New balls, different racket for the laddish tendency

Who says sex doesn't sell? Certainly not the men's tennis tour

The picture shown here is not of participants in a mass jailbreak pausing in their bid for freedom to voice a defiance of authority. Nor is it a publicity still from a remake of
Creatures from the Black Lagoon. Hey guys, get with it.

The picture shown here is not of participants in a mass jailbreak pausing in their bid for freedom to voice a defiance of authority. Nor is it a publicity still from a remake of Creatures from the Black Lagoon. Hey guys, get with it.

This is a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign for the tennis players' organisation, the ATP Tour, to show that there is life in the game when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi are gone. The campaign, which is running in North America in the build-up to the US Open and due to figure in Europe (but not Britain) when the Tennis Masters series crosses the Atlantic in the autumn, set out to be controversial and in this, at least, it has succeeded, attracting comments like "crass" and "cheap".

Sampras, not someone inclined to shout and wave his arms about such matters, simply said the campaign was "not my cup of tea". All of which is meat and drink, so to speak, to Jonathan Trimble, one of the project's creative team from the London ad agency Marsteller. "Sampras's comment reminded me of cucumber sandwiches and Wimbledon, which is what we are trying to subvert in a way, to show a bit more about the characters of the players. It is deliberately provocative, harking back to the John McEnroe days, when there was quite a lot of swearing on court. Or like Nike, whose ads are called 'irreverence justified'.

"I am not ashamed to say we were half-looking for a men's answer to the Anna Kourni-kova bra campaign, 'Only The Balls Bounce'. Anna has never won a tournament but everyone wants to watch her, she is so exciting and is doing great things for the women's game."

The ATP Tour picked the players it wanted featured. They were looking, said Trimble, for those with "good attitude, charismatic, who could deliver on court". The seven are: Jan-Michael Gambill (US), Tommy Haas (Germany), Lleyton Hewitt (Australia), Gustavo Kuerten (Brazil), Juan Carlos Ferrero (Spain), Nicolas Lapentti (Ecuador) and Roger Federer (Switzerland). Also to be featured in future promotions are Marat Safin (Russia), Magnus Norman (Sweden), Mark Philippoussis (Australia), Nicolas Kiefer (Germany), Mariano Zabaleta (Argentina) and, for the Asian market, Thailand's Paradorn Sricha-phan, though he is not in the top 100 in the ATP Champions Race 2000.

However, most of the others are young and upcoming. What's more, they approve of the spotlight being directed at them for a change. Hewitt enthused: "It's fantastic to be put in such a group of élite players, the future of tennis. I think it's a good idea." Kuerten was a touch irreverent himself. "We are more beautiful than the older stars," he said. At 27, Pat Rafter is considered too old to qualify, but wishes the project well. "The New Balls campaign is great. I really like the idea." Agassi (30) is also sympathetic: "It's always good to introduce players to the public, especially if they're young. The earlier you get to know them the better it is for the game."

Setting aside his cup of tea, Sampras got to the heart of his objections. "They could probably have come up with a better slogan. I don't think the Tour needs a new attitude." But he exposed the need for the campaign by adding: "The players are getting younger, better and stronger, but I walk into the locker room and I don't recognise a lot of the guys."

Recognition was a key theme for Marsteller. "Viewers don't feel as emotionally involved with men's tennis and have less of an affinity to the players," said their document. "Winning is important, but even more so is winning the hearts of the audience." And, of course, helping the Average Joes to recognise who it is they are watching.

The brief, say Marsteller, "was based on a strategy of new blood, new attitude". From there, presumably, it was a soft bounce to new balls which, they add, "tips a hat to the establishment whilst also subverting it, withtons of sex app- eal and 'positive irreverence'.

"We didn't want to make it overtly sexual, alienating people," said Trimble. "Then right into our lap fell Pete Sampras, announcing it wasn't his cup of tea. The more people who dislike it, the better. You can't have a revolution if the establishment like it, though it is a bit unfair to say we are being crass."

The design team, added Trimble, also discussed ideas built around The Magnificent Seven or a gladiatorial theme that in tennis one must win and one must "die".

In 1968, when the sport went open, World Championship Tennis was famously built around a group known as The Handsome Eight: John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Cliff Drysdale, Dennis Ralston, Butch Buchholz, Nikki Pilic, Pierre Barthes and our own Roger Taylor. Same thing, surely? Trimble said he had never heard of The Handsome Eight.

Which clearly shows the ephemeral nature of sport, whether you're talking new balls or old.

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