Tennis starlets too hot to handle

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:21 AM ET

The women's world tennis tour was to descend upon Toronto this week with all the glitz, glamour and titillation of Cleopatra's entourage entering Rome.

But, as usual with this Canadian stop, the main characters just can't keep from making an asp of themselves.

Maria Sharapova may be the new queen of tennis, preparing to usurp Lindsey Davenport of the game's No. 1 ranking, but she has joined a long list of n'er-do-wells by finding a body part that hurts enough to keep her from competing here.

She reports a sore chest muscle. And a lovely muscle it is. At least that's the rumor. Not that anyone around here will get to see for themselves.

But, as much as this turn of events is disappointing to local tennis fans, it is merely a ripple in the pathway that should see the photogenic, leggy blonde unseat not only Davenport as the game's best player but also surpass the two-headed corporate monolith that are the Williams Sisters, in the world of celebrity.

This isn't just tennis anymore. It's an exercise in marketing where the public exposure of the athletes and the corporations that back them to sell their do-dads and widgets, is of equal -- if not greater --importance than who ends up hitting the final shot.

Rivalries have intrigued the world since Cain beat Abel and McEnroe cursed Connors. And Sharapova vs. the Sisters Williams seems destined to be the next act. "These things tend to develop over time and as a player yourself you don't think about it that much," says Monica Seles, who at one time paired off against Steffi Graf as the game's biggest box-office draw. "I know I had a rivalry going with Steffi but the curious thing is that when we played each other it wasn't special to me. You realize, though, that it is for other people watching and I think if the Williams sisters and Sharapova develop that kind of thing it would be great for the game."

Women's tennis has had its share of cat-fights, and we mean that in the nicest possible way. Billie Jean King and Margaret Court ruled. But mostly the battles were confined to what the athletes did on the court.

The sport has come a long way since the time Britain was scandalized when short-skirted Gertrude Moran flashed her underpants at Wimbledon. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert embarked upon the game's greatest rivalry. Martina revolutionized it with her serve and volley and, off the court, her openly lesbian lifestyle.

What Doris Day was to Hollywood, Evert was to tennis -- sassy, available but not quite attainable -- and Anna Kournikova has done Madonna and the game now sells its stars as much for what they look like and do off the court as for how well they hit a tennis ball. Sex appeal sells.

Combine that with unique athletic talents such as Sharapova and the Sisters Williams, Goliathian promotional machines, an ever-intrusive media, and it has even Evert herself marvelling at where the game has come from in just 25 years.

"In the early '70s we were still playing in country clubs and we were just being introduced into arenas and coliseums. With the sponsorships and corporate involvement and all the spin-offs it's more of a big business now."

The Williams sisters are into modelling and fashion. They have their own websites and are seen at all of Hollywood's swellest parties.

Sharapova has been featured in magazines from People to ESPN The Magazine to Forbes and has surpassed Kournikova as the highest-paid female athlete in the world, with earnings somewhere between $20 to $25 million.

"She's great for the game. She has that combination of glamour and hard work ethic," Evert says. "I think her motives are pure as far as, it means more to her to win tennis tournaments than to be on the cover of a magazine."

Rumours stick to Sharapova like Evert hugged a baseline. "She's dating Andy Roddick."

"She's doing a part in Desperate Housewives." "She's tanking the Rogers Cup." None are substantiated but if it makes people talk about tennis at the water cooler instead of Eric Lindros it can't be all bad.

Venus and Serena, meantime, are in the middle of doing a television reality show.

Sharapova and the Sisters Williams; a rivalry that could end up bigger than anything Evert-Navratilova delivered. The game can only benefit says Michael Downey, president and CEO of Tennis Canada. "The strength that Sharapova brings is that she's not only a world-class player, she's larger than life. She's one of those unique athletes that has transcended the sports page and spends as much time on the entertainment page ... the Williams have done it as well when you look at their fashion business and modelling.

"You've got a competitive reel between the three of them that's larger than tennis. Every sport wants to see their star players expand beyond their game because then you're reaching a larger market," Downey says.

