It was the summer of ’98, a time of daydreams and childhood innocence, when I fell in love for the first time.

Her legs stretched for miles as she glided across the court. She was a ballerina on grass and clay. She sported a Russian accent full of wit and sarcasm. Her hair was always in pigtails, while her eyes hid behind stylish glasses. She was a millionaire living the life of a Russian expatriate in California. But, much to my mother’s dismay, she was 27, and my mother claimed she was a “damn communist.” Yes, my mother knows how to hold a grudge against an entire country and even my graceful lovely.

Her name was Natasha Zvereva, and she just had beaten Steffi Graf in the third round of the Wimbledon 1998. It was on that day, at that precise moment, that I fell in love with tennis.

In 1998, women’s tennis was a booming industry. The Women’s Tennis Association boasted the old guard of Graf, Seles, Sanchez-Vicario, Novotna and Tauziat, while a troop of young prima donnas — sporting tennis bras, brash attitudes, and multimillion-dollar smiles — were determined to trump the sagging beauties of old. They had infamous first names: Martina, Venus, Serena, Kim, Justine, Lindsay and Amelie. Their names belonged in the lights of the paparazzi and tabloids.

Women’s tennis was outselling men’s events, and women gained equal prize money at the Australian, United States and French Opens. Women’s tennis was at its apex.

But, as the 2002 tennis season concluded this past Monday, it is apparent that the era of one-name wonders is ending.

Tennis has sucked the life out of its superstars, while the stars have abused their bodies and souls.

On Monday afternoon, in the historic city of Barcelona, the Bumblebee of tennis, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario retired at age 30. After playing for 17 years on the tour, the Spanish-native cried tears of victory and tears of defeat as she announced she would be leaving the WTA Tour.

How does one leave a sport she has been playing professionally since age 13? How can one emotionally deal with a 6-0, 6-2 defeat in her final match on the tour?

Where does tennis go from here?

To the bedroom!

No, I am not gossiping about Anna Kournikova’s most recent hockey star romance. I am talking about the latest non-tennis adventure of Venus Williams.

Before the tennis world could even mourn the retirement of one of the top ten players of all-time, the Queen of Spotlights and the apple of her father’s eye, Venus Williams unveiled the newest interior design company to hit Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.: “V Starr Interiors.” Venus now will spend her time designing bed-spreads and lamp-shades instead of smacking winners on the tennis court. Forget Martha Stewart’s Home Collection. We now have “V Starr” Home Comforts.

Attention K-Mart shoppers! Blue Light special! Aisle 13! Red Satin Bed Skirts!

Excuse me, but when did tennis stop being about tennis and start being about dust ruffles?

The latest end-of-the-year events confirm the deterioration of tennis. It is no longer sufficient just to be ranked a top-5 tennis player; you must start your own charity organization, clothing company, model agency, and line of fat-free yogurts in over fifty flavors.

Drop the act, and play tennis. This year has witnessed some of the most pathetic displays of tennis ever:

5. After winning the Australian Open in February, Jennifer Capriati fails to win another tournament for the rest of the year. The comeback kid of 2001 has another emotional breakdown and fails to find her winning form.

4. Martina Hingis is MIA, only to reappear and lose before the quarterfinals of every tournament she enters. Next, she claims she won’t return to the tour till she feels like it. The Swiss Miss everyone loves to hate disappears, but fans yearn for the return of her mother’s tousled red hair.

3. Lindsay Davenport injures herself, a striking fad on the tour this year, only to return and not win a single tournament. She loses in the first round of the season ending championships to Monica Seles after holding seven match points.

2. Venus Williams reaches the finals of the French Open, Wimbledon, and United States Open only to lose to little sister Serena each time. Stop worrying about the Blue Light specials and concentrate on tennis.

1. Anna Kournikova disappoints every male known to love blonde Russian chicks with long legs. She flounders in the rankings and even gets booed. What right do you people have to judge Anna? She is hot. Accept it! She can’t play tennis. Accept it!

The personalities of 1998 have either retired or entered obscurity. Jana Novotna, Nathalie Tauziat, Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Dominique van Roost, and an endless stream of top 30 players have left the circuit. These were the players that did not mix business with pleasure. Tennis was a job, but full of emotion and gusto. Now, tennis is full of fashion-concerned creatures of capitalism. Bottom-line: Will I get paid for showing up at this tournament?

I miss my tennis beauties. The ones that dominated “Women”don 1998. You remember — the ones that loved tennis and left commercialism and capitalism on the sidelines. Most of all, I yearn for my Natasha, my affectionate “communist.” To Russia with love: I miss you, Natasha!