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The time Maria Sharapova hand-picked model ball boys for WTA Finals Madrid
“I came here to see hot guys and have a good time,” said 19-year-old Sharapova in 2006, while one Spanish newspaper quipped, “This is equality.”
Published Oct 30, 2022
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The year was 2006, and it was a different time back then.
The Da Vinci Code swept the box offices, and Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” dominated the Billboard charts while The Fray figured out “How To Save A Life.” And in the tennis world, the hottest trend of all was, once again, model ball people.
At least, that was the case in Madrid, the tennis tours’ problematic and innovative fave. The ATP's tournament—back then, a men's only, indoor hard-court event held in October—had received a lot of criticism for unveiling a squad of female models serving as ball girls starting in the 2004 edition.
But when the announcement came that the season-ending WTA Finals was moving from Los Angeles to be held in Madrid for the first time, organizers pulled out all the stops in the name of “equality”.
A city-wide casting call was held for the first male model ball boys in all of professional tennis—and who better to lead the selection process than 19-year-old phenom, Maria Sharapova?
“I came here to see hot guys and have a good time,” Sharapova quipped in Madrid, looking out at a roomful of Hugo Boss-clad hopefuls.
Joined by Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and actress Natalia Verbeke, the trio formed a “ruthless, but very funny” selection committee, according to Spanish press. Sharapova put the men through their paces, testing their tennis knowledge too—or rather, their knowledge of her tennis career.
“Who is your favorite women’s tennis player?” Sharapova quizzed a young man named Israel during one standout exchange. Israel hesitated, pondered, and then finally blurted out, “Lindsay Davenport”.
As Spain’s ABC newspaper put it, “Sharapova’s stunned face looked like a caricature” and the packed room burst into laughter.
“A zero,” Sharapova replied, “You’ve just earned yourself a zero.”
Similar failing scores were awarded at Sharapova’s command for missteps like naming Kim Clijsters as a favorite, and not knowing who won Wimbledon in 2004. (Hint: it was Sharapova.)
But the choice to use male models as ball boys was just as controversial and hotly debated as when the men’s tournament used female models.
"That was unfair," said one conservative Spanish newspaper of using male models, before adding, "This is equality." Meanwhile, one headline in The Times lamented “Madrid strikes another blow in women’s quest for equality”.
Among players, especially the women competing in the WTA Championships, it was a different story. With a women’s tour-level tournament in Madrid still three years away, the season-ending event was their first chance to interact with the model ball persons that had, for better or for worse, become a city signature over the years.
“I was talking to Maria [Sharapova] in the taxi and she said they looked nice,” said Clijsters. “I’m excited about it, although it is going to be strange. As long as they do a good job, that is all that matters.”
Martina Hingis, who was dating world No. 19 Radek Stepanek at the time, was particularly relishing the chance to turn the tables on her boyfriend.
"Radek played here in Madrid in the past, so now it's my turn," she grinned.
Much like at the men’s tournament, the use of model ball persons eventually proved to be a sort of operational hazard. But while the ATP players had been the ones distracted by female model ball girls—with Andre Agassi famously quipping that it was “tough to focus”—at the WTA tournament it was the opposite problem.
“We were practicing the other day and I don’t think they really know what they have to do on the court because they are too busy watching the players,” Elena Dementieva commented.
“We’ll have to see if it will work out or not but I think it will be a distraction for them to do their job.”
Model ball boys completed their short-lived strut on Madrid’s catwalk, employed during both editions of the WTA Championships in the city until the event moved to Doha, Istanbul, Singapore, Shenzhen and Guadalajara before finally landing in Fort Worth.
While models have not been used since at the WTA Finals, they can still be spotted on the sidelines at the Mutua Madrid Open, with the tournament holding casting calls in partnership with fashion sponsors like Hugo Boss, Mango, Pull & Bear and more.