Thursday, September 10, 2009


Somewhere on Twitter, I caught a comment that said the hype around tennis’ latest sensation; Melanie Oudin is based on her being white.
Oh boy.

It was actually a suggested (or for the non-Twitter people, re-tweeted) piece from Fanhouse that discusses how the recent ascension of the Marietta, Georgia teen has been pushed in the direction of the "Great White Hope" in a sport dominated by the Williams sisters, two of the best to have ever held racquets. Admittedly, at first glance, there was a cringe as it seems that we play this hand over and over again in other sports.

Yet, after reading what Greg Couch had to say on the topic, it was hard to not agree with the sentiments, no matter how unfair they are to the seventeen-year old.

Every column I write about women's tennis, it seems, ends up with comments or emails from readers that turn the discussion to race, and oftentimes devolving into something ugly for or against the sisters.
And it's an open secret in tennis that Serena Williams fans resent Maria Sharapova, with the feeling that much of her popularity and huge endorsement dollars come from fitting the white ideal, tall, thin and blonde.
She's a giant Barbie Doll. Serena, the world's best player, is not.
I mentioned this to two USTA (United States Tennis Association) officials the other day, and both just nodded.
Though there won’t be that Serena-Melanie matchup that USTA, ESPN and CBS officials clamored for (thanks to Oudin’s loss to Caroline Woziniacki), the stage has been set, so long as Oudin proves to be more than the latest flash in the pan.

The issue that sticks out to me in Oudin’s surge in recognition has less to do with race (certainly a factor for some more than others) and more to do with the unique nature of the sport. There’s a long list of white athletes who have been viewed from the prism – from Pete Rose to Larry Bird to Brett Favre to even lesser talents such as Jason Sehorn and Wally Szczerbiak – even if all those players wanted to do was to perform without thinking of their sports as sociological experiments. However, they performed in team sports where no matter if the ‘face of the franchise’ was the best player or the best looking, (s)he relied on teammates to succeed or fail.

Tennis is a sport that does not have the cache of other single-participant sports such as golf, mixed martial arts or boxing. Even though its athletes play a rather grueling schedule of matches throughout the year, the only time that the sport gains mainstream attention here in the States is for the four major tournaments; including the ongoing US Open. Compare that to MMA and boxing, where monthly pay-per-view events and premium cable deals allow for organizers to make efforts to push their products heavy in the two weeks prior to the fight cards. Golf is aided by national broadcasting deals for all of their tournaments, even if the ugly truth is that unless Tiger Woods is playing, there is no other individual player that captures attention outside of the sport’s core fans.

The sport does have The Tennis Channel, but it is only offered as an add-on for most cable packages. Deals with national broadcasters are based mostly on rights to the majors and a few non-major tourneys leading to those events, but there is no constant presence of the sport with those arrangements. Star development is a bit trickier because of that lack of constant exposure to the mainstream audience. It’s the reason why when those majors come around, the powers-that-be make concerted efforts to give the players as much media exposure as possible, even if the strategy seems a bit flawed and inconsistent.

In the case of Oudin, the idea that she’s the latest "Great White Hope" may have its merits in some people’s eyes, but probably more important to the sport, she also happens to be seventeen, female and American.

To be past your prime in your late-twenties seems unfathomable in other sports, but for some reason, not when it comes to women’s tennis. When Maria Sharapova is struggling her way back into top form after injuries last year and the Williams sisters are still the most feared players in the women’s side of the draw, the need for someone to emerge from the pack. When you add that the perception of the men’s side of the game is boring changed thanks to better competition to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the WTA seems to be fiddling around even more for the next breakout star, even if she has yet to prove able to consistently hang with the elite.

As for race, though we shouldn’t have to think about its role in her ascendance, it is just another thing to check off on the list in building a superstar. Even as some may gleefully laugh at the notion that Oudin would have challenged Serena (or even Venus, if the elder sister was not bounced early), the truth is that this isn’t just a racial conundrum, but an overall issue with the way tennis markets itself to the American market.

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