Sports Illustrated

When Maria Sharapova won the women’s final at Wimbledon this summer, her success was effusively covered by the press. But was her victory over Serena Williams so favourably reported just because of her sizzling tennis ability or was the amount of newspaper coverage devoted to Sharapova’s looks disturbing and excessive? Take the front page of the Sunday Times which summarised the match like this:

Wearing a white split dress over shorts, the 6ft blonde barely broke into perspiration as, in one hour and 13 minutes, she beat Williams, who wore a gladiator-style dress (Sunday Times, p.1, 4/7/04).

No doubt it is useful to know that Sharapova turned herself out nicely and did not do anything as unladylike as sweat. To be fair, there is a more balanced, technical account of the match in the Sport section, though that is probably not what people would see first. Other broadsheet newspapers have been equally enraptured with Sharapova’s looks: she made the Independent on Sunday “swoon” (p.1, 4/7/04); the Observer wanted “Offers please…for the girl who is the world’s hottest sports prodigy”(p.3, 4/7/04); the Sunday Telegraph thought she was “Pin-up princess Maria” (sport section, p.2, 4/7/04) and Monday and Tuesday’s Telegraphs excitedly printed photos of her wearing a gold and chiffon mini-dress to the Champions’ Ball with special shopping and fashion features (p.5, 5/7/04; p.15, 6/7/04).

But does it matter that I lost count of the times Sharapova was described as a 6ft, long-legged blonde? Sharapova herself does modelling work for IMG’s Models agency, so she can hardly be averse to people commenting on her figure. Besides, is it always wrong for women’s looks to be mentioned in the newspapers, or would it be better if women were doing the looking instead of male journalists? I also found some good, detailed narratives of the match. Clive White in the Sunday Telegraph not only analysed Sharapova’s strokes with their “withering pace and angle”, but suggested the All England Club would find it hard to resist the women’s demands for equal prize money (sport section, p.2, 4/7/04). Barry Flatman in the Sunday Times carefully described the tennis which “was of the highest quality”, finding “one breathtaking rally proved beyond all doubt that women’s tennis is as demanding a game as the men’s” (sport section, p.2, 4/7/04).

obessession with the image of sportswomen is insidious

I would argue that a lot of the newspaper reporting does matter, and that it matters because it is both prominent and insidious. Take the focus on Sharapova’s image and earning potential. Not only did the broadsheets spend as much time telling us about the fortune she could make from sponsorship deals as they did about her tennis, but they often quoted media and marketing men who salivated over her earning potential. For the Sunday Telegraph, the news story was not the high standards of women’s tennis but the vast wealth which sports management agents had calculated that Sharapova could accumulate through endorsements. According to one, she had arrived from “nowhere” and would be “in incredible demand from sportswear companies to firms making beauty products” (p.3, 4/7/04). Surely she spent years practising in a tennis academy and working her way into the game, rather than materialising conveniently as a marketing tool? Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph spelt out her exploitability when it quoted Nick Cox from Harpers & Queen:

Sharapova is classically beautiful but she’s also a blank canvas. You could manipulate her to look youthful or sexy or more glamorous and grown-up (Daily Telegraph, p.15, 6/7/04)

There is something dehumanising about the newspaper’s portrayal of Sharapova as blank-faced. The Observer was just as bad as its news article focussed on the projection of her features around the world and on how far she should go in capitalising on her sex appeal. According to John Colquhoun from the Key Sports Management firm,”if you were looking for a photofit of the commercially appealing athlete, who could generate the maximum income, she would be it”(p.3, 4/7/04). In the same article we are told by Ben Wells, a sports sponsorship consultant, that her advisers might do deals with products which reflect vital, fresh-faced values and that Sharapova could easily end up “promoting clothes or other products aimed at teenage girls”.

This sort of reporting does not encourage the idea of Sharapova as an independent professional woman carving out her own career; rather it suggests that now she is famous, her image will be controlled for and by others, usually men, who cynically exploit her aspirational appeal to other women. Likewise in the Sunday Times, Nigel Billen editor of ACE magazine described her as “the face of a perfume brand” while Phil Carling from the sports marketing agency, Octagon, assured us that, “She is clearly more than a clothes horse”(sport section, p.2, 4/7/04).

It didn’t actually occur to me to think otherwise.

her image is discussed in a way that never happens with her male counterparts

It seems as if Sharapova cannot just be a successful woman tennis player, without having her image and its future manipulation discussed in a way that does not apply to the male finalists, Roddick and Federer. Nor did this sort of discussion appear in a Sunday Times article on Ellen MacArthur’s transatlantic record attempt (sport section, p.18, 4/7/04). Although MacArthur has lesbian sex appeal, the newspapers have never described her as a clothes horse.

