Sports

SCORING A GLAM SLAM

The real secret to fame and fortune in women’s tennis? Generating serious heat off the court.

LIANNE GEORGE August 15 2005
Sports

SCORING A GLAM SLAM

The real secret to fame and fortune in women’s tennis? Generating serious heat off the court.

LIANNE GEORGE August 15 2005

SCORING A GLAM SLAM

Sports

The real secret to fame and fortune in women’s tennis? Generating serious heat off the court.

LIANNE GEORGE

IN AN ESSAY WRITTEN for Vogue in 1988—a time when Argentinian tennis goddess Gabriela Sabatini’s face adorned enough magazine covers and perfume ads to destroy a small forest—British author Martin Amis noted that tennis is “above all an expression of personal power and, in the women’s game, is closely bound up with how a player looks, and how she feels she looks.”

SCORING A GLAM SLAM

The real secret to fame and fortune in women’s tennis? Generating serious heat off the court

IN AN ESSAY WRITTEN for Vogue in 1988—a time when Argentinian tennis goddess Gabriela Sabatini’s face adorned enough magazine covers and perfume ads to destroy a small forest—British author Martin Amis noted that tennis is “above all an expression of personal power and, in the women’s game, is closely bound up with how a player looks, and how she feels she looks.” Nearly two decades later, this notion rings truer than ever. Tennis has become the first women’s sport to produce a pack of truly mainstream celebrities, heralded as much for their style and sex appeal as for their athleticism. Right now, the most powerful brands in the Women’s Tennis Association are a band of superstar athletes—Serena, Anna,

Venus, Maria—who not only look good and know it, but are career-sawy enough to flaunt it both on and off the court.

While other professional women’s sports are struggling to cultivate financial support and a reasonable fan base, tennis’s marquee players are parlaying their ever-growing popularity into crossover careers in acting, modelling and fashion. Anna Kournikova, who never won a major singles tournament and doesn’t even play anymore, has graced recent covers of Maxim, Jane and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, posing coquettishly in her usual state of semi-undress. The Williams sisters are starring in their own reality TV show (Venus & Serena: For Real, on ABC Family), designing their own fashion lines and getting shout-outs in Snoop Dogg songs (from his recent single, Signs, featuring Justin Timberlake: You’ll see Venus and Serena/In the Wimbledon Arena). Last year, according to Sports Illustrated, of the world’s 10 top-earning female athletes, seven were players on the WTA. Topping that list, with combined 2004 earnings totalling more than US$23 million, is 18-year-old Maria Sharapova, who, along with the Williams sisters, Justine Henin-Hardenne and defending champion Amélie Mauresmo, will descend on Toronto this week to compete for the 2005 Rogers Cup.

Everything about Sharapova is golden. Her

long, blond pony tail. Her much-vaunted, mile-long legs. Even her tennis shoes, embellished with 24-carat gold droplets, customcreated by her doting design team at Nike. On court, the Russian-born phenom—who took the tennis world by storm last year when she upset Serena Williams to win the Wimbledon title—is a fierce competitor, delivering serves at upwards of 175 km/h with her now-infamous primal screech (available online as a downloadable ring tone). Offcourt, she can increasingly be spotted gracing billboards and red carpets, her six-foot frame draped in jewels and high fashion. Just recently, she overtook Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé and Jessica Simpson to become the No. 1 most-downloaded celebrity.

“It’s flattering in a way,” she says, giggling, about all of the attention. We’ve caught her by phone in a rare in-between moment. She’s in Florida, being chauffeured from practice to a publicity event. “When you think about some person having my picture on their computer, it’s just so bizarre. I mean, I think it’s absolutely crazy. But on the other side, it’s flattering.”

Despite her rigorous training schedule, she’s been quick to embrace the entrepreneurial and entertainment aspects that are now intrinsic to the sport. Sharapova, who appeared in June on the cover of the Forbes “Celebrity Top 100” issue, has described

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herself as “part athlete, part businesswoman.” In late 2003, she signed with IMG Models— agent to the likes of Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen—and is now featured in campaigns for Nike, Canon, Motorola, Tag Heuer, Pepsi and others. In September, she will join Britney Spears and Céline Dion at department store fragrance counters with her own eponymous perfume, created by Parlux Fragrances Inc., under a reported US$5-million contract. “I’m so excited about it,” she gushes. The ad campaign, shot recendy by renowned fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, “turned out amazing!”

Of course, Sharapova owes much of her mainstream success to the Williams sisters and the unprecedented buzz they’ve generated for the game. Serena, 23, and Venus, 25—second and third respectively on the list of top female earners—brought style, attitude and and a much broader fan base to women’s tennis, and they’ve never been shy about leveraging their on-court popularity to pursue their extracurricular interests. This past March, they published a teen advice book, Venus & Serena: Serving from the Hip: 10 Rules for Living, Loving and Winning. Currently, they’re vying for a role in the third X-Men film, to be directed by Brett Ratner, Serena’s former beau.

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of tennis players as pop stars. Veteran player Martina Navratilova recendy wrote a column for Britain’s Guardian newspaper criticizing Sharapova for not drawing a clear enough line between sports and entertainment. She charges that too many endorsements and

photo shoots cut into a player’s practice time and affect her game. “You shouldn’t chase the money,” she wrote. “You should chase the potential in yourself.”

Still, this year, attendance at the Rogers Cup women’s tournament (sponsored by Rogers Communications Inc., owner of Maclean’s), is expected to reach a record high thanks to its superstar lineup. “Fifteen years ago, attendance for the women’s event was 20 per cent less than the men’s,” says Stacey Allaster, vice-president and tournament director of Tennis Canada. “We had

TENNIS is the sport that best lends itself to fashion: no helmets, no bulky padding, no spit-soaked mouthguards

to say to people, ‘If you want your box for the men’s event, you have to take it for the women’s, too.’” Now television ratings for women’s tennis routinely surpass the men’s.

“I think it’s because we have superstar athletes and the quality of their performance each year just continues to get better,” says Allaster. “People are in awe of their athleticism.” Some fans, both male and female, argue the women’s game has become more exciting to watch than the men’s, which they say is now too much about power over precision. But if we’ve learned anything from Kournikova’s success, it’s that while skill is important, it alone won’t land you in an

MTV video, making out with Enrique Iglesias (now her boyfriend). “If you’re a guy, you’re interested in a couple of things: sports and hot girls,” says Max Valiquette, president of Toronto youth marketing firm Youthography. “Tennis is the only sport that tends to bring those two together.”

Marketing experts say tennis players are a natural fit for product endorsements because they tend to be a perfect combination of athletic, feminine, youthful, tall and slim. “Tennis is a sport that really lends itself to women being conventionally goodlooking,” says Valiquette, “because it’s all cardio and comparatively little strength training. Having a long body is really helpful in tennis, whereas in other sports you want a low centre of gravity.”

On court, it’s also the sport that lends itself best to fashion. There are no helmets, no bulky padding, no spit-soaked mouthguards. Rather, it’s a game in which the traditional uniform is a flirty little skirt. “Certainly it was Serena who first marked the presence of fashion in tennis,” says Becky Heidesch, CEO ofWomen’s Sports Services, a marketing firm in California. In 2002, she pushed the boundaries of convention by wearing a black spandex Puma cat suit to the U.S. Open. Last year, at the same event, she outdid herself by emerging onto the court dressed seemingly for a night of clubbing, in sexy knee-high boots, a black studded tank-top and a denim skirt and matching jacket. If it’s true that a woman’s game is closely tied to how she looks—and feels she looks—then it’s a crime she didn’t win. 171