Tennis stars' sex appeal serves up interest in sport
Magazine, advertising spots used to tour's advantage
Leighton Ginn • The Desert Sun • March 20, 2009
INDIAN WELLS — An old marketing adage states that “sex sells.”
While Sony Ericsson WTA Tour officials say it's not their intent to employ this strategy, there's no denying that players such as Anna Kournikova have helped elevate the sport because of their model-like good looks.
This year, three of the tour's players — Daniela Hantuchova, Maria Kirilenko and Tatiana Golovin — appeared in Sports Illustrated's popular swimsuit issue. Hantuchova and Kirilenko made appearances in the desert this month at the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Tour officials emphasize they did not create the opportunity for the players to pose in the swimsuit issue, but they have been supportive of their players' appearances.
The day the issue was released, the tour sent e-mails to the media about the appearance and posted the release on their Web site, along with a photo of the three.
“We were proud of what happened with Sports Illustrated and our girls being in there,” said tour CEO and Chairman Larry Scott. “Over time, that has become a sought-after opportunity by a lot of celebrities and a lot of athletes. Making it into the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is sort of a litmus test of your popularity.
“We had three players in there, not necessarily three of our biggest current stars, and it made an important statement about women's tennis, and the popularity and the attractiveness of our athletes. From that perspective, we were proud of that and promoted it.”
Tennis players aren't the first athletes make these sorts of non-sporting attention-grabbing appearances. Danica Patrick did it as an auto racer, Amanda Beard did it as a swimmer, Natalie Gulbis did it as a golfer and Jennie Finch as a softball player.
But that doesn't mean everybody is comfortable with that kind of spotlight.
Billie Jean King, a WTA Tour founder, said she has mixed feelings about female athletes posing in a swimsuit issue.
“Girls get so many commercial messages about how we should look and that's a continuum of that,” King said. “But if those women are proud of their bodies, then fine.
“Would I like the culture to change for girls, so they have higher self-esteem at younger ages? If they want to do that, you know, it's about choice. Being a feminist is really about having a choice. If those women are proud of themselves, whatever. So long as they have truly high self-esteem, that's great.”
Or as Rosie Casals, another founder of the WTA Tour and doubles partner of King, said more bluntly, “What concerns me is, I want them to sell tennis, not (T and A).”
The tour has a marketing campaign called “Looking for a Hero,” promoting the women for their tennis abilities and dressed in typical court attire.
As for self-esteem, Hantuchova said that's not why she did the modeling. She said she is confident in what she does and knows what her priorities are.
“I have been on the tour for 10 years, so I do really know what I want,” said Hantuchova, who also appeared in Italian Vogue in 2005. “Like I said many, many times, it's about winning matches and giving my best effort on the court. What happens off the court doesn't really matter to me.
“It's just part of what I do. Yeah, sometimes it's nice to do these things, but overall, tennis is what I live for.”
While King said she understands that sex appeal is a part of the equation, she would like to see it equal for the men as well. King believes there is a discrepancy, since there is no swimsuit issue for women that features shirtless men.
“I don't like it, but that's the way it works. Do better-looking male athletes get more commercials? That's what I always ask,” King said. “I don't think always, but I'm not going to go into who's good looking. That's in the eye of the beholder.”
Steve Simon, a board member of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, says the tour promotes the tennis and players first and foremost. While Simon said he might not agree with the women's decision to pose in teeny bikinis, he doesn't think the tour should stop them, either.
“These are a lot of times the individual girl wants to do it, not necessarily the tour. A lot of times you have to respect that,” said Simon, who also is the tournament director for the BNP Paribas Open. “What you hope is that nothing crosses the line and people are able to view it for what it is. For a lot of the girls, it's self-expression.
“If the tour went down that road, that might be something else again. These are clearly individual decisions made by these young ladies and not tour pushed in any way.”
So the question for the tour becomes: What is acceptable?
While Scott enthusiastically supported his players in the swimsuit issue, he didn't show the same kind of support for Ashley Harkleroad, who posed nude in the August edition of Playboy.
“Suffice to say, we didn't promote that,” Scott said.
Casals said that if sex appeal is part of the equation, she said she preferred a nude body rather than a fashion faux pas.
“Where's the line? I think it's in good taste,” Casals said. “(Harkleroad) has a wonderful body. She's young, confident. I think nude bodies are great. I would rather see a nude body than bad fashion.”
Casals, who sported the fashions of the tour's designer Ted Tingley, said her concern is the skimpy and tight outfits that players wear these days.
“They're wonderful athletes, wonderful entertainers and performers. I don't know if the word is cheapen(ing), but some of that comes out in the manner they're displayed. Show cleavage and this. It should all be in good taste.”
Some players say the time for concern is when modeling overshadows the tennis.
Hantuchova — an accomplished player who has won three titles, including two here at Indian Wells — said that no matter the offer, she makes sure tennis is the priority. She learned from Kournikova.
When Kournikova was on the tour, she was the most popular player despite the fact that she had never won a singles title on the tour.
“I think it's just important to know what you want,” Hantuchova said. “Probably for her the priority was more the off-court stuff. Maybe from her, I tried to not do the same mistake and tried to really focus on my tennis and make sure that's where all my priorities are. But at the same time, I really admire her for everything she did for tennis.”