Young players are pushed to show more than their A game
The scene was like something out of a cheesy movie about teenage
runaways: A 16-year-old girl sits in a room, trying on clothes,
while some leering ghouls keep handing her skimpier outfits. Ah,
yes, this one looks so much better on you, my dear.... But this
was no B flick being played out in a Manhattan showroom a few
days before the U.S. Open. The 16-year-old was a tennis phenom
from Flintstone, Ga., named Ashley Harkleroad, and the ghouls
were Nike reps.
"I tried on all the clothes, and Nike liked me in that outfit
best," said Harkleroad, whose first-round loss to Meilen Tu was
treated as little more than a footnote to the skintight tankini
outfit--complete with skirt slit up to mid-hip--that Harkleroad
barely wore for the match. "It was a little revealing, but I like
that sometimes. And Nike liked me wearing it."
So there it was: the moment when the panting search for the next
Anna Kournikova hit rock bottom. Harkleroad's parents, her
handler from Mike Ovitz's Artists Management Group and the folks
from Nike can all slap one another on the back over the
excitement they stirred up. Cameras clicked throughout
Harkleroad's match, and 43 reporters packed a room fit for 10 for
her postmatch press conference. (Three showed up for Tu's.) She
was the story of the day, but no one mentioned Lolita. "I don't
think Anna's worn anything that tight or revealing on court," Tu
said later. "There's an age difference too. Anna's what, 20?
Ashley is 16."
Harkleroad wasn't alone on the runway in this year's edition of
the Glam Slam. During her second-round match, Lilia Osterloh all
but spilled out of a Nike outfit that looked more suited for a
cocktail party than tennis. Afterward she declared, "I'm very
comfortable with my sexuality."
Osterloh, a 23-year-old from Canal Winchester, Ohio, is entitled
to wear what she wants, but even a player long out of her teens
can be left dizzy by the sexpot merry-go-round. During Wimbledon,
Austria's Barbara Schett, 25, allowed her management at Octagon
to talk her into a $50,000 arrangement with the London tabloid
The Mirror. She was photographed in all manner of sexy poses for
the paper, which ran the photos under headlines like BABSI MAKES
US SCHWETT. Schett was embarrassed, but Octagon loved it. "They
say it was great for me presswise," Schett says, "but I told them
that I wouldn't do it again, because I don't want people to see
me as a sexy tennis player. I want them to see me as a tennis
Racism on the Court?
Hewitt and Cry
Lleyton Hewitt touched off an explosion at the U.S. Open with a
seemingly racist comment during his second-round match with
African-American player James Blake. With the score 1-all in the
and Hewitt serving, African-American linesman Marion Johnson
called Hewitt for a foot fault for the second time in the match.
Blake broke Hewitt; as Hewitt headed for his chair, he began
raging at umpire Andreas Egli. "Change him," he said of Johnson.
"Change him. I've only been foot-faulted at one end." Hewitt
jabbed his thumb over his shoulder in Johnson's direction. "Look
at him. Look at him. Look at him, mate. Look at him, and you tell
me what the similarity is."
Hewitt, who went on to win in five sets, made things worse when
he denied that he meant anything "racial" but at first refused to
explain what he meant by similarity. On Sunday, Hewitt told SI
that he was speaking of the one linesman common to both foot
faults, but he was hardly emphatic about it. "I wasn't pointing
at James," he said. "I just wanted the guy [Johnson] moved."
Courtside observers, including Blake and Blake's parents, said
they thought Hewitt was referring to the skin color of Blake and
Johnson. Maybe he was, but contrary to press reports, Hewitt did
not point at both men, just at Johnson.
The episode was another manifestation of the fact that when
racial issues surface in tennis, they inevitably turn the sport
into a hall of mirrors where everything gets distorted and
everyone emerges feeling dizzy. Last March, Richard Williams
accused a spectator at Indian Wells, upset over Venus's
last-minute withdrawal from a semifinal match against Serena, of
calling him "nigger"--words that no one else in attendance
reported hearing. At the following tour stop, the Ericsson Open
in Miami, Martina Hingis responded by saying that race was a
convenient dodge and an occasional advantage for the Williamses,
comments that came back to sting her when they were repeated last
week by TIME magazine without the Indian Wells context. Hingis
has a history of insensitive remarks, making it easy to cast her
as a harpy who just doesn't get it.
No one came out of last week's Flushing Meadow episode clean.
Even Blake, who refused to condemn Hewitt, was fending off
accusations from black journalists that he was something of an
Uncle Tom for letting Hewitt off the hook. However, Blake, 21, a
former Harvard student who learned the game in Harlem and is
ranked No. 95, kept his head. "If something clear-cut happens,
I'm going to speak out," he said last Saturday. "I don't feel
it's the time."
The USTA Reaches Out
A New Opening For the Open
Of all tennis's alphabet-soup organizations, none has an image as
retrograde as the U.S. Tennis Association's. No one looks to the
USTA for leadership or new ideas, unless you consider charging
$7.50 for a cheeseburger cutting-edge.
Now, however, from the USTA of all places comes one of the most
intriguing proposals pro tennis has seen in years. Dangling the
U.S. Open as bait, USTA chief executive Arlen Kantarian is
floating the idea of creating a late-summer North American tour
of combined men's and women's tournaments, each paying equal
prize money to males and females, and bundling them in a
television package that will, as he puts it, "relaunch the sport
in the United States."
The timing couldn't be better. With the ATP's marketing in
disarray, the women's tour still seeking a replacement for
outgoing CEO Bart McGuire and the Open's cable and network
television deals scheduled to expire in 2002 and '03,
respectively, the tours and the Open face an uncertain future.
Kantarian's view--radical in the splintered world of pro
tennis--is that they should face the challenge together.
Kantarian points to the two successful spring tournaments in
which both men and women compete, Indian Wells and the Ericsson,
as the model. He has contacted the WTA, the ATP, IMG (owner of
six U.S. tournaments) and Octagon (which represents many top
players), and their responses have given him hope that a
consensus can be reached on the next step.
Few tennis insiders disagree with Kantarian's view that the sport
needs to take advantage of its growing popularity, but some
suggest practical considerations like facilities, draw size,
sponsorships and conflicting schedules make implementation of his
plan daunting. Others wonder if this is just a USTA bid to take
over American pro tennis. "There's a lot of suspicion," says
Octagon president of athlete representation Phil de Picciotto,
"but the U.S. Open has great leveraging power and unifying power.
If there's a time to do it, it's now."
That everybody is willing to consider the USTA's idea is
remarkable. "Tennis doesn't have an idea problem," says
Kantarian. "It has a get-it-done problem. Let's put the
appropriate parties on the same page and get it done. People are
saying that now. We'll find out if they're for real."