MAKING MORE THAN A RACQUET
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg / With contributions from Luisa Zargani, Milan
NEW YORK — Four young guns are tearing up women’s tennis — from baseline to hemline.
Aggressive and attractive, muscular and marketable, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova and sisters Venus and Serena Williams dress to kill while swatting tennis balls at 100 miles per hour.
Being teenagers might explain why they also prefer to compete in jewelry, short skirts and fitted tops. They balk at traditional tennis whites in favor of hues like silver, lime green or gold lame, and the Williams sisters are as widely recognized for their beaded braids as their backhands.
As they prepare to compete at Wimbledon, which gets under way on Monday, Hingis is ranked number one in the world, Venus Williams is sixth, Kournikova is 11th and the younger Williams is 22nd. Through their respective endorsement deals with major activewear makers, each teenager is helping to revamp women’s tenniswear.
Hingis is GQ’s June cover girl with the teaser, “The Champ Is a Vamp,” the Williams sisters donned evening gowns for Vogue, and Kournikova, one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People for 1998, has been spotlighted in Sports Illustrated, Conde Nast Sports for Women and Rolling Stone in the past month. The media prefers to focus on Kournikova’s glamour and her friendship with Detroit Red Wings Sergei Fedrov while virtually ignoring the fact that the 17-year-old speaks five languages.
These four hotshots have arrived on the scene at a time when interest in men’s tennis has waned. Colorful players like Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Boris Becker are “all grown up” in comparison to the female foursome, industry executives said. Given that, there is substantial pressure on the women to rejuvenate the sport in terms of participation, viewership and fashion.
They’re anxious to be heard and, more important, be seen.
Hingis and the Williams sisters taped public service announcements for last month’s first annual USA Tennis Month. Sponsored by the U.S. Tennis Association and the Tennis Industry Association, the event was part of a five-year, $50 million plan to rebuild interest in the sport.
There are also plans for each player to appear in advertising for their respective endorsers in the next 12 months. Hingis works with Sergio Tacchini, Kournikova endorses Adidas, Venus Williams has a deal with Reebok, and her younger sister, Serena, signed on with Puma last fall.
Each has worldwide appeal. Born in Czechoslovakia, Hingis lives in Switzerland; Kournikova is Russian, and the Williams sisters are American.
Having seen how the Nineties transformed a troupe of teenage figure skaters into household names through their televised performances and sponsorships, tennis players aim to match that exposure, executives said.
“They’ve seen how the world has been captivated by women’s ‘darling’ sports, if you will, like ice skating and gymnastics,” said Alden Sheets, president of international apparel for Puma. “Tennis has been one of those sports to a lesser degree.”
After tennis star Jennifer Capriati was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1994 while a teenager, many activewear makers steered clear of endorsement deals with young players, executives said. But now that business has softened for many activewear makers, young female athletes are more appealing because they don’t cost as much as high-profile male athletes.
Of the four players, Hingis has the biggest deal — a five-year, $13 million contract that expires in 2001. The others have low six-digit endorsement deals with their respective sponsors, industry sources said.
“Martina, Venus and Anna signed with their endorsers a few years ago,” said a Nike executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They were bargains. They’re not bargains any more.”
Hingis, 17, who first signed with Sergio Tacchini in 1993, has reportedly spoken with Nike about a deal when her contract expires, the Nike executive said. In the meantime, she will continue to work with 12 designers on her signature line for Sergio Tacchini.
She is currently featured in the company’s international advertising aimed at young consumers. Called “Tennis and Beyond,” the outdoor and print campaign depicts Hingis windsurfing on a tennis court. The objective is to show the company’s diversified products, said Leo Bassi, who handles endorsements for Sergio Tacchini.
The foursome has shown flair on and off the court.
More toned than their predecessors due to cross-training — running and weight training in particular — today’s teenage tennis players are eager to flaunt their buffed frames in nontraditional tenniswear.
Serena Williams, for example, competed at this year’s French Open in a sleeveless T-back tennis dress. At 16, she is the youngest of the quartet. Her sister, Venus, turned 18 on June 17.
Interest in the young female players at this year’s French Open helped boost TV viewership, USTA officials said. Ratings for the first week of the event — when the teenagers competed — shot up 66 percent compared to the same period during the 1997 competition.
“They’re going to do to tennis what Tiger Woods has done to golf,” said a WTA spokesman.
