Tennisopolis : Tennis Social Network

Melina Harris analyses the link between sex appeal and success on court and asks whether the WTA's appeal relies more on sex appeal than talent?


Hey guys, we’re suffering from yet another bitingly cold snap in London and I thought to myself as I sat down to write my column today; what topic in tennis could serve to warm me up? I couldn’t help but be magnetically drawn for some strange reason to Feliciano Lopez discussing his first ATP tour victory on YouTube while researching for inspiration and it lead me to thinking about the inextricable link between sex appeal, attractiveness and success on court. I began to ponder, being an individual sport, how much does your image affect your success on court? Does it give you a psychological advantage over your opponent? Is image everything, as the Nike slogan once suggested?

Andre Agassi recently admitted in his autobiography ‘Open’ to wearing a hair piece during matches as ‘every morning (he) would wake up to find another piece of (his) identity on the pillow’. He revealed that the thought of losing his hair piece, which had mysteriously gone walkies off his infamous head during a shower on the morning of a French Open final and had to thus be pinned to his head, was of more importance than losing the actual match, which he did. The world pondered the technical reasons for his loss, when really it was the psychological fear of losing his sex appeal that caused his failure. Indeed, Agassi’s hair was part of his whole identity on and off court; he admitted with hindsight that the hair piece was a ‘chain’ holding him back and it wasn’t until Brooke Shields suggested he shave his head that he began to feel differently. Agassi’s hairpiece is undoubtedly symbolic of the huge impact of sex appeal on a player’s performance and earning potential.

Although Lopez dispelled the ‘looker’s curse’ by winning his first ATP tournament last week, scorcher, Anna Kournikova (one of the most searched for sports stars on the internet) was unable to prove her critics wrong by failing to ever win a WTA title, but she sure as hell helped raise the profile of women’s tennis and her earnings through endorsements must have softened the blow a little. In an interview for the Times in 2002, she seemed jaded by the constant questions regarding her super model looks. After a first round loss at Wimbledon (when all the press was concerned with was her outfit) she was famously rattled by a journalist asking ‘how hurtful is the perception that you are all style and no substance?’ and whether she should consider playing at a lower level. Reflecting on that experience she commented to the nervous journalist, ‘Hey, there is nothing I can do to change people’s minds. If they want to see me that way, they will. Sometimes, when I do great, it’s, ‘Oh, after all she can play’. Or ‘Finally she shows more than her looks’. I mean, please! I really don’t pay much attention to that. I have a million other things to worry about.’ Could that pressure and constant focus on her looks have hampered her career? Or was she simply not good enough? But more importantly, did the WTA care as millions of men tuned in and paid for tickets to watch the blonde bombshell bend over?

What particularly annoys me is how I doubt Lopez has ever been asked after yet another disappointing loss; do you think it’s due to your six pack and beautiful eyes? Does looking in the mirror put you off your game so much, that like Narcissus you are so entranced by your own beauty that without realising it, your opponent has passed you down the line?

I doubt it very much and let’s be honest; I’d be researching until next winter to find such a quote! I found it intriguing how the WTA seemed to be more proud about three of their stars, Maria Kirilenko, Daniella Hantuchova and Tatiana Golovin appearing in swimsuits in Sports Illustrated last year than say the successes of the Williams sisters on court. Although the WTA didn’t actually organise the shoot, the day the issue was released the tour sent e-mails to the media about their appearance and posted the release on their website along with a scantily clad photo of the three players. CEO and Chairman Larry Scott commented, ‘We were proud of what happened with Sports Illustrated and our girls being in there…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.’ He even went so far as to say, ‘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.’ Perhaps the girls’ charity work could have featured more highly Mr Scott?

What kind of image are the WTA promoting to aspiring young female players? Don’t worry; as long as you’re hot enough to appear in Sports Illustrated then we’ll be proud? It’s interesting that the players they chose to appear in the magazine have had nowhere near the success of say Venus Williams or Justine Henin on court. I wonder if Mr Scott personally chose Venus’s nude coloured knickers for the Australian Open for this year’s ‘proud moment’?

Perhaps they’d allow them to feature in the proposed Tennis World Cup but only on the condition that they play in their bikinis?

However, I doubt we’d all be upset if say Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Feliciano Lopez were to strip for Men’s Health magazine but I’d be very surprised if the ATP posted this on their website as the proudest moment of the men’s game.

Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach from London. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter. She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.

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