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'People would point and whisper' 

 

Few of us are exempt from youthful indiscretions. But most of us, fortunately, are spared worldwide exposure when we do make those mistakes.

 

No such luck for Austrian tennis pro Barbara Schett. One of the headliners at this week's Hong Kong Ladies Challenge 2002, Schett is reflecting on a tumultuous year which saw her create more headlines off the court than on.

 

After upsetting Venus Williams in the first round of the French Open, "Babsi" was hoping to parlay the momentum into a successful run at Wimbledon. She arrived in London full of optimism; she left a high-profile casualty of the English tabloids.

 

When her former doubles partner and tennis pin-up Anna Kournikova skipped Wimbledon because of injury, the comely Schett was chosen by the British media to fill the glamour void.

 

After being named the sexiest woman in tennis by Ace magazine, Schett was a natural for the role and even signed a US$50,000 sponsorship deal with the trashy Daily Mirror, who adopted her as their own, stuck their banner on her uniform and ran a series of non-tennis photographs.

 

"It was a mistake," she readily admits. "I was too naive and it was a learning experience. Hopefully I will know how to handle it the next time."

 

At 25, it's not as though Schett is a complete neophyte. She has been playing professionally for almost 10 years now and was the seventh-ranked player in the world in 1999. She should know better than to get involved with the English tabloids, which makes it a little difficult to buy the innocent caught in the crossfire angle.

 

That is, until you meet her. Schett seems to have forgotten that the world's top female tennis players are supposed to be pampered divas. She is accessible, unfailingly pleasant, cheerful and genuine. Although she is bundled up in a jumper and sweat pants, you might be able to make a case for her being sexy.

But her sex appeal, at least for the moment, seems to be the wholesome type that would never appeal to the raw tabloids. While there may be some slightly racier images of her posted on her Web sites, there is still nothing there that would require adult verification.

 

She seems very sweet, even innocent, and if it is all an act then Schett should put down her tennis racquet immediately and head for the bright lights of Broadway to pursue a far more suitable vocation.

Hasn't the whole experience made her more leery about dealing with the press? "Generally no, not really," she says. "But I'm a little more careful with the English press now, especially those people working with the tabloids. I don't want to give them interviews anymore.

 

"There was one thing written about me that I could not believe and it was going all over the world. I was really upset because that story was not the way I am and people are getting the wrong picture of me."

One of the Mirror's rivals picked up on the "Babsi as sex kitten" theme and tracked down her former coach in Austria. "They called him and talked to him, and I talked to him as well later, and he said they were just asking him how we got together and this and that," said Schett.

 

"But then they were adding so many things. It was unbelievable." Among the things the tabloid added was that not only was Thomas Prerovsky her coach but also her off-court partner in a "steamy" eight-year relationship.

 

"I was surprised someone could write something like that about me," said an astonished Schett. "I've never had any stories like that before! It was just a joke, a bad joke. I already talked to Anna and I said you better come back to Wimbledon this year!"

 

But Kournikova is not particularly anxious to walk into the media mudfest that is the Wimbledon fortnight. Unlike Schett, Anna has been hounded by the global paparazzi for five or six years. She may not like it, but Kournikova is now savvy enough to understand how to handle a voracious group who hardly need any ammunition to start firing salacious tripe. Even when you give them nothing, they take everything.

"A lot of the other female players could not believe I was doing the work with the Mirror, " she said. "They asked me, 'Why are doing this? Don't you know this is one of the worst newspapers?"

 

Apparently, Schett didn't know. But her agents, who are supposed to be far more media savvy, should have known. However, there was money on the table and when it comes to the greenbacks, sports agents are separated only by a degree or two in the ethics department from the British tabloids.

 

After shocking Venus and making it to the fourth round at the French Open, Schett was eagerly anticipating a good run at Wimbledon. "I was anxiously looking forward to the tournament but then things became a little too much for me," she said. "I had so many things to do and everybody wanted something from