Another troublesome feature of the press coverage was the idealisation of Sharapova as the perfect ladylike athlete. This seems to take place at Williams’ expense. So for example, according to David Miller in the Sunday Telegraph, Sharapova has “grace and femininity” and with “her slender, elegant frame can generate as much or more momentum on the ball than…the robust, muscular Serena Williams” (sport section, p.2 4/7/04). Does this imply that not only was Williams outplayed but that she has the wrong sort of physique? Compare this with Brough Scott’s praise for Sharapova’s “model’s walk” and height advantage over Serena “who for all her beautiful kit and superb conditioning, began to look positively ungainly in comparison as she prowled the opposing baseline” (Sunday Telegraph, sport section, p.2, 4/7/04).

Perhaps Williams is not feminine enough.That impression is reinforced by Robert Philip’s report in the Telegraph, in which he likens Williams to an unwieldy Dalek, or a cumbersome boxer trying to swat elegant Sharapova, the “floating butterfly” (sport section, p.8, 5/7/04). Just in case we did not get the point, Tuesday’s Telegraph tells us that Sharapova can front high fashion in a way impossible for “bulky, muscular tennis stars” (p.15, 6/7/04).

Apparently too, according to the front page of Sunday Times, Williams failed in that most important and womanly of tasks, choosing what to wear. Sharapova “beat Williams in grunts, dress sense and tennis” (p.1, 4/7/04).

Serena Williams was never described in language like ‘golden’, ‘shimmering’, ‘dazzling’

I would go even further and suggest that Williams is not just the wrong shape to be the ideal female athlete, but also the wrong colour. None of the four newspapers I looked at said this explicitly. Nevertheless, they did say that Sharapova’s success meant that she could fill some kind of iconic gap left by (blonde) Kournikova. Ben Wells in the Observer claimed that “Since Anna Kournikova’s decline, women’s sport worldwide has had very few recognisable iconic figures, and now it has one.” (p.3).

According to David Miller in the Sunday Telegraph, “In a blink she has made redundant her pouting, model-esque compatriot Anna Kournikova.” (sport section, p.2, 4/7/04) Again in the Telegraph, a sports management agent claimed that “Women’s sport had been looking for an icon like this for years” (p.3, 4/7/04). These commentators never explained why the Williams sisters could not be iconic, but nor did they describe Serena in language like golden, shimmering, dazzling and cleancut. The Independent noted with pleasure that Sharapova’s face “was illuminated by light reflecting on the trophy” (p.3, 4/7/04). Brough Scott in the Sunday Telegraph waxed particularly lyrical:

Her eyes were alight, her hair flaxen, her golden skin shining with more than just the glow of youth (Sunday Telegraph, sport section, p.2, 4/7/04)

Given that the Sunday Times has told us that she barely broke perspiration, it is a mystery what could have caused such a shine. However, the contrast between dark, bulky Williams and fair, slender Sharapova is clear enough.

Perhaps Sharapova is an acceptable kind of female athlete because the newspapers feel able to depict her as vulnerable and unthreatening. Certainly the Observer described Sharapova as “frail-looking” and both the Independent and Telegraph feared for her because of the power and aggression of her opponent (sport section p.1; main paper, p.3; sport section, p.2; 4/7/04). In addition, all the newspapers made references to her girlyness. Fair enough, she was only 17, and as a child she had travelled from Russia to Florida to attend Bollettieri’s tennis academy. But did this childhood have to be so repeatedly invoked? This is how Maurice Chittenden in the Sunday Times began his account of the final, “The little girl playing tennis in Moscow was so thin at five years old that she could barely lift the racket.” (p.3, 4/7/04). He went on to describe Sharapova collecting her winnings in terms of her fictional childhood heroine, “clutching the modern day equivalent of Pippi Longstocking’s bag of gold dubloons”.

Brough Scott also found it difficult to detach himself from thinking of Sharapova as a child, worrying that when Sharapova made a gesture of disappointment at a double fault, it was “girlish petulance” (Sunday Telegraph, sport section, p.2, 4/7/04). For Robert Philip in the Telegraph, Sharapova was “the little girl who went straight from Cinderella to Tsarina” (sport section, p.8, 5/7/04) and in the Independent, her father, Yuri, hugged his daughter after the match “as tightly as he must have done when he had to leave her alone in America, aged nine” (p.3, 4/7/04). When Sharapova fell onto her knees at the end of the match in disbelief, to Mark Burton in the Independent, “she was all girlish charm” (sport section, p.1, 4/7/04). Cole Moreon and Stanley Hey made even more of the moment:

Finally, the new champion collapsed in a tearful heap as she let go of the forces that had held her so upright and taut. She was a little girl again… (Independent, p.3, 4/7/04)

Though Federer also fell onto his knees emotionally at the end of his final, I did not find a description of this that was anything other than matter-of-fact.

Most of the reports I saw about Sharapova were not overtly sexist. But perhaps if they had been, they would have been easier to dismiss. Many of them conveyed genuine praise and real information about Sharapova. However, they often used surprisingly retrogressive language which was suffused with outdated attitudes towards women.

Occasionally these underlying assumptions became more visible, as in the Sunday Times headline, “Titillation tax for the tennis poppets” (p.25, 4/7/04). In this supposedly humorous article, Jasper Gerard felt that “the ladies” who have “even grown quite good at tennis” should be paid more because “the entire male world is in love. Or lust.”