Women’s sporting events have never been popular in Chicago, and they are now in more trouble than ever. Certainly at the Olympic level the competition between female athletes is as fierce and involving as it is between male athletes, but the Olympics are not likely to come to Chicago anytime soon. There are no ski slopes here, so the speed and daring of women skiers are but a televised rumor. The city has never been able to work up much interest in track and field. And as for high-profile women’s events like figure skating, well, they’ve never made much impact on Chicago.

Tennis and golf remain the two most popular women’s sports, the ones with the strongest professional tours. But the Ladies Professional Golf Association will be skipping the Chicago area this summer, and women’s tennis–the former Virginia Slims tour–is struggling for an identity both in its sponsorship and in its top players.

The first Ameritech Cup was held last week at the UIC Pavilion. Attendance was disappointing; it probably came as something of a surprise to people that a women’s tennis tournament was in town. There was some poetic justice in this. The Philip Morris company has cut back on sponsoring sporting events because in the current smoking environment they’ve proved to be a lightning rod for controversy rather than a cause of goodwill. So Ameritech picked up the Chicago stop. Yet without the familiar Virginia Slims title to attract attention the tournament got lost, and the new sponsor’s insistence that its name be so prominent was part of the problem.

What exactly was the Ameritech Cup, a boat race? And who was going to be stupid enough to pay money to see a boat race in the middle of winter, even if it was held indoors? Of course, it was actually a women’s tennis tournament, and a pretty good one too, as it turned out. Yet the Pavilion, cut down to size with a blue curtain, was sparsely populated even for the finals. The upper deck was all but vacant. Too bad, because the tournament was won by a scrappy little giant killer who should become a Chicago favorite, perhaps because she favors Chicago. Magdalena Maleeva, who last year eliminated Martina Navratilova, a Chicago fave, before bowing out with leg injuries, this year eliminated the popular sports beauty Gabriela Sabatini. With a reputation for knocking out marquee players, Maleeva may not be invited back. Truth be told, she wasn’t supposed to be back this year, and turned up at the last minute because another name player, Mary Joe Fernandez, dropped out with the flu. Even so, Maleeva established herself not only as a top competitor, but as a driven and likable player. We went to see Sabatini in the semifinals and soon found ourselves rooting for Maleeva; in the end nothing could have pleased us more than her convincing triumph in the finals, even against a promising young U.S. player.

The cliche conflict in women’s sports is between the popular beauty and the woman who can really play, and it was almost comic how stereotypically last Saturday’s first semifinal followed those lines. It matched the second-seeded Sabatini against the third-seeded Maleeva, and there was much to separate them aside from their rankings. Sabatini, renowned throughout the sports world as a model athlete, pun purely intended, was also, it appeared, a natural athlete. She had that confident, slow-moving grace of someone who has always found sports almost too easy. Maleeva, by contrast, was comparatively short and squat, and clearly a battler. The youngest of the three tennis-playing Maleeva sisters from Bulgaria, she had the pouty combativeness common to many babies of the family. Sabatini was broad-shouldered and erect, Maleeva slope-shouldered and defensive. When they took the court it was like watching a battle between the sisters played by Geena Davis and Lori Petty in A League of Their Own.

They seemed aware of their respective images in the way they dressed. Sabatini wore a polo shirt with a splash of blue across the chest, a classic pleated skirt, and anklets with a blue aquatic pattern that set off the blue paisley scarf she wore as a headband, her hair tied back in a ponytail. Maleeva wore a tennis skirt of a drab shade of green, compression shorts with a thin band of lace at the thigh, and a loose-fitting T-shirt-cut top that flopped wide to show the lace straps of her sports bra. (She was forever pulling it up, one side or the other, like Miss Melba in Gasoline Alley.) A white scarf headband, stamped with peace signs, plastered down her red hair and pinned it, shoulder length, behind her ears. Even their sporting accessories reflected their differences: Sabatini had a Day-Glo pink-and-green racket and wore a gold wristwatch, Maleeva a plain dark racket and a black wristband.

Sabatini won the coin toss but elected to receive. She later explained that she likes to ease her way into a match, to find her natural rhythm, and that it sometimes helped to have the opponent serve first. Maleeva, however, seized the initiative and held it. She won the first game, broke Sabatini’s serve right away, and then, after Sabatini broke back, ripped off three straight games to take a 5-1 lead.

When Sabatini did hit a few good shots Maleeva seemed to have all the answers. But Sabatini finally began to strike the ball with some consistency. She broke Maleeva, held serve, and then had another break point in the ninth game. She took advantage of a second serve to hit a nasty backhand with cross spin, pinning Maleeva into the corner, and came to the net and volleyed into the open court to get back on serve, 5-4.

Then, however, Sabatini immediately double-faulted, hitting her second serve into the center of the net. She went down love-40, saved a couple of break points, and double-faulted again to lose the set 6-4.

