NEW YORK — Nicole Vaidisova isn’t a household name yet, but the 16-year-old tennis player is an emerging powerhouse on and off the court.
Vaidisova, winner of three World Tennis Association tournaments in Asia in the last three months, has broken into the top 15 women’s rankings and is the new face of Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” advertising campaign.
“I feel like the last few months couldn’t have been better,” she said in an interview at the Reebok store here. “I feel really good about how I have been playing. My game keeps improving.”
Vaidisova, a Czech native, is charming, well spoken and seems more mature than her years. While many of her peers are worried about getting their driver’s licenses, Vaidisova is focused on improving her game. She is known for her powerful serve.
“I am not the kind of person who just sits in the corner,” she said, laughing. “I like to be out in front and I want to be number one.”
Vaidisova, who is about 6 feet tall, slender, attractive and speaks three languages, has the potential to be a marketing force. She has three key sponsorships — Reebok, Yonex and Sega — and her Reebok ads began rolling out in magazines last month.
It’s difficult not to compare Vaidisova with another teenage tennis sensation, 2004 Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova. Both are tall and each trains at the famed Bollettieri Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which has turned out tennis champs such as Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis.
Sharapova, who is Russian, and Vaidisova each like to flaunt their personal style on the court with body-hugging dresses and colorful looks. Vaidisova said she doesn’t mind the comparisons, especially since Sharapova has proven herself in tennis.
“She is a great player,” Vaidisova said. “We are friendly and I have a lot of respect for her.”
Like Sharapova, Vaidisova also has a passion for fashion. She has a penchant for designer brands such as Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Roberto Cavalli.
“I like to dress up and wear things that are glamorous,” she said. “I am not a surfer girl. After practicing all the time in sneakers, I like to look nice, wear cute tops and heels.”
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While in New York, Vaidisova likes to check out Marc Jacobs, Bergdorf Goodman and other high-end stores.
“I love coming to this city to shop and see what’s going on,” she said.
Vaidisova works closely with Reebok to develop her on-court attire. She usually wears skirts or dresses, often in white or a soft shade of pink, as well as a pink visor. Like many female players, Vaidisova often wears necklaces and other jewelry when she plays.
“Nicole has a unique combination of exceptional tennis ability, and beautiful style and flair both on the court and off,” said Dianne Hayes, Reebok’s global senior director of tennis. “We couldn’t imagine a better spokesperson.”
Vaidisova’s tennis career began when she was 6 years old and was introduced to the game by her mother, Riana. She has been training in the U.S. for about six years, and with her stepfather and coach, Alex Kodat, guiding her, has moved up the ranks. After a year in which she won 18 consecutive matches, Vaidisova is ranked 15th in a group that includes Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport. She is enrolled in high school in the Czech Republic, but she does distance learning and studies on her own primarily, and also is taking French classes in Florida.
Vaidisova likes to unwind with yoga and reading, particularly mysteries and suspense fiction from authors including James Patterson and Dan Brown. She is an avid hockey fan, a popular sport in her native country.
Vaidisova said her college plans are on hold so she can devote herself fully to her game.
“I like to do tennis 100 percent right now,” she said. “I love what I am doing and I want to keep improving my game. I still have a lot of work to do.”
Vaidisova is among the young female athletes who are attracting significant sport sponsorships. Tennis players Venus and Serena Williams helped usher in the age of big-name sport contracts for women with their deals with Reebok and Nike, respectively, and now a new generation is reaping the benefits.
Sharapova in the last year has become a worldwide marketing phenomenon, and her roster of sponsors includes Nike, Tag Heuer, Parlux and Motorola. Sixteen-year-old golfer Michelle Wie has signed multimillion-dollar contracts with Nike and Sony, while swimmer Amanda Beard and beach volleyball players Misty May and Kerri Walsh also all have been raking in the contracts.
“It’s great to see young women getting these kinds of deals,” Vaidisova said. “It’s good for sports and I hope we see more of it.”