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Tattletales of the Tennis Racket

A new book dishes the dirt—and how—on pro tennis, and it's not a pretty picture

John Feinstein is that rara avis of sports literature, a best-selling author. In fact, according to his publishers, his first book (published in 1986), A Season on the Brink, which recounted the sometimes unseemly adventures of coach Bobby Knight and his Indiana University basketball team, is nothing less than the "best-selling sports book of all time." Now, with Hard Courts (Villard Books, $22.50), which takes the author on tour with the tennis professionals, Feinstein is in bestseller territory once more. And, if anything, the pickings are even richer this time around, for in Season he basically had only one monster, Knight, to excoriate, whereas in the tennis world he has dozens. In Andre Agassi, an almost perfect amalgam of arrogance and ignorance, he has a character who, alone, makes the ranting basketball coach look no more malevolent than a school-yard bully. But Agassi is merely one player in a dramatis personae that includes prepubescent millionairesses, domineering parents, unscrupulous agents, bumbling officials, fawning entourages and yellow journalists. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more unattractive assemblage of rogues and brigands anywhere outside the galleries of Madame Tussaud.

Feinstein is almost painfully thorough in exposing the multifarious evils of the lour, which he followed throughout 1990. The game's leading players are paid so much in "guarantees" for just appearing at lesser tournaments that they have little incentive to do their best, and many routinely "tank" their matches, either by faking injuries or simply by playing badly on purpose, the better to preserve their energy for richer engagements. Tanking is most prevalent in what promoters euphemistically call "special events," but which players recognize as exhibitions. The stars are also notorious for stiffing their hosts and sponsors at banquets and even press conferences. The boorish Agassi and the sanctimonious Michael Chang were both no-shows, Feinstein reports, at a dinner given in their honor by their Davis Cup hosts in Vienna. And then there are the adolescent on-court tantrums so familiar to a generation of television viewers. The barbarians are truly at the gates of a sport once ridiculed for its rigid civility.

But if the male and female stars of the day are not exactly, shall we say, faultless, they also are not entirely to be blamed, for they lead profoundly abnormal lives. Most of them sacrificed their childhoods to get where they are. "All I ever did in high school was play tennis," says U.S. Davis Cupper Jim Pugh. "I never had a date in high school. I didn't have very many friends." The younger players—and this is a game for the very young—are plagued with meddlesome parents like papa Stefano Capriati, who wanted to "cash in fast" on Jennifer's precocious-ness, or like Peter Graf, whose predilection for women stole the spotlight from daughter Steffi at Wimbledon last year.

Not all of the players are corrupted by money, and all of them play their damnedest in the pressure-cooker Grand Slam events. Some barely earn enough to sustain themselves, and Feinstein is perhaps at his best in describing their very human plight. Even the rich and famous Boris Becker found himself, at age 22, afflicted with an indefinable malaise, a sense that much was missing from his opulent life. And this book is not without its heroes and heroines, among them the black player Zina Garrison; the struggling middle-of-the-roader Elise Burgin; broadcasters Mary Carillo and Bud Collins; and, preeminently, the late dress designer and tennis guru Ted Tinling.

The real trouble with this book, exhaustive, even exhausting, as it may be, is that in far too many places, Feinstein writes not a whole lot better than his inarticulate subjects talk. His pell-mell, serve-and-volley prose is wholly lacking in the sort of grace and inventiveness his players at least exhibit on the courts. He relies on woeful clichès—"What Marilyn Fernberger is, more than anything else, is a survivor"—and dreadful similes—"Muster feeds off pace like lions feed off meat." His people don't make mistakes, they "mess up." Situations are "crystal clear." He can be appallingly corny—"Both women deserved to eat, to drink, to be merry. To laugh. And to cry"—and surprisingly ungrammatical, twice confusing "affect" with "effect" and writing, "Wheaton, who she had been dating." For wit, he describes a crowd that "would easily fit in a phone booth."

Ah, but where there's dirt to be dished, sloppy writing never did keep anybody off the best-seller lists, did it?