When working with Puma designers, during a fit session in her hometown of Home Beach Gardens, Fla., last month, Serena Williams was “spirited and very opinionated about what she likes,” Sheets said.
“It was the classic teenage deal where her mother thought the skirts should be longer and Serena said, ‘No, Mom they should be shorter,”‘ Sheets said. “It was like any girl getting ready to go out on a date.”
In addition to her name, Serena Williams has stamped her fashion sense on her first signature line for Puma. It will bow this spring in a few hundred better tennis specialty stores. A-line skirts, sleeveless tennis dresses and cap-sleeved zip-front polos are offered in the 12-piece line that wholesales from $18 for a cotton and Lycra spandex jersey tennis skirt to $55 for a hooded warmup suit.
During this summer’s U.S. Open, Reebok expects to plug Venus Williams through a program with Lady Foot Locker stores in the greater New York area. There will be in-store displays featuring photographs of Williams and shoppers will be encouraged to enter a sweepstakes to win dinner with her, said Dianne Hayes, director of global tennis sports marketing.
Reebok tried the concept for the first time with 70 retailers in France during the French Open.
Reebok does not plan to develop a line of tenniswear carrying Williams’s name, since consumers generally don’t favor athletes’ signature lines of apparel, Hayes said. But her fashion influence is used for Reebok tennis apparel. Last year she donned silver for the U.S. Open.
“She likes to look good and she offers a lot of input from a performance point of view and a fashion point of view. It has to do with her age and her personality,” Hayes said. “She likes tight-fitting dresses. She knows she has a nice physique — she’s 6-feet tall. She likes to show it off.”
Kournikova, who needs fit sessions twice a year since she is still growing, also likes bias-cut looks, with tanks and short skirts her favorite styles. For the first time this spring, her influence will be evident in the Adidas activewear line, said Bo Johnson, U.S. business unit manager for tennis. She is expected to sport gold tennis looks at the Chase Championship here in November.
Kournikova will appear in Adidas’s first TV commercials for women’s apparel during the U.S. Open, which kicks off Aug. 24. In March, the first print campaign spotlighting Kournikova will be introduced in women’s magazines. Until now, she has had a “small impact on the women’s business,” Johnson said. After Kournikova’s campaigns begin, Adidas expects to have a better read on her impact on its business, he added. Adidas executives were reportedly livid when they saw the shot of her in Rolling Stone, strumming a tennis racquet, dressed in fire engine red stilettos, with coordinating leg warmers, a micromini tennis skirt, tube top and beret.
“They’re bringing some glamour and audience enthusiasm to the sport, but they don’t want to cross the line. That shot of Anna was pretty close. You can see how they get caught up in it,” an Adidas executive said. “These girls are working hard to earn more money, they’re into their sport and they’re fantastic players. But they need to stay focused.”
With the spotlight getting brighter, that might prove a challenge.
Last month, Regency Enterprises signed a deal for all TV rights of the Corel WTA Tennis tour, beginning next year. Regency’s founder and president, Arnon Milchan, is also the principal shareholder in Puma AG, the tour’s apparel sponsor. He plans to use some of the WTA’s players for cameos in feature films, talk shows and music videos produced by Regency affiliates, said Puma’s Sheets.
In an separate deal also signed last month, Puma was named the official apparel and footwear sponsor of the Corel tour.
Players are being encouraged to work closely with Puma or their respective apparel sponsors “to develop more hip designs in different colors,” the WTA spokesman said. Despite industry rumors, the WTA has no plans to rewrite its dress codes for these young women.
“We want to make more of a fashion statement on the court,” the spokesman said. “Style is one place where we’re trying to improve.”
Last year, retail sales of women’s performance tennis apparel added up to an estimated $82.5 million — a 17 percent gain compared to 1996, according to the TIA, a division of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
Of the 50 tenniswear makers in the U.S., 60 percent specialize in performance-oriented looks, said Brad Patterson, executive director of TIA. The remainder offer casual tennis looks — which have become popular in recent years.
But “the health of apparel sales is not reflective of the health of the sport,” Patterson said. The infusion of young players could help both segments.
“The most positive aspect of all this is, any girl who watched the French Open could see different body sizes, personalities and types of tennis,” he said. “And maybe they’ll be able to help sell some clothes through all this.”