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New York ponders the notion of beauty

In the self-styled 'capital of the world', of all places, there is an uprising against the notion that image is everything. "Promote the game, not the babes," a local newspaper begged this week.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2003 16:36 IST

In the self-styled 'capital of the world', of all places, there is an uprising against the notion that image is everything.

"Promote the game, not the babes," the New York Times begged this week as the issue of a player's looks in women's tennis dominated discussion at the U.S. Open.

Lindsay Davenport, Jelena Dokic, Billie Jean King and Justine Henin-Hardenne have spoken out against an apparent obsession with style over substance and the promotion of beauty above skill by the guardians of the sport.

Davenport says women players face more criticism over their appearance than the men; Dokic insisted the media should stop searching for the next 'Lolita'; King lamented the immense pressure on young players; Henin-Hardenne was true to her prosaic nature by claiming she could not care less about image.

Then, just as Serena and Venus Williams were taking their high heels along the red carpet at the MTV Music Video Awards in Manhattan on Thursday night, on to court at Flushing Meadows walked 16-year-old Maria Sharapova.

UPRISING QUELLED

And the uprising was quelled.

Pretty in pink, Sharapova is the personification of all that is good with women's tennis, and if her presence -- regrettably dubbed the "new Anna Kournikova" -- attracts fans, hype and sponsors, all power to her and the WTA.

The fact that she is ranked so low in the world she can only claim to be the Russian number 10 is immaterial.

Here is a player who can charm any line judge, with the personality, motivation and good humour to boot. Of all the women/girls under the microscope, the "Siberian Siren" currently has most to take offence with.

"Around me, they can talk and say anything," Sharapova said. "I don't worry about who people think I am."

Which is exactly the sort of attitude you need.

What people actually think is that Sharapova, who moved from Siberia to the Nick Bolletieri academy in Florida aged six, has the ability to be the next world number one.

Combine that with dynamite good looks and you have a very marketable commodity.

"It's only a matter of time and I know it," Sharapova said of her seemingly pre-ordained rise to the top of the rankings.

They said something similar about Kournikova, too. But Kournikova talked the talk and stopped there. Out through injury, she can be seen at the U.S. Open only as a television reporter. She remains happy to trade on her image.

One player who will shy away from that is Daniela Hantuchova, harshly labelled the "Slovakian Skeleton" by British tabloids at Wimbledon after the 20-year-old appeared to be dangerously thin earlier this year.

Not for the New York Times that sort of approach, and commendably so. Celebration is one thing, exploitation quite another.

Further, it has been suggested that the WTA might consider relaxing its eligibility rule for players aged 14 to 18, which currently restricts the number of tournaments they play. Again, desperate exploitation is to be discouraged.

But the problem for sympathisers of the women's game who want to focus on competition is the distinct lack of it.

There are rivalries on Tour. But not at the moment the same level of awe-inspiring tennis to match the era of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, or Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.

GENERATE INTEREST

Into this void goes the admittedly frivolous obsession with image. But who can profess genuine surprise at that in 2003? The game needs to generate some interest for its own good and if the WTA does not lead the way, they will be left behind.

Even the biggest and potentially most fascinating women's rivalry, the one that is supposed to provide diversity and genuine inspiration to the masses, is flawed.

Yet to compound matters, the Williams sisters are not even playing at the U.S. Open this year.

On Thursday, therefore, the injured pair were schmoozing with fellow celebrities courtesy of MTV.

There is nothing reproachable about that. Venus and Serena have justified their hype with results. For the rest, the bottom line in women's tennis as in life is still facing them: if you can't be good-looking, be good.