A short history lesson on communism and capitalism in the pro tennis tour.

Andre Agassi and Brooklyn Decker (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and fiancée of Andy Roddick) were on Dan Patrick’s sports radio show this morning, and therein lies a history lesson which brings us smack dab into the middle of this week’s tennis news.

Agassi is the husband of Steffi Graf who laid a double bagel on Natasha Zvereva of Belarus in the final of the 1988 French Open. After the match, with a little encouragement from commentator Bud Collins, Zvereva held up her check for the prize money and said it wasn’t worth much because she had to give all of it back to her tennis association in what was then the communist Soviet Union, also known as the USSR.

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Zvereva was the first USSR athlete to publicly demand that she be allowed to keep her prize money and soon enough, she and her fellow tennis players got their hard earned independence. This paved the way for Moscow-born Anna Kournikova who was also mentioned on Patrick’s show because she’s still making public appearances left and right. Kournikova signed her first management deal at age 10 – just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and promptly moved to Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida where she’d go on to rack up an unrivaled number of sponsorship deals.

Maria Sharapova was also born in Russia and made her way to Bollettieri’s when she was 7 years old. She has managed to outstrip even Kournikova in the corporate world. You could say that Sharapova is the corporate face of the WTA. She has a four year deal that makes her the global brand ambassador for Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications which is the main sponsor for the WTA and the title sponsor of this week’s Masters event in Miami.

It was a good idea at the time but Sharapova hasn’t played since last August due to a shoulder injury and now she’s missed two consecutive Sony Ericsson Opens and last year’s Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships. Sony Ericsson’s sponsorship deal ends in 2011 and the marketing chief who brokered the deal has now left the company. It’s not looking good.

If that’s not bad enough, this past week the WTA lost its CEO. Larry Scott is leaving to become commissioner of the PAC 10, a West Coast collegiate sports league in the U.S., and we can blame the ATP for that. When Etienne de Villiers stepped down – well, was pushed out – as CEO of the ATP last year, Scott tried to convince the ATP board of directors to merge with the WTA and hire him as CEO of the combined tour. The ATP hired Adam Helfant instead and Scott decided to take the PAC 10 job.

The merger would have been a ground-breaking decision but a good one. The tour is increasing the number of combined men’s and women’s events as it is, and if Scott is good at anything, it’s prying dollars out of corporate hands. At least the WTA still has a main sponsor. The ATP lost their sponsorship deal with Mercedes Benz and is having to kick back money to tournaments as a result.


Speaking of combined men’s and women’s events, let’s have another history lesson. A few years ago I was working on a documentary when I became absolutely fascinated with timelines. Looking back at the 1950’s and 60’s I was astonished at the number of social movements that started during that period: the environmental movement (Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, a book about the pesticide DDT), the gay rights movement (the Stonewall Riots of 1969 on the day of Judy Garland’s funeral), the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of the bus in 1955), feminism (the Equal Pay act of 1963, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique in 1963).

And then there was the transgender movement. In the early 1950’s, Christine Jorgenson became a transgender celebrity. She was born in the U.S. as a man and had gender reassignment surgery in Denmark. Tennis had its own transgender pioneer in Renée Richards, also a man who transitioned to a woman, and now tennis has a new pioneer.

Sarah Gronert is a 22 year old German tennis player who is currently ranked number 555 and has a 13-3 record this year. She was born with male and female genitalia and, according to FanHouse.com, an AOL sports site, “harsh words and treatment” from her opponents almost led her to quit the game when she was 19 years old. The article quotes the coach of one of Gronert’s opponents complaining that “This is not a woman, it’s a man, ” so we can only guess what her opponents said.

Instead of quitting the game, Gronert underwent surgery to remove her male genitalia and successfully petitioned the WTA to play again. I don’t know enough endocrinology to say whether removing male genitalia is enough to significantly reduce testosterone and whatever else it is that makes men physically stronger than women – are there any doctors in the house? – but I think it’s unfortunate that someone has to chop parts of themselves off to play the game of tennis.

I’d bet that Gronert is not the first intersexed person to play tennis. I’d say she’s just the first one whose gender identity was not decided at birth by cutting off one of her genitalia because that was the practice until recently. Now that there is an intersex movement, it happens less frequently.

This is a tough, tough subject because we assume that male and female are two separate, clearly defined genders and you can see here that they’re not. And you can bet that an intersexed person is going to choose to compete on the women’s tour, not the men’s. As the intersex movement’s power grows, this will become a bigger issue in the sports wold.

For now, though, Gronert has been medically certified as a woman so let her just play the game.

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