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Sports of The Times
Thin Line Between Fabulous and Flabulous
By SELENA ROBERTS
Published: September 1, 2006
IN micro-minis and sleeveless T’s, gloriously tanned players expose their skin for all to inspect without the benefit of camera tricks or a retouch diet.
Who Will Win This Year's U.S. Open?No soft lens to remove blemishes. No airbrushing to whisk away the pounds. They are not the subjects of altered before and after images — never to be confused with Katie Couric’s recent photo flap — but, instead, stretch, lunge and run before you as the bare truth.
Players are either fabulous or flabulous, thinfully sick or sinfully thin as they live through peer comparisons with the Arm & Hammer biceps of Rafael Nadal or the willowy elegance of Maria Sharapova.
Nadal is the sudden standard for the fellas. The hangdog pose of Pete Sampras is so 90’s. Four years ago, Tommy Haas was forced by United States Open officials to change shirts on court after revealing a little ... shoulder. Now, the sleeveless muscle wear is handed out to male players by apparel makers as freely as street pamphlets.
There is some flexing for dollars among the men, but especially for the women, there are lucrative endorsement deals for those who measure up to the new image of fitness on the Bibb Lettuce Tour.
What used to be a parade of womanly stars — from Chris Evert to Monica Seles, from Jennifer Capriati to Serena Williams — has turned into a runway of lollipops in Lycra. Thin has now been confused for fit among some female pros.
“I think that’s a very common thing,” Lindsay Davenport said yesterday after advancing to the third round of the Open. “I think that’s not a player misconception. I think that’s a worldwide misconception.”
After all, why should the pursuit of a Size 0 — the zero-sum bar now set by Hollywood’s hip-boned crowd — leave the women’s tour of vulnerable teenagers and 20-somethings exempt from the pressure to conform?
In The New York Times yesterday, the seductress rapper Lil’ Kim, fresh from incarceration, expressed the prevailing vision of ideal fitness when describing how she lost the weight she gained from prison food.
“My trainer moved in with me,” she said, “and he said he wasn’t leaving until I was a Size 1 again.”
This philosophy has shifted the tennis court from a stage to a scale like never before, as witnessed in yesterday’s grudge match between Williams and Daniela Hantuchova — a Jack Sprat and Wife pairing of criticized extremes.
Williams, the snippy bloggers have remarked, had been carrying too much junk in the trunk after a winter weight gain.
Hantuchova, tour officials once worried, had been flirting with an eating disorder that was increasingly evident in her vanishing figure last year.
Williams, a few pounds lighter, and Hantuchova, an ounce heavier, met as an odd couple who lashed out at each other with pounding strokes for 90 minutes.
Both revealed fatigue at times — with Hantuchova’s attempts to clip points quickly ending with bungled drop-shots, with Williams bent over for a breath after rallies — but Williams won out. So score one for the hourglass gals.
• “I’m feeling fine,” Williams said. “I’m feeling just like I can keep going. Some points were long, but I was — obviously I was O.K.”
It is easier being lean, if only in acceptance. In reality, lightness of being doesn’t equate to endurance as anyone who has watched Sharapova fizzle at the end of long matches can attest. A healthy glow doesn’t always register on hollow cheekbones.
“To me, a strong athletic woman seems a lot healthier than just, you know, weight — instead of what the scale says,” Davenport said.
The pressure to lighten up comes from all areas. The tour is still stuck on the outdated Anna Kournikova method of glamorizing its players past the point of their skills. And clothing sponsors are using fewer threads in outfitting their leggy tennis stars.
• Nothing escapes the lens, as Davenport learned. Early in her career, Davenport’s size was detailed in every unflattering angle on tabloid sheets. Her parents were divorcing; she was moving out on her own; and to top it off, she was teased on an international level for her weight.
“I’m like, 18, you know,” said Davenport, now 30, still dumbfounded at the scrutiny.
Tennis is different than any other sport. The eating issues of gymnasts and figure skaters are well documented. But tennis generally escapes a hard look because the problem doesn’t rise to the level of a Bela Karolyi telling Mary Lou Retton “to eat air.”
And yet, the condition of tennis is visibly frail. Look at the injuries piling up in the corners. Look at the women themselves. The game is not healthy. The health of players — physical and mental — should be the tour’s greatest priority as its women deal with society’s new pursuit of perfection.
“What is troubling to one player is the exact opposite for another player,” Davenport said. “You know, I think, we’re out here obviously as athletes, but just like any other woman. It’s a society problem. It’s not just, you know, in the women’s tennis.”
But tennis has an audience. And the audience is seeking a model. Somewhere, a young girl or young player is mistaking thin for fit.