When Evert first showed up in Toronto in 1989 to promote the Rogers Cup it attracted 78,000 fans. This year's attendance is expected to top 150,000.

"When Sharapova, Venus or Serena do things outside the sport to get attraction it can only be good for the game," Downey says. "We're in a world where it's not just about sports it's about entertainment."

There are those who find the taste of cheesecake bitter and the trend sleazy but, "I think you want that kind of debate," Downey says, "it is good for the sport. There's a debate right now about what outfit is Serena going to wear at a tournament and some people in tennis might say its not appropriate, but I think that kind of dialogue is good ... it brings in the casual fan."

If Serena's cleavage brings in the casual fan, then Venus' re-emergence to the starlight with her win at Wimbledon thrilled the hardcore tennis audience.

"At the end of the day we're selling personalities as well as great tennis players," Downey says, "and the Williams sisters are an icon in their own right. They sell tickets and drive ratings."

There only are three aspects that mitigate against a Sharapova-Williams' dynasty: Injury, apathy and a field of opposition that has never been deeper and more talented.

Until Wimbledon, Venus had spent more than a year in a funk, during which she seemed to lack incentive. It only has been since Sharapova's mercurial rise that she appears to have taken a new interest in her game and her place in its history.

Injury: Sharapova's walk-off in Toronto should not be surprising. With the U.S. Open just two weeks away, the top players often develop hangnails and dangerous paper cuts. Serena had a hotel room booked in Toronto but has a history of getting lost in a hospital ward somewhere south of Buffalo. She has withdrawn from this tournament due to injuries five of the past six years and promoters quietly admit an ankle injury that has limited her to four matches since April could see her withdraw again. That aside, Evert points out that the demands on today's tour players to participate in events week in and week out does result in more legitimate injuries than when she played.

FORMIDABLE FIELD

Finally, the dynasty must survive a test from the most formidable field ever assembled in women's tennis, Evert says. For instance, the Rogers Cup still includes Amelie Mauresmo, the defending champion, then there are Justine Henin-Hardenne, the 2003 champion, Kim Clijsters and French Open finalist Mary Pierce.

"On any given day there's a handful of women who can win," Downey agrees, "which isn't bad either because as much as rivalries sell a game, fans like to have a bit of unpredictability, too. In sports, a little uncertainty is a good thing."

Tennis' demographics have completely changed since Evert's posters hung from bedroom walls all across America. It was dominated by Americans, the British and Australians. Today, only four of the top-50 women's players call those countries home.

"In America we're looking for future stars and we're coming up short a bit," Evert says. "There is so much now to choose from. In the '70s (when Evert was the No. 1 player) we didn't have women's basketball and soccer. A lot of our great athletes are going into other sports. But worldwide tennis has made a big jump."

Last year, Russians won four out of five major titles and there has been a huge influx of Asian players.

"You now see stars coming in from all over the world," Downey says. "That's an advantage in a marketplace like Toronto that is so culturally diverse. We know we're going to attract a lot of Russian-speaking Torontonians."

Maybe, but while Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Anastasis Myskina may play great tennis, unlike a Sharapova-Williams' final, their presence won't create a tempest in a C-cup. Instead we will have to wait until the U.S. Open to see the next chapter unfold in the tennis version of Survivor.

It was only last week that Evert bemoaned withdrawals such as Sharapova's, noting they are bad for the game's reputation. But she still believes, tennis' newest golden girl and the Williams' juggernaut will become ambassadors for a sport that has been her life and her love.

"I think they will feel obligated to give back," says Evert, who along with Seles was in Toronto last week to promote and raise money for youth tennis in Canada. "I think the Williams sisters have a good conscience about ... I mean, certainly from where they started, (in the poverty-ridden L.A. suburb) Compton, and now what they have, it's just such a drastic lifestyle change. It's all about if you have a conscience and if you really love the game.

"For Monica (Seles) and I, this isn't work. It's our pleasure to help out. It's in our blood. This isn't work, it's more about responsibility, and it's a pleasure to do."

Except not for Sharapova. Not this week, and not in Canada. Pity.


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