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Venus Envy

 
In his new book Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tennis Tour (HarperCollins, $25, available Aug. 7 everywhere), Sports Illustrated senior writer L. Jon Wertheim, author of CNNSI.com's Tennis Mailbag, draws back the curtain on the soap opera that is the WTA Tour, with its plotlines driven by ambition, sex, and revenge. The following is an excerpt from the chapter on everyone's favorite nonwinner, Anna Kournikova.

Plenty of Anna-tude

For all the superlatives attached to Wimbledon -- oldest, most prestigious, rainiest -- you can add one more: it's the most schizophrenic. This tournament is half Merchant Ivory, half Jerry Springer. On the one hand, it oozes tradition and civility from every pore. The endearingly antediluvian grass surface is the most obvious manifestation of that. The Championships, as Wimbledon proudly calls itself (as if there were no others), are devoid of modern blights like luxury boxes, blimps and sprawling food courts. With the exception of a tasteful Rolex logo on the scoreboard and a Slazenger decal on the umpire's chair, there is no commercial presence on Centre Court. Linesmen wear jackets and lineswomen skirts, ball kids roll the balls rather than do anything so gauche as throw overhand. Four o'clock tea is still very much an institution. Pete Sampras is right when he likens Wimbledon to a cathedral -- most everything about the place demands a sort of respectful silence.

Yet with that rigid conservatism and resistance to change comes a thick slab of old-fashioned sexism. Gone are the days when married female competitors were referenced by their husbands' names (remember Martina Navratilova's arch-rival, Mrs. J.M. Lloyd?) but today married and single players alike are referred to as Miss, whether they like it or not. When the umpires call the score, it's "advantage Sampras," but "advantage Miss Williams." Female players come to Wimbledon knowing that they will get inferior court assignments and practice times. What's more, the Wimbledon purse for women is nearly 20 percent less than the men's; that's the biggest disparity of any Slam. When asked about the prospect of equal prize money, Wimbledon officials cite a dubious study few have actually seen, which allegedly indicates that fans vastly prefer men's matches to women's. Besides, a Wimbledon executive added that if the tournament augmented the women's purse, "we wouldn't have so much to spend on petunias." He was kidding. Maybe.

Despite all this formality, clubbishness, chauvinism and "snobbery," as Mary Pierce put it, there's the other face of Wimbledon. In the country that inspired Austin Powers and gave us Bridget Jones' diary, a thick fog of gossip and titillation hangs over Wimbledon. Scan any of a half dozen daily tabloids during Wimbledon and you'd never know there were actually tennis matches afoot. The headlines cackle about "Bonking Boris" Becker, the former champ whose sluggish play one year was attributed to excessive intercourse and "Monic-Ugh Seles," who grunts "as loud as a Lear jet." (This determined by a "Grunt-o-Meter" no doubt as scientifically precise as the fans-prefer-men-over-women poll.)

Twice in the past few years, Wimbledon matches have been interrupted by streakers. (The club's response after a naked female ran across the court during the 1996 men's final: "Whilst we do not wish to condone the practise, it did at least provide some light amusement for our loyal and patient supporters.") Wimbledon is where Anne White, an American player of little distinction, made tennis history when she came out for a first round match in a form-fitting, full-length body suit and was met with ear-splitting whistles and catcalls from the crowd. It's where flashbulbs click like cicadas whenever female players remove a spare tennis ball from under their skirts and inadvertently show "a little bum." Oh, behave! "It's all about sex, isn't it?" says Martina Hingis. "They always ask me the silliest questions here and, it's like, 'don't you have anything better to do?'"

Apparently not. There is a story that Centre Court was expanded in 1922 just so more fans could get a glimpse of the raised hemlines of Suzanne Lenglen, tennis' poster girl of the Roaring 20s. Even the Wimbledon Museum currently displays an underwear ad from the 1940s for "The Best Lines on Centre Court," next to a picture of a busty player clad in a "fully-fashioned, seamless, pre-shrunk girdle." Against these lurid underpinnings, what better time and place to a take a break from tennis and discuss Anna Kournikova?