From there, her interest seemed to fade out and in. She lost the next game with a lazy little half volley Maleeva pounced on. Yet she then came out smoking and held serve with confidence. She and Maleeva battled back and forth until Sabatini broke to go ahead 5-4, and with the crowd cheering her on she held serve to take the second set 6-4.

Maleeva had a most unpleasant way of moping when things didn’t go her way. And the crowd was almost completely against her. Asked later if this bothered her, she sighed and said, “Coming from Bulgaria…” and reporters cracked up right there. She said she was well used to German fans rooting for Germans and Americans rooting for Americans–especially dark and beautiful South Americans like Sabatini. Yet on the court she had a very sporting knack of clapping her hand against her racket when Sabatini hit a good shot, and she had a delightful way with an expletive, saying “Fah!” or “Zoup!” after particularly good shots at dicey moments. (If these terms offend any Bulgarian readers, our apologies.) “There is so much pressure inside, and somehow it goes out and you feel better,” she said later. “But I have no control over that.”

Midway through the third set, Sabatini drifted off for the final time. Maleeva broke to take a 4-2 lead. Sabatini’s first serve had a consistent 10- or 15-mile-an-hour advantage on Maleeva’s, low 90s to high 70s, but Maleeva was mixing in a dizzying array of spins and slices. Both players seemed tired that third set, but Maleeva–just like Greg Maddux in baseball–got tougher and tougher as things went on. She put away her spins and just went with straight fastballs, and Sabatini was caught off guard. Up 5-3 and serving for the match, Maleeva followed a 92-mile-an-hour serve with a lovely drop shot–up 15-love. Then another 92-mile-an-hour serve and straight down the sideline–30-love. Then an unreturnable second serve–40-love. And then a brutally cut second serve that Sabatini drilled into the net cord. The ball ran down the twine like a mouse down a hole to give Maleeva the match, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

If that semifinal was a study in contrast, the other was a study in likeness. Seventh-seeded Zina Garrison Jackson and unseeded up-and-comer Lisa Raymond were both short, sturdy players with legs like a fullback’s. Garrison Jackson, in fact, with her penchant for white, knee-length compression shorts, made her burnt orange tennis dress look like the fringed leather skirt of a Roman gladiator. But they were both lively, athletic players, capable of covering the court from side to side and back to front.

Maleeva, finished with her interviews, came out to sit with her older sister Manuela (retired and now five months pregnant) and scout the match. Magdalena played nervously with her hair, winding it into strands she stuck into the corner of her mouth. She went away, came back, went away again, and came back with her coat on and that ever present athlete’s companion, the personal stereo and set of headphones. Then she left for good, still during the first set. She had seen enough to know what she must do against either opponent. And she must have looked at the final the way the Bears look at going up against Barry Sanders. She had a very worried expression on her face.

For Garrison Jackson, 32, making what she believed would be her last visit to Chicago, it must have seemed she was playing a younger version of herself. Both players had strong serves, only Raymond’s was a little faster and a little better. Both could cover the court, only Raymond could do it a little quicker. And Raymond had something Garrison Jackson has never had, a flickering one-handed backhand that she could either cut or hit with topspin without telegraphing it. Raymond, 21, a two-time national collegiate champion while at the University of Florida, proved to be a little rash and impatient, especially early. But she settled down to grind it out, and she whipped Garrison Jackson 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.

It was Raymond who started quickly in the final, Maleeva who had trouble getting her rhythm. Raymond got the first service break to go up 3-2, then Maleeva broke back. Maleeva, 19, actually was the younger of the two, but she hadn’t gone to college and she seemed the more tournament savvy. Raymond was hitting everything hard, but Maleeva was sizing her up, throwing her off, earning aces with wide-breaking 75-mile-an-hour serves while Raymond kept blistering in the same 95-mile-an-hour fastballs.

Knotted at 5-5, Maleeva fell behind love-30, but she pulled herself together and held serve. Then Raymond fell behind love-30 and Maleeva responded with a low-angle crosscourt winner, and she broke Raymond to claim the set, 7-5.

The second set went back and forth to 6-6, and Maleeva again proved better at marshaling her resources at the pivotal moment. She won the first five points of the tiebreaker, and went on to win in straight sets, 7-5, 7-6 (7-2). The last point was a perfect expression of her tactical skill. She lured Raymond into the net with a short ball, then dropped a topspin lob on the baseline.

After the semifinal, Maleeva was asked what her thoughts were, now that she was in the final of a tournament she had not even wanted to enter. “Well, what can they be?” she answered with a smile. She said she had felt a little pressured by the tennis powers that be to fill in for Fernandez, especially as she had played in Tokyo just the week before, but after she got over the jet lag, with the help of an unexpected extra bye in the early rounds, she was comfortable. “I like it here. I like Chicago,” she said. “I like shopping. And last year I went to the Art Institute. I would like to go again, but there is no time.”

An athlete visiting the Art Institute–what a notion. It’s small comfort to know that if the women’s tennis tour stops coming to Chicago it won’t be just the city’s loss.