20
Jun
10

Serena is correct by saying, “sex sells”, is there a problem with that?

Two days before the start of Wimbledon, women’s tennis is struggling with the troublesome question of what it wants to be. A sport? An entertainment? A business? Or a beauty contest?

 Driven by the demands of sponsors, TV networks, and a new breed of astute marketeers, the women’s game has become slick at manipulating its own image. Its big-name players are by far the highest earning female athletes on earth, and – even in the depths of a global recession – crowd attendances were up by 11 per cent last year.

Yet many traditionalists complain that much of this success has been achieved by selling out to commercial interests that seek to exploit the glamour and celebrity of a relatively small number of star players, while ignoring the game’s broader base. Nearly 20 years after the Dutch Wimbledon winner, Richard Krajicek, caused outrage by declaring that “80 per cent of the top 100 women players are fat pigs” (he later retracted – “OK, only 75 per cent”), the women on the tour have never been under such pressure to look good.

“What we have is a modern sporting-entertainment property” he says. “We are the leading global professional sport for women, and when it comes to marketing we have to look at everything – the personalities, the athleticism, the high level of off-court interest. We have to understand that there are many potential fans out there who are attracted by the celebrity aspects of our game, and that, if we use that sensibly it helps us create a stronger brand and a broader fan base.”

“Look, any sport in this era that doesn’t also consider itself an entertainment is kidding itself.”

The WTA rule book states that players: “will be expected to dress and present themselves in a professional manner.” It adds: “A player shall wear appropriate and clean tennis attire … failure to do so may result in default and/or a fine.”

No one has ever been fined for dressing improperly, and the women players – or those of them who, like Serena Williams, acknowledge that “sex sells” – have taken full advantage of the latitude the rules allow them.

A more demure tone prevailed at Eastbourne last week, but the players – especially the younger ones – seemed in no doubt that their future prospects hinged as much on their ability to catch the eye as to beat the opposition. “There’s a lot of pressure to look good, get noticed,” said Grace Lin, a 16-year-old American from Georgia. “Everyone talks about it, but you have to deal with it in your own way. I’m just trying to play tennis.”

One of the pressures the women cite is the tour’s unofficial, but unmistakable, disapproval of grunting. Market research has shown that most viewers dislike the serve-and-squawk combo, favoured by the likes of Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, and last year, Michael Stich, a former Wimbledon champion complained that the grunts were “disgusting, ugly and unsexy.”

“It’s not all dictated from above,” says a seasoned tour hand. “The players want to look good, and that also suits their sponsors, so it happens naturally. A lot of the bad stuff comes from the media, where there’s still misogyny, and you have girls being criticised for being overweight by 25-stone blokes on sports desks.”

In a sense, the future of women’s tennis was decided by Russian-born Anna Kournikova, who arrived in the early 1990s as a peachy-skinned, walking oestrogen bomb, and quickly became the game’s most famous female star. Anna didn’t win much, but securing the title of “Sexiest Woman in Sport” brought her dozens of lucrative endorsements and earnings of £10 million-a-year.

“Now everybody wants to be the next Kournikova,” says American ex-tennis player and sportscaster Mary Carillo.

So the pressures build, and sometimes they burst, as when Laura Robson, the 16-year-old British prodigy recently branded some of her female rivals “sluts” – a remark she claimed was taken out of context.

Courtesy Mark Langley   The Telegraph.

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