  Click for larger image Walter Iooss Jr.
Because of a dispiriting second round loss at the French Open in May, Anna Kournikova wasn't even among the top 16 seeds when she arrived at The Championships. She still hadn't won a professional tournament in her career and had lost to 18th-ranked Chanda Rubin at the Wimbledon grass-court tune-up event at Eastbourne. No matter. The contagion known as Annamania was raging as the players arrived at their third Grand Slam of the year. The face that launched thousands of websites and had recently graced the covers of Sports Illustrated and Forbes, was everywhere in England. The tabloids devoted page after page to her. Flashing a coquettish, Mona Lisa smile, her visage was plastered on 1,500 billboards, 25 feet high, all around London promoting Berlei Sports Bras. The cheeky slogan festooning the ads, "Only the balls should bounce," became the catchphrase for the tournament. Mere rumors of her hitting sessions had hundreds of fans scrambling from their seats to get as close to the Aorangi Park practice courts as possible.

When Kournikova took the court -- Centre Court of course -- for her first-round match against Sandrine Testud, there were 36 photographers with lenses pointed in her direction. (Never mind that Testud, then tenth in the world, was the seeded player.) "Being with Anna," complained her coach at the time, Eric Van Harpen, "is like being on the scene of a movie." It took only a few games for a fan to yell, "Anna, Will You Have My Baby?"

Many other attractive women have played professional tennis. Well before the sultry Gabriela Sabatini, blond bombshell Carling Bassett, and coy Chris Evert, there was Gussie Moran and her lace knickers and, before her, Lenglen and her gossamer dresses. But no player has ever had Kournikova's impact, and the X-factor to supplement her abundant natural beauty. Exceptionally photo- and telegenic, Kournikova is drawn to the spotlight as if it is her oxygen. Her slight accent, her icy demeanor, the persistent whispers of ties to the Russian Mafia, the bizarre love triangles and the conga line of revolving suitors, imbue her with a sense of mystery and a lighting bolt of eroticism and exoticism. Whereas the diffident Sabatini was described as having "tennis elbow of the personality," Kournikova knows how to play the crowd and enflame the boys.

It doesn't much matter that she rarely makes the finals and plays on worldwide television. Fans need only own a computer and a browser and, anywhere in the world, they can get their Anna fix. She is the first tennis pin-up girl for the internet age. Ulf Dalhstrom, formerly an Adidas executive who now works for Kournikova's management agency, Octagon, gushed to Sports Illustrated that "Anna is everything."

The more she ignores the panting men -- or better yet, disses them saying, "You can't afford me," as she did several years ago -- the more desirable she becomes. As long as her relationship with the media has all the warmth of a Siberian winter, and the press can't penetrate the first layer of her psyche, she's shrouded in mystique. As long as she denies a Madison Square Garden elevator operator an autograph because his craft moved too slowly, betrays such impertinence that a U.S. Open employee filed formal a complaint against her, and is sufficiently petulant on an American Airlines flight to warrant an FBI investigation, her popularity inexplicably burgeons. Rest assured that Kournikova's imperious demeanor and black hole of self-absorption is no façade. "I love it when people say 'Oh, it's Anna's image," says Marat Safin, a top men's player who grew up with her in Moscow. "I like Anna, but it's no image. She's been like that all her life. Since she was a little girl she is thinking she is the best and the prettiest."

No player has ever had Kournikova's impact, and the X-factor to supplement her abundant natural beauty. Exceptionally photo- and telegenic, Kournikova is drawn to the spotlight as if it is her oxygen.
 
If Kournikova is one of the most popular tennis players ever with the fans, she is among the least popular with her colleagues. Nearly every one of them has felt the back of Anna's hand. Asked, for instance, by Rennae Stubbs to become more active in Tour politics, Kournikova responded without pause, "Why should I? I'm doing great." When Kournikova plays her matches, a raft of other players sit in the stands and root silently for her opponent. At the 2000 Australian Open, Kournikova and Barbara Schett played doubles against Sonya Jeyaseelan and Patty Schnyder. Before the match, Schnyder, who makes no secret of her Anna-mosity, pleaded with Schett to give her a short ball so that she could drill Kournikova. "Anna is pretty much a sideshow," says Lisa Raymond, one of the brighter and more highly regarded players on Tour. "Let's just say there's not a lot of mutual respect going on."

Kournikova doesn't care. Her beguiling combination of beauty and attitude -- Anna-tude, it's called in the locker room -- has made her wealthy beyond her wildest imagination. With endorsement contracts from companies ranging from Adidas to Berlei to Yonex to Omega watches and a Mexican telephone company, Kournikova is a one-woman multinational conglomerate. Even the most conservative estimates have her earning more than $10 million annually in off-court lucre. Before Venus signed a $40 million deal with Reebok later in the year, Kournikova reaped far more in endorsements than any other female athlete. That's also 15 times the $640,459 she made in 2000 for playing singles. Kournikova can make more money for a weekend "hit and giggle" exhibition than most of her colleagues will garner from playing a year's worth of tournaments.

