Never-ending childhood

Television - Andrew Billen on why women's tennis usually means Mum and Dad stay in charge

It is clearly too late to ask now, but when did it become obligatory to call the World Cup the Fifa World Cup? My guess is it must have happened at about the time England managers became England coaches, but I am not sure. Nor had I appreciated that the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association, was now the Sanex WTA. Channel 4's Cutting Edge documentary, Girls on Tour, on Tuesday (18 June) did not think to tell us when this possibly significant change had occurred, but the Sanex website reveals that it was in 2000. This was the year Martina Hingis, the number one player, was contracted as a "Sanex spokesperson", Sanex being a cosmetics range rather than a website.

Quite what her spokesmanship earns her, who knows? - but in a profession where losing a game still secures you a $31,000 cheque, her soul presumably did not come cheap. The absurd financial rewards for a good backhand lessened the pathos for these lost children that Girls on Tour was designed to inspire in us. Nor did it seem to turn them into complete brats - at least not on camera. Whatever the access deal was that had been negotiated by the documentary's directors Fiona Cunningham Reid and Katya Nelhams-Wright (and there's a double team worthy of the sport of Joan Hunter Dunn), it did not take us far enough behind the scenes to witness any major-league tantrums. The worst we saw was Jennifer Capriati, restored by a Hingis injury to number one, pulling rank and walking out on her doubles partner, the delicate-looking giant Lindsey Davenport. Otherwise, we had to rely on what was left unsaid by Sanex WTA's PR, an effete Irishman called John Dolan, to whom the cameras had complete access. "Our job," trilled Dolan, "is essentially to persuade millionaires to do what they don't like to do."

Nevertheless, the viewer could not mistake the feeling that there was something unsanitary about what is known (by no one except the firm's copywriter) as the "Sanex tennis community". Dominic Bliss, editor of Ace magazine, compared the Sanex WTA to an "American high school sorority". Another journalist, Peter Bodo, upon whom the programme relied for much of its cynicism, called it a hermetically sealed, insular world that bred its own habits and values. The culture was dominated by an obsession with ranking. Because every week of the year, a Sanex WTA tournament is held somewhere in the world, charting the players' position in the form order was a full-time job for the rankings co-ordinator, Vani Vosburgh.

Yet, as in a real American high school, sporting performance is not the sole route to popularity in the Sanex community. In the informal ranking of looks, first place is held by Anna Kournikova, whose repeated appearances before the press in order to blame old injuries for her form gained a comic aspect during the show. She has not won a tennis title in her (admittedly) short career, yet her website boasts more hits than Tiger Woods's and Michael Jordan's combined. The coach Alan Jones may have said that he looked for exceptional athletes and did not care if they "looked like Brigitte Bardot or the girl next door", but the sport's knicker-gazing spectators clearly do. In a world where you get sent a present to your hotel room every night of a tournament, Kournikova always receives the shortest skirts.

The freebie most treasured by 17th-placed Magdalena Maleeva, on the other hand, was a rather hideous, blue cuddly elephant. "I used to have many dolls as a child," she said, which was something, because otherwise you would have assumed her horrendous mother gave her only rackets and balls. The author of the handwritten self-help manual I Want, I Believe, I Can, Julia Maleeva saw her daughters as her way out of Bulgarian poverty and managed to propel all three of them in to the Sanex top six. The eldest, Manuela, eventually escaped to Switzerland, although her mother has designs on her three grandchildren. Katrina and Magdalena are still, however, on the circuit, Maggi having made a comeback after a serious shoulder injury. "Being injured," she confessed, "was the best excuse not to have to be perfect."

Like a Dickensian vision of ghosts past and future, the programme drew to a conclusion with words from Judy Dalton, who said that while tennis would go on for ever, the girls would be forgotten "very quickly". Given that a caption was needed to identify her as a "former Wimbledon finalist", she knew whereof she spoke. An eerie finale gave us Jade Curtis, Britain's number one under-13s player. We saw Jade being told by her father that she was playing appallingly. In revenge, Jade naughtily told the camera that her parents were always talking about the Porsches they would one day be able to afford.

The only really optimistic part of the programme was the discovery that, while the majority of top players are coached by their parents and tour with them, Maggi is now accompanied everywhere by her boyfriend. To go from a travelling dorm where your first sacrifice is your sex life was good news. The real tragedy of these performing fashion models is not that tennis has robbed them of their childhoods, but that it ruthlessly prolongs them.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times