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spiceboy
Oct 24th, 2005, 07:19 PM
The Sunday Times

Battle of the brands
BARRY FLATMAN

Nicole Vaidisova and Maria Sharapova are leading players on the court - and in the fight betweens sportswear rivals

http://images.thetimes.co.uk/images/trans.gifYou cannot just be a great tennis player or just be a beautiful person to succeed in the game any more. You have to have it all — the talent, the looks, the brains and the drive.”

Anna Kournikova was a multitude of things to so many people during her reign as the most photographed and marketed female in sport. She never won a singles title, but she still profited from a fortune in excess of $50m (£28m) that continues to grow even after more than two years of enforced retirement. And the words she uttered in 1997 as a 16-year-old ring truer with each day that passes and every deal that is signed.

NI_MPU('middle');Almost a decade on and the Kournikova template is still being updated. Today there are two statuesque blondes who hit a ball with severe force and usually accompany it with a deafening screech. As with their predecessor, their origins are in the former Eastern bloc and both were moved to America as children to work under the tutelage of Nick Bollettieri at his Florida tennis academy.

Maria Sharapova already earns $18m a year from sponsorship and endorsements deals alone, and Nicole Vaidisova possesses all the attributes to tread the same path. At 16, the German-born Czech rejects the suggestion that she is just another marketing man’s dream, though she assuredly is, and is determined to make her mark through her tennis. She respects Sharapova’s achievements but in Vaidisova’s eyes, the world No 1, who is two years her senior, will soon become just another opponent to beat rather than emulate.

The first Battle of Bollitierri’s Babes has yet to take place on court but can only be a matter of weeks away. The Battle of the Brands, however, is well under way and big bucks are most certainly at stake.

Mortified by the amount of coverage Kournikova produced for her sponsor, adidas, rival sportswear manufacturers saw the need to get even. Long before Sharapova celebrated winning Wimbledon, she had been signed up to be the glamour girl of the Nike catalogue.

Reebok, not content with third place in the market, was quick to react when its Prague office noticed another youngster of comparable talent. Vaidisova signed with Reebok at 14. Now the company is preparing to reap the dividends of its investment as she demands world recognition by becoming the youngest member of the world’s top 20 after winning three successive titles in Asia.

A 15-match winning streak that has included tournament victories in Seoul, Tokyo and Bangkok means Vaidisova is 17th on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour rankings, and the excitement emanating from Reebok’s New England headquarters is palpable. The company had long believed its girl was good — it named her alongside such luminaries as Dame Kelly Holmes, Ryan Giggs and a host of American celebrities in the I Am What I Am marketing campaign — yet Vaidisova has proved her worth ahead of schedule.

“Nicole exudes just the right image,” said Dianne Hayes, Reebok’s global tennis director. “She is bright and intelligent, she is socially skilled and she is photogenic. She exuded confidence even at a really young age and that’s so important in tennis. There is a sense of self, (she’s) very poised, very confident. The fact she is attractive is very important to us. She is just one or two wins away from exploding into the world’s perception.”

Tennis-wise, Vaidisova is not breaking new ground at the age of 16 years and six months. At a comparable age, for example, Martina Hingis was world No 1 and already crowned a major champion at the 1997 Australian Open. However, Vaidisova’s progress compares favourably with others on the circuit now. Sharapova was only ranked 34th in the world at 16 with just one title to her name, while Serena Williams was 40th, still to grasp any silverware.

What Vaidisova’s rapid rise has done is increased her chances of greater financial guarantees from tournament directors who are determined to have the most enticing players contest their event — $500,000 is not thought to be an exorbitant fee for the marquee names. Then there is the added lure of the exhibition circuit. Though Sharapova’s schedule has been arduous on her still-growing body, she is reputedly giving serious thought to a $2m offer for a short December tour, playing on three successive nights in different Japanese cities.

If Vaidisova’s success continues, it is safe to assume she will be moving close to that bracket in little more than a year. Nigel Currie, director of the GEM Group that specialises in sports and entertainment marketing, observed: “There is room for somebody who is young, talented and photogenic to get a slice of the action. There has been a dearth of female sports stars who fit the criteria. Vaidisova appears to be comfortable with the demands away from the tennis court and that is in her favour. If she’s personable, photogenic and has a distinct public relations savvy about her, then it augurs well. That’s the key the people who pay out the big bucks look for and there are an awful lot of sportswomen that just don’t have those qualities. It’s a little bit of X-factor that gives them so much more.”

Obviously the ultimate object of any marketing exercise is to sell more product, but as Currie notes, Nike or Reebok do not expect a huge turnover in Sharapova or Vaidisova apparel.

“Primarily the investment made by the companies, be it Nike for Sharapova, adidas for Kournikova or now Reebok for Vaidisova, is based on heightening the perception of the brand rather than the actual retail of the goods,” he said.

“It’s really just a big brand associating their name with the image of somebody who is instantly recognisable and possessing the ability to get onto the front pages, the fashion pages and the lifestyle pages rather than just the sport pages. These players have the ability to enter a completely nonsporting market while maintaining their own appeal.”

Sharapova is still not at her earning peak and many estimate she will be amassing more than $25m a year if she collects another couple of majors next year and cements her No 1 ranking. However it is not without problems. Although she reached the semi-finals in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments this year she has struggled with her fitness and has been forced to withdraw from a string of tournaments. There are those who insist her commercial commitments are affecting her tennis, and earlier this year her long-term coach, Robert Lansdorp, issued a plea for the teenager to cut down on travel and off-court work.

But she and Vaidisova remain the financial envy of many players who have met with more competitive success and as Peter Lawler, a veteran of tennis management with Octagon, the company that represented Kournikova towards the end of her career, observed: “When it comes down to it, the whole thing is based upon one thing: pure and simple sex appeal. Anna was, Sharapova is and Vaidisova could well become one of sport’s most lucrative and successful marketing machines. They are gorgeous, young, attractive females and companies are queuing up to have their names connected with them.” Lawler insists Kournikova turned down at least six potential deals for every one to which she agreed. Other familiar names never had the opportunity to be so selective. “No matter what their management companies might say, nobody could find a deal for the likes of Davenport or Capriati. I’m not going to come out and say what the reason is but I think everyone knows.” Suffice to say, it is unlikely to be a problem with which Vaidisova needs to be too concerned.

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the cat
Oct 24th, 2005, 07:27 PM
Nicole is a better and stronger athlete than Maria is and is a better player than Maria was at 16. But I don't think Nicole has Masha's mental toughness and that hurts her in big matches. We almost had the first Vaidisova versus Sharapova match in the quarterfinals of the 2005 U.S. Open but Nicole dropped the ball and crumbled in her match against Nadia Petrova in the fourth round.