Tennis distracts from the main game – looking good

First published in SMH January 22, 2003

James Blake has the looks, but he needs to lose that blue and white stripe number if he’s to make it into the top 10, writes Julie Ihle.

As the world’s top tennis players jostle for position over the next few days in Melbourne, they would be well advised to forget about their game and concentrate on their outfits.

It’s a long time since the Australian Open has been anything to do with tennis. These days it’s all about the gear. And why not? There is more flesh on display than during Melbourne Fashion Week, there’s something in it for the girls (mainly in the shape of James Blake) and the outfits are just as improbable.

Let’s see, there’s very short skirts, cat suits, clubbing shorts, butterfly necklaces, buttock implants, bandannas and egos all rubbing together during a typical day on centre court.

And the really democratic thing is that it’s not necessarily about looks.

Sure they help. I mean, Anna Kournikova didn’t get to be as rich as she is today on that blue number alone, and Pat Rafter could never have got away with those shorts if he wasn’t voted world’s sexiest man.

But if you look at Lleyton Hewitt’s success, notwithstanding his elimination this week, you’ll see what I mean. Hewitt is no Pat Rafter and he knows it. He lacks Rafter’s easy charm, great legs and sex-God smile, but he hasn’t let that stop him. He invents the Lleyton Cap. The rest is history.

No one on the men’s circuit today can come close. Agassi’s star is fading and the rest of them look like they’re dressed for a gardening competition or cleaning the barbie. And that goes for Blake, too, who may have the looks, but still needs to lose that blue and white stripe number if he’s to make it into the top 10.

Whereas the women – well, they have been a lot quicker to understand the main point of international tennis – to look good. Kournikova, of course, has a top seeding in the fashion rankings, but the real winners are the Williams sisters, who have transformed the game into a fashion stake-out.

They have got the hang of it all right. They play very little, which gives them more time to work on their hairdos, and when they do turn up to a tournament it’s usually in an outfit the diameter of dental floss, or black rubber.

The Williams sisters have lifted the game of the other competitors, too. Even Lindsay Davenport has been forced to lift her game a notch and is now appearing in a groovy cerise number. And Jennifer Capriati has brought out the butterfly necklace as part of her game plan counterattack.

While Venus and Serena have their critics, they should be credited with lifting the game away from tennis and into the realm of entertainment, which will always get more bums on seats. The promoters are happy, the sponsorship deals flow in, the outfits get more outlandish and the broadcasters are ecstatic – it gives them so much more to talk about. They no longer have to talk about boring old backhands and lobs and serve-and-volley games, and can say things like: “And today Kournikova is treating us to a dolphin-blue disco dress, with matching turquoise earrings and a ruffled peach bandanna.”

Maybe the organisers should dispense with the tennis altogether. They could have a few exhibition matches, for old times’ sake, but the rest of the time the players could do as now, minus the competition. So the players could spend the Australian Open giving interviews, being photographed in St Kilda Road shopping and working on a tan without tennis getting in the way.

This would be hugely lucrative. There would be no need to spend money on court maintenance, umpires or ball kids, and it could take place in all weathers – a bonus for Melbourne.

It would go down a treat with the players too. They wouldn’t have to spend their hard-earned millions on physiotherapists and coaches, and it would stop them worrying about an injury ruining their career. Also, they would have more cash left over to spend on creating The Look.

The public would also lap it up, because most of us may not really know what “deuce” means or what a serve-and-volley game looks like, but we know a good look when we see one.

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