She even generates her own synergy. When, for instance, she posed for Forbes, her Octagon handlers made sure that her Yonex racket and Adidas shoes and apparel were prominently displayed in the photos. In effect, her sponsors received a free color ad in one of the world's largest financial magazines. "We try to maximize value for all of Anna's business partners," says Octagon president Phil de Picciotto. And consider this scene from late November 2000: Kournikova flew to New York to announce her partnership with Omega Watches. The festivities included the unveiling of a 60 by 60-foot billboard in Times Square. After changing out of a low-cut dress and into a low-cut, diaphanous silk blouse, Kournikova walked across the street to MTV for an appearance on Carson Daly's show Total Request Live. When Daly interviewed Kournikova, naturally, the cameras panned the Omega billboard. Everybody won. Omega received the equivalent of a free commercial on MTV; MTV secured an interview with the hottest female athlete in the world; Kournikova (and Octagon) showed Omega why she's worth the big bucks. And since Daly did his part and plugged the product, Kournikova presented him with an Omega watch in the green room after the show. Cha-ching.

Kournikova stars with Mary Joe Fernandez in a popular television commercial for Charles Schwab. Fernandez deadpans to the camera that "some of the other players are kinda jealous of [Anna's]" ... cut to a swaggering Kournikova, in a flattering red dress, her blond hair billowing around her shoulders ... "portfolio." It's a clever, playful gag, but it's actually dead-on. Players really are envious, less of Kournikova's comeliness, than of her earning power. (The other irony of the ad is that Fernandez's husband, Tony Godsick, is Kournikova's former agent helped build the portfolio in question.)

  Kournikova's on-court results have never lived up to her off-court successes. Simon Bruty
For many players, Kournikova's wealth and popularity represents a disquieting trend. As Nathalie Tauziat wrote in her controversial book, Les Dessous du Tennis Feminin (The Underside of Women's Tennis), which appeared in Europe in the spring, "Aesthetics and charisma are winning out over sporting performance." Tauziat is quick to mention that she has nothing against Kournikova personally, but she resents that a player who has never won a tournament is promoted more heavily than better players. Tauziat writes, "For the WTA Tour, Anna is a real cash till, a blonde windfall." Tauziat describes watching a match between Kournikova and Davenport played in Key Biscayne several years ago and being amazed by the "lynching" Davenport received by the fans. "I went to the WTA Tour office to see how they felt. One of them said 'you know, Anna is so pretty.'" Tauziat responded, "What do you think this tennis is, a casting ground for the next James Bond movie?'"

In her book, Tauziat takes particular umbrage with the Commitment List, cloak-and-dagger ranking of players based on their marketability, rather than their match results. If the 20 players on the list play the requisite number of Tier I and Tier II events (in most cases 13, not including the Grand Slams) they receive a bonus based on their Commitment List rankings -- de facto appearance fee money. The top singles players automatically make the list, as well as four other players, but a committee of international Tour tournament directors, determine their rankings. So while Kournikova collected $100,000 in 2000, players with superior match results but lower Commitment List Rankings received less. Mary Pierce, for instance, finished 1999 ranked seven places higher than Kournikova but was eligible for only $50,000. Rewarding sizzle over steak, Tauziat argues, not only runs counter to a meritocracy. It unfairly punishes older, less attractive players.

Tauziat, not surprisingly is a prime victim of this zeitgeist. She was born in Africa where her French father sold bathroom fixtures in the Congo. After playing for a decade in obscurity, she reached the Wimbledon finals at age 30, the biggest achievement of her career. Just her luck, it occurred on the same weekend in July of 1998 that her cousin, Didier Deschamps, was leading France to the World Cup in soccer. At age 32, Tauziat would beat Serena Williams and reach No. 3 in the world in 2000. But because she isn't mistaken for a runway model -- and, in fairness, partially because she is notorious for being uncooperative with sponsors -- the Tour does little to promote her. Despite beating Kournikova in the rankings, Tauziat was nine spots lower on the Commitment List, eligible to earn a mere $15,000 bonus.

