Models from catwalk may send game to the dogs

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The notion that Naomi Campbell was about to wobble across the court on nine-inch stiletto heels was quickly dispelled.

The notion that Naomi Campbell was about to wobble across the court on nine-inch stiletto heels was quickly dispelled. The 25 models recruited as ball-girls at the Madrid Masters here would be, we were assured, unprovocatively attired in black caps, black vest tops, knee-length white skirts and white tennis shoes, and had been trained for 17 days to field and distribute the balls efficiently and with a minimum of fuss.

That still did not satisfy the tennis traditionalists, who tut-tutted that if the game was no longer able to stand on its own feet as a spectacle and required the trappings of the catwalk, then the sport was in big trouble. Serena Williams's exotic court costumes were one thing, but tennis was not designed for a tacky amalgam of boxing's ring-round girls and Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

The organisers countered that the innovation was a harmless experiment to add a touch of glamour to one of the nine most prestigious tournaments on the ATP Tour. (The fact that five of the world's top 10 players are absent here - Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Guillermo Coria and Carlos Moya - is just unfortunate.)

Scheduled to fetch and carry for only one match per day, at the start of each evening session, the models were in the spotlight yesterday as Albert Costa, the 2002 French Open champion, and Irakli Labadze, of Georgia, duelled for the right to play Tim Henman, the top seed, in the second round.

The models were all right on the night, but added little to the ambience. After the opening set it was easy to forget they were models (even the linesmen kept their eyes on the ball) though Costa did fluff a regulation volley after handing handing back his towel to one of the girls at close quarters.

Julio Nieto, a Spanish umpire, was responsible for training the models. "We didn't have a lot of time, but the girls have learned quickly," he said. "The majority of them had no idea about tennis. We first taught them theory, the concept of scoring and tie-breaks. They put in a lot of effort."

To ensure the models, all associated with the Hugo Boss leisurewear company, were match fit for duty in the Rockodromo Arena, they were first put to the test in the opening round of the qualifying tournament. They retrieved balls in an opening round contest between Antony Dupuis, of France, and Ricardo Mello, of Brazil.

"We didn't know what to expect, and thought the girls would make a lot of mistakes. But they were very good," said Dupuis, who qualified for the main draw and reached the second round yesterday. Did he find the models a distraction? "Not at all."

On court, Alex Corretja cruised to a win over his Spanish compatriot David Ferrer, 7-5, 6-1, while Robin Soderling, of Sweden, defeated the German Florian Mayer, 6-3, 7-6.

Stefan Koubek, who recently beat both Henman and Greg Rusedski in the World Group play-off between Britain and Austria overcame Sjeng Schalken, of the Netherlands, 6-4, 6-4.

Rusedski, who produced an excellent performance in reaching the Kremlin Cup final in Moscow last week, was not ranked high enough to secure automatic entry to the tournament.