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The Inside Track | T.J. Simers

Ad of Sharapova Poses a Question for the Ages

November 10, 2004|T.J. Simers

Take a look at the billboard shot of tennis player Maria Sharapova.

What do you think? Could you say it out loud?

There are similar billboards all over town, including a 48-foot-by-14-foot likeness of Sharapova on the Sunset Strip, the sultry look and provocative pose obviously intended to push this week's women's tennis tournament in Staples Center.

The Anschutz Entertainment Group has also passed out thousands of leaflets and ran newspaper ads with the same Sharapova pose and a line of teasing type below her picture: "The closer you sit ... the hotter it gets."

Now what do you think when I tell you the girl in the ad is 17 years old?

"We're not trying to sell sex," insisted Shawn Hunter, chief marketing officer for AEG, and of course not, or someone might have to be arrested.

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FOR THE most part, I wouldn't know a Sharapova from a Kuznetsova, but the folks at AEG gave me a "Got Sharapova" T-shirt, one of those titillating leaflets, and an invitation to ride with the young star in a Porsche.

Since Salma Hayek is out of town, I was free.

I did some research on Sharapova, figuring she was about 19, only to learn she celebrated her 17th birthday in April. She doesn't even have a driver's license.

That's when I took another look at the provocative leaflet: "The closer you get ... the hotter it gets," and this time viewed it as a parent who has had a pair of 17-year-old daughters. I know how I'd have spent my week in L.A. as the father of a girl caught in such a pose; I would have been climbing ladders and ripping down billboards all over the city.

AEG had to do something, though. It apparently couldn't sell fans into coming to a tennis tournament to watch the Wimbledon champion, so they took the racquet out of her hands and had her recline against a net.

"We are promoting the Wimbledon champion who happens to be a very attractive and athletic-looking young lady," said AEG spokesman Michael Roth, while not mentioning that in this country, she's still considered a child.

"She's in her competitive outfit from tennis top to tennis shoes," he said, in describing Sharapova's layout. "She's obviously one of the most attractive players in the field; we'd be foolish not to promote the freshest face in tennis."

Take another look at the picture, like I have to tell you to do so -- is that about promoting "the freshest face in tennis?"

As a parent, maybe I was being a prude, so I asked Lara Potter, one of the tournament's publicists, if she was offended by the ad that had Sharapova striking a provocative pose. She said, "No comment," and it takes a lot to shut up a publicist.

When I called later to ask about another matter, I was told Potter could no longer say anything because it seems AEG had gone into damage control.

"We were trying to elevate the awareness and popularity of this tournament," said Hunter, who had AEG clearance to speak. "The two most popular players are Sharapova and Serena [Williams], and they both liked the campaign and approved of it. We feel very good about this campaign."

I'm sure there are a lot of folks who feel good about the pose Sharapova has struck. In fact, Max Eisenbud, Sharapova's agent, took offense that anyone would even question it.

"I don't think it's anything we aren't seeing on TV right now," he said. "It's where our society is at. She happens to be a very attractive girl -- now if she was 15 or 16, not dressed in her tennis clothes or showing cleavage ... " AEG could've maybe sold out the tournament.

Sharapova may or may not be the most mature 17-year-old the world has known, but she's still 17. A kid. And if the message to young girls everywhere in the L.A. area is that sex sells -- rather than Wimbledon championship tennis, shame on anyone who rewards AEG this week and takes their daughter to Staples Center.

Where were her parents? "There you go," said Lindsay Davenport. "I wouldn't do it, and I can tell you my daughter wouldn't either."

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WILLIAMS RECENTLY wore a see-through red dress to a London movie premiere, and she has played tennis in all kinds of fetching outfits. She had an "S" stitched to the pocket on her behind Tuesday, but then Williams is 23, an adult, who can dress any way she likes.

"This is a hot picture," Williams said when I gave her the Sharapova ad. "I hate to say it, but sex sells. A lot of people who are 12, are doing things...."

Which certainly doesn't justify anything a 17-year-old might be doing, I said, and Williams replied, "Everyone has their own opinion, and I think she's sexy."

I told Williams, who packs some wallop in this sport, that I was disappointed in her response, and WTA official Jim Fuhse said Williams would only answer questions for five more minutes. When my next question left Williams stammering for a reply, Fuhse said the interview was over. Time flies in the tennis world, I guess, when Williams isn't having a good time.

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