tour, she had won about $60,000--and a world ranking in the high 30s. While she's done well by; normal standards, netting perhaps $30,000 after expenses, Spence is still a long way from making a really lucrative name for herself. On the tournament circuit, players compete for over $10 million in prize money--and roughly twice that amount in endorsements. On-court performance ensures at least a measure of commercial recognition, although the big dollars are reserved for those who have the looks and personality that Spence lacks. Indeed, Stabiner relates, less accomplished rivals like Shawn Foltz and Melissa Gurney, who have greater appeal for agents and corporate sponsors, invariably enjoy more rewarding careers. Even at the pre-professional level, the author shows, women's tennis is a grueling proposition. The emotionally immature teen-agers who participate are under constant pressure from ambitious parents, on-the-make coaches, and others with financial stakes in their futures. The brutal winnowing process, which jades most aspirants before their time, produces comparatively few winners, and there's precious little compensation or consolation for the losers, many of whom routinely drop out of high school. Nor, it develops, does athletic precocity build much character. The would-be Everts and Navratilovas emerge from Stabiner's narrative as a generally willful, boorish, and calculating lot. They also appear remarkably uninformed on matters other than those touching their own narrow world. The golden girls playing in a 1984 tournament near San Francisco, for example, were surprised to learn the local shortage of hotel/motel accommodations was attributable to the fact that the Democrats were nominating a presidential candidate. Stabiner does not explore how women's tennis attained major-league status or question the tour's staying power. She does, though, provide matchlessly reported inside detail on the exploitive nature of the show-biz sport at its entry level; her coverage raises the issue of whether the women's game might not be overdue for some kind of reform.

Pub Date: March 19th, 1986
Publisher: Harper & Row