Maria Sharapova playing at the French Open.
Maria Sharapova playing at the French Open.

Credit: © Johan Le Bail, johanlb on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

DUBLIN (WOMENSENEWS)–Tennis has produced the highest earning and most famous professional female athletes in the world. That means sponsorship deals and product placements with plenty of sexualized marketing.

Amateur coach Alan Russell, junior coordinator at Greystones Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin, finds that disturbing. “The clothes and sexual elements sell the players and in some cases it’s almost pornographic,” said Russell in a phone interview.

The trainer noted a “definite change” in what female players wear on court, especially teenagers. “The young players are trying to emulate the stars, rather than express themselves, by wearing more provocative outfits with more flesh exposed.”

Russell also expressed qualms about Russian superstar Maria Sharapova, the world’s highest paid overall female athlete with a net profit of $29 million from last June to June of this year.

“In general I think Maria Sharapova is a good role model for young girls, in terms of her work rate and achievements at such a young age,” said Russell. “But the sexualized element to the player does diminish this. I think it’s sad that she’s trying to change her name to Sugarpova. Apart from the sexual element it’s promoting unhealthy eating, which doesn’t tie in with tennis.”

Sharapova tried to legally change her name to “Sugarpova” in time for this year’s U.S. Open to help play up her own brand of sweets, with such flavors as smitten, flirty and sour, according to widespread media reports.

After further consideration and public criticism, Sharapova decided not to change her name, her agent Max Eisenbud before the September tournament.

‘Men Do It Too’

Some tennis women defend female players’ rights to do as they please.

“So what if accomplished female players are attractive and use all their assets to promote themselves?” said Ilana Kloss, a South African former professional tennis player. “The men totally do it too!”

Kloss is current CEO and commissioner of World Team Tennis, a New York-based professional and amateur co-ed tennis league created by her partner Billie Jean King, who ranked as the world’s No.1 female tennis player six times between 1966 and 1975.

Kloss said the type of marketing a player undertakes is an expression of individuality. “It comes down to a combination of the player’s personality and comfort level. In an ideal world you will have a brand that works with you to bring out your best assets, mind, body and soul working in concert to achieve greatness.”

Kloss, who won the U.S. Open Junior Singles title in 1974 and was seeded No.1 in the world in Doubles in 1976, said sports are not about what you look like or wear. “It’s about encouraging young women to trust themselves, trust their bodies and build self-esteem. Thirty or 40 years ago we had no endorsements, no brands wanted to work with us, no one was even interested in covering women’s tennis or women’s sport until Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in 1973’s ‘Battle of the Sexes.’

She added that, “Looks are important, it’s a fact of life, but you still have to win. And if I was competing today I would happily be marketed in the same way as our top female athletes.”

Unlike Wimbledon, where players still wear old-fashioned tennis whites, the U.S., French and Australian Opens allow players to be more creative with their match kit.

At the 2013 U.S. Open, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniaki wore floral outfits and cutout dresses.

The Williams sisters have raised admiration as well as eyebrows for on-court fashion that helps publicize Venus Williamspersonal clothing line EleVen. At the 2010 French Open, tabloid newspapers, including the U.K.’s , criticized her for revealing too much in a lacy dress.

Defending Role Models

Younger, aspiring professional players from all over the world, however, are quick to defend how their various role models dress. Each of the following comments came from a short Women’s eNews questionnaire sent by email.

“I did enjoy the knee high boots Serena rocked,” said Ireland’s top ranked female tennis player Amy Bowtell, 19, referring to an outfit worn by then 23-year-old Serena Williams at the 2004 U.S. Open. “I think it’s cool, it adds some fun to tennis without taking away from the match itself.”

“I like how Victoria Azarenka looks on court,” said Anastasya Redkina, 14, from Belarus, who is currently enrolled at the prestigious ISP International Tennis Academy in Nice, France. Azarenka, also from Belarus, is currently seeded second in the world. “She always dresses appropriately for the tournament while on a spirit with the match.”

“I look up to Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic because they are tall and from Eastern Europe and I can relate to that,” said 17-year-old Nina Vucevic from Montenegro, another student at the ISP Academy. “They are beautiful and dress well but it’s important to feel confident and comfortable in what you’re wearing, as it could even affect one’s performance.”

In another very different controversy over the attire of female athletes, one Iranian athlete was denied a title because it was decided she wasn’t dressed modestly enough during a meet. In June, Iranian Elham Asghari swam 12 miles in the Caspian Sea and set a national record for open water swimming but was denied the official record because her outfit showed her “feminine features.” Asghari, 32, designed a special “Islamic” bathing suit that covered her entire body.

“They fear that if they recognize my record then they would unwittingly approve my swimming gear and that would eventually give women swimmers access to open waters,” said Asghari, in a haunting uploaded as part of a global petition to officially acknowledge her achievement.

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