Though more than $2 million was allocated for the Commitment List -- Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, and Venus Williams were each eligible for $400,000 in 2000 -- the Tour downplays the list as a mechanism for enticing the biggest draws to play as often as possible. "Certain players sell tickets and others don't," says Bob Arrix, who runs the Amelia Island tournament and is a former WTA Tour board member. "It only makes sense to reward the players you need to have in your draw." But others fear that the imprecise science of assessing players based on their perceived Q-rating and not their empirical rankings is a slippery slope. "If we're just here to sell tickets and make money, not win matches," says Tauziat, "why have rankings in the first place?"

The WTA Tour contributes to Kournikova's celebrity by selling the sport on glamour. Heinz Kluetmeier  
The Tour isn't shy about giving Kournikova and other charismatic players attention and money disproportionate to their results on the court. And the unremorseful emphasis on good backsides as well as good backhands, has done wonders for women's tennis, cementing its status as the world's most popular and financially successful women's sport. Including her Commitment List bonus, Martina Hingis earned $3,857,049 in prize money in 2000, more than double the $1,865,053 earned by Karrie Webb, the top-ranked LPGA's top golfer who quietly won two majors in 2000. And while 48 WTA Tour players earned at least $200,000, the average salary in the WNBA was just $55,000 -- so low that some of the league's top stars have to supplements their income playing for overseas teams in the off-season.

The flesh peddling is now a part of the business and it extends far beyond Kournikova. At larger tournaments, the Tour offers "photos calls" at which players pose for photographers away from the court. At the French Open, there was a "call" for Magdalena Grzybowska, a strikingly attractive player, but one so unaccomplished she had to qualify for the main draw. Olga Barabanshikova, a marginal player but a marginal player with a pierced navel who reportedly turned down a six-figure offer to bare all for Playboy, was asked to recline in a bikini poolside at Indian Wells. How this related to tennis is unclear. Tour officials openly root for Germany's Jana Kandarr, a 24-year-old who has yet to crack the top 50, but looks like a supermodel. "Today, fans expect athletes to be more than athletes. We're never going to stop selling sex," says Jim Fuhse, the Tour's director of player promotions. "If anything, I'd like to see us be more risqué. Look, if a player doesn't sell tickets because of her tennis, she has to do something else to contribute."

The Tour has deftly framed its "if you got it, flaunt it," ethos not as a sell-out, but as a triumph of feminism. Far from undoing the gains of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, it claims that this vamping is the ultimate expression of women's lib -- strong women using their unique assets to move product. "We're like the Spice Girls," says Hingis. "You know, Girl Power." Even Bart McGuire, the Tour's straight-laced CEO, makes no apologies for the marketing strategy. The women he governs are attractive, have arresting personalities and smack of attitude. What's wrong with marketing that? "We're not in the sexploitation business, but we are in the entertainment business," he says. "I don't apologize for having attractive players any more than Hollywood studios apologize for Julia Roberts."

That analogy doesn't quite work. Looks are a prerequisite for many film roles, but they are incidental to success on the tennis court. And unlike in film, there are objective measures for gauging a player's ability. (Did she -- or did she not -- get her clock cleaned in straight sets?) McGuire's larger point is well-taken. Sports and entertainment are co-mingling, and if showing some leg helps sell the game, what's the harm? It's not as though women are the only ones playing this game. Didn't at least some of the appeal of Joe Montana, Oscar De La Hoya, Joe Namath and even that famed Hanes skivvies pitchman, Michael Jordan, stem from their looks? And where was the hue and cry and indignation when men's tennis, tacitly admitting the women were on to something, launched the testosterone-driven "New Balls Please" campaign?

Still, selling the sport based on glamour -- with Kournikova, the most obvious exponent -- is a Faustian bargain. Like opening a casino in a struggling community, tethering your fortunes to Kournikova may provide a quick shot in the arm and fuel short-term economic gain. But in the long run, women's tennis runs the risk of alienating other players and seeing its infrastructure crumble. When the most visible player can't win a tournament, it threatens the integrity of the product. The impressive growth figures are cast into doubt and sport's popularity is seen as fool's gold or an artificial spike rather than a bona fide success. Consider the definition of an "Annamaniac" posted on one of Kournikova's myriad sites: "someone not interested in tennis at all, obsessed by Anna's tennis suits and compulsively looking for pictures all over the internet." Or take the "fan" at a tournament in California who brandished a sign that read: "I hate tennis, but I love Anna."

From the book Venus Envy by L. Jon Wertheim. Copyright © 2001 by L. Jon Wertheim. Published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Reprinted by permission.


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