From the book Én Bold ad Gangen, Wozniacki, US Open 2009. (One Ball at a Time)
(page 65, Wimbledon 2009)
The first time I saw Maria Kirilenko was at the French Open Championships a month earlier. She played and lost to a 17-year old Australian newcomer named Olivia Rogowska. It wasn’t much of a match. But it was a match that generated great interest. It was on Court 11, one of the outside courts, where spectators stood along a hip-high fence so close to the court that when players hit a really angled shot they could literally reach out and touch them. And there were very likely many who would have like to during Kirilenko’s match. People were packed three deep along the fence, the ones in the back row standing on tiptoes with craned necks. Opposite to how people usually follow a tennis match, turning their heads from side to side as they follow the ball in its movement back and forth over the net, as if they were participants in a demonstration of mass hypnosis, the gaze of this group, consisting mostly of men between 15 and 55, was as impressively fixed and focused as the digital cameras the men had. Their gaze was fixed and focused on bronzed, light haired Russian in a white tank top and short lilac skirt.
Maria Kirilenko’s forehand is snappy, she’s won singles and six doubles tournaments, and in 2008 she was ranked as high as 18. She’s a good tennis player, but her abilities don’t separate her from the rest of the players. But her looks do. Kirilenko is a model much in demand, she’s posed for Vogue, and this year she followed in fellow Russian Anna Kournikova’s footsteps and posed for Sports Illustrated’s yearly Swimsuit Issue. That explains perhaps why she generates ten times as many Google hits as other players at her level. It also explains perhaps why the representatives from the Danish press – with the exception of the one female reporter – almost besieged the small interview room Kirilenko was in after her first round win, when it was clear she would meet Caroline Wozniacki. At least, it explains why their match was placed on Centre Court.
“Good looks mean something,” admitted the tournament’s spokesperson, Johnny Perkins, in a rare honest moment. “It’s not a coincidence that [the players on Centre Court] are attractive.” (Footnote: The remarks lit a worldwide media firestorm, that made the always friendly and well-spoken Perkins to state more precisely that “looks per se” weren’t taken into account, but instead “box office appeal”, a euphemism that, of course, only served to confirm the original statement.)
Television companies gain much from showing 19-year old blondes in short skirts run around on the tennis courts, especially early on in tournaments, before the big names clash, serving to expand the meaning of “tennis interested viewers”. (Footnote: Of course it’s an advantage for us if the good-lookers play on Centre Court,” as a BBC worker said during the tournament. “We always prefer a Brit or a babe, as they make for better ratings.”) The tournament spectators on site are more choosy. When Wozniacki and Kirilenko , clad in white from shoes to sun visors, as per the Wimbledon dress code, stepped onto the grass, Centre Court wasn’t even half filled, and the attendance had only increased by a few when the match reached its un-dramatic conclusion 75 minutes later. (Footnote: Wozniacki won 6-0, 6-4, which the Daily Telegraph summed up, in the spirit of the organizers, like this: “Maria Kirilenko, the Anna Kournikova de nos jours, is out, which is clearly bad news, but on the other hand she was beaten by Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish No 9 seed who is hardly more harsh on the eye.” A similar situation played out the day after, when the world number eight, and bikini model for the French and British versions of the men’s magazine FHM, which “coincidentally” hit the newsstands during the French Open and Wimbledon respectively, the 180 cm. tall Byelorussian Victoria Azarenka met Sorana Cirstea in what was termed “The Battle of the Babes” on a once again poorly attended Centre Court, while the most dominant player of the last 10 years, winner of 10 Grand Slams and twice Wimbledon champion, second-seeded Serena Williams, was put out on Court 2 filled with excited spectators. (Footnote: Williams, who won the tournament, arrived six minutes late, which several in the media portrayed as some kind of protest. But it was simply caused by ignorance of the fact that only Centre Court players, which she was so used to being, are fetched by officials. She stood waiting in the dressing room until she realized that players on Court 2 aren’t escorted.)
The Wimbledon organisers were, of course, accused of being greedy pigs who earn money by reducing female tennis players to sex symbols. Which they basically are. They fit right into the professional tennis milieu. For example, take the WTAs main sponsor, the American kitchen appliance manufacturer Whirlpool, who had received permission to advertise in the daily printed programme, which visitors could acquire at small stands spread around the tournament site. It’s a text-heavy magazine, filled with detailed accounts of the rain procedures, requests to the public not to clap at double faults, lists of all 416 players, men and women, boys and girls, listed alphabetically as well as by country, results of all matches played to date, the day’s match schedule, as well as a full page advertisement, the only one of its kind, on the back page. Here Whirlpool shows its latest product, a washing machine, around which, using classic marketing strategy, are placed six of the world’s best female tennis players, trying to convince the reader that Whirlpool, just like tennis champions, delivers “perfect results”. What’s remarkable about the ad is that the women are in a steam bath. Jelena Jankovic and her colleagues sit on a marble bench, there shiny bodies covered only by white towels. The mood is harem-like. One player stares at the viewer, while the others gaze emptily and longingly out into space.