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The scene was like something out of a cheesy movie about teenage runaways: A 16-year-old girl sits in a room, trying on clothes, while some leering ghouls keep handing her skimpier outfits. Ah, yes, this one looks so much better on you, my dear.... But this was no B flick being played out in a Manhattan showroom a few days before the U.S. Open. The 16-year-old was a tennis phenom from Flintstone, Ga., named Ashley Harkleroad, and the ghouls were Nike reps.
"I tried on all the clothes, and Nike liked me in that outfit best," said Harkleroad, whose first-round loss to Meilen Tu was treated as little more than a footnote to the skintight tankini outfit—complete with skirt slit up to mid-hip—that Harkleroad barely wore for the match. "It was a little revealing, but I like that sometimes. And Nike liked me wearing it."
So there it was: the moment when the panting search for the next Anna Kournikova hit rock bottom. Harkleroad's parents, her handler from Mike Ovitz's Artists Management Group and the folks from Nike can all slap one another on the back over the excitement they stirred up. Cameras clicked throughout Harkleroad's match, and 43 reporters packed a room fit for 10 for her postmatch press conference. (Three showed up for Tu's.) She was the story of the day, but no one mentioned Lolita. "I don't think Anna's worn anything that tight or revealing on court," Tu said later. "There's an age difference too. Anna's what, 20? Ashley is 16."
Harkleroad wasn't alone on the runway in this year's edition of the Glam Slam. During her second-round match, Lilia Osterloh all but spilled out of a Nike outfit that looked more suited for a cocktail party than tennis. Afterward she declared, "I'm very comfortable with my sexuality."
Osterloh, a 23-year-old from Canal Winchester, Ohio, is entitled to wear what she wants, but even a player long out of her teens can be left dizzy by the sexpot merry-go-round. During Wimbledon, Austria's Barbara Schett, 25, allowed her management at Octagon to talk her into a $50,000 arrangement with the London tabloid The Mirror. She was photographed in all manner of sexy poses for the paper, which ran the photos under headlines like BABSI MAKES US SCHWETT. Schett was embarrassed, but Octagon loved it. "They say it was great for me presswise," Schett says, "but I told them that I wouldn't do it again, because I don't want people to see me as a sexy tennis player. I want them to see me as a tennis player."
Racism on the Court?
Lleyton Hewitt touched off an explosion at the U.S. Open with a seemingly racist comment during his second-round match with African-American player James Blake. With the score 1-all in the third set and Hewitt serving, African-American linesman Marion Johnson called Hewitt for a foot fault for the second time in the match. Blake broke Hewitt; as Hewitt headed for his chair, he began raging at umpire Andreas Egli. "Change him," he said of Johnson. "Change him. I've only been foot-faulted at one end." Hewitt jabbed his thumb over his shoulder in Johnson's direction. "Look at him. Look at him. Look at him, mate. Look at him, and you tell me what the similarity is."
Hewitt, who went on to win in five sets, made things worse when he denied that he meant anything "racial" but at first refused to explain what he meant by similarity. On Sunday, Hewitt told SI that he was speaking of the one linesman common to both foot faults, but he was hardly emphatic about it. "I wasn't pointing at James," he said. "I just wanted the guy [Johnson] moved." Courtside observers, including Blake and Blake's parents, said they thought Hewitt was referring to the skin color of Blake and Johnson. Maybe he was, but contrary to press reports, Hewitt did not point at both men, just at Johnson.
The episode was another manifestation of the fact that when racial issues surface in tennis, they inevitably turn the sport into a hall of mirrors where everything gets distorted and everyone emerges feeling dizzy. Last March, Richard Williams accused a spectator at Indian Wells, upset over Venus's last-minute withdrawal from a semifinal match against Serena, of calling him "nigger"—words that no one else in attendance reported hearing. At the following tour stop, the Ericsson Open in Miami, Martina Hingis responded by saying that race was a convenient dodge and an occasional advantage for the Williamses, comments that came back to sting her when they were repeated last week by TIME magazine without the Indian Wells context. Hingis has a history of insensitive remarks, making it easy to cast her as a harpy who just doesn't get it.