Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wimbledon's Centre Court Hotties: Ruining Tennis or Helping It?

Sex sells.

It's become one of the truest statements in marketing.

As a sport that occasionally seems to have trouble marketing itself, tennis could be warming to the idea.

Last week's admission that the All England Club takes female players' physical attributes into consideration for coveted Centre Court match slots has been derided as one more example of the objectification of women athletes.

What it really could be is shrewd marketing.

Women's sports, both amateur and professional, have struggled for mainstream acceptance ever since sisters Maud and Lilian Watson took the court to decide the first Wimbledon ladies' champion, predating Venus and Serena by a good 120 years.

Tennis gains pride of place ahead of sports such as swimming and gymnastics, which take prominence only during Olympic competition, because it's one of the few where the athleticism of its best competitors does not seem markedly different (that's different, not inferior, before anyone asks) than that of its male athletes.

Women's basketball, for the most part, lacks the above-the-rim flash of the men's game, although the women's superior grasp of the fundamentals can help make up for this. Softball sports a smaller field than baseball, with a mound closer to the plate that can make a great pitcher completely unhittable.

Thanks primarily to the Williams sisters, however, we see that female tennis players can crank 120-mph serves just as well as the men can.

The second-round match between Maria Sharapova and Gisela Dulko has been singled out as one of the most egregious examples of this new hormone-driven scheduling. Never mind the fact that Sharapova carries a little bit of name appeal as a three-time Grand Slam champion.

The fact that Maria is a beautiful woman who has actually achieved some on-court success has lent her a credibility that Anna Kournikova could never dream of on her best day. It's not like the 51st-ranked Dulko was being tossed out there against a qualifier from the satellite tournaments.

Maria's championship resume has made acceptance of her endorsement and modeling deals slightly less grudging. She's more of a "tennis player who models" as opposed to Kournikova, who became more of a "model who plays tennis."

Sharapova's been the kind of marketable face that women's tennis has lacked since Chris Evert retired. It's unlikely that today's other glamour girls, like Sorana Cirstea, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Kirilenko, Daniela Hantuchova, and Tatiana Golovin, will have similar success in American commercials, since many of them speak heavily accented English, while Maria is almost completely Americanized.

Still, the game can't help but be better for more faces being seen on the show courts, and thereby on TV, than just the Williams sisters.

The cries have gone up that players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, world #1 Dinara Safina, and the Williams sisters have been getting shunted down to outer courts in favor of matches like the 28th-seeded Cirstea v. the 8th-seeded Azarenka.

Before we cry too much for Venus, Serena, and Dinara, let's consider that the three of them are still active and set to play in Friday's semifinals...both of which are being contested on, you guessed it, Centre Court.

Personally, I'm happy that players like Azarenka, Cirstea, and Dulko are getting Centre Court opportunities that they may normally never have gotten.

It's become almost a foregone conclusion heading into every year's fortnight that of the last two or four women to play on Centre Court, one or two of them will carry the surname Williams. Venus, Serena, and Dinara are now getting their chance, while other players who weren't quite as certain to be there on the final weekend get to tell their children and grandchildren that they got to hit a few in tennis's pre-eminent cathedral.

Every sport needs to make new stars. In tennis, there's no better place than Wimbledon, and at Wimbledon, there's no better place than Centre Court. It worked for Maria when she came out of nowhere to win the tournament at 17.

Players like Kuznetsova and Safina can get the chance to win over new fans with their play, but it just might take players like Azarenka, Kirilenko, and Hantuchova to draw those fans in. And it's a lot easier to be able to respect a player who just stepped off the pages of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue if the fans get to see her play where the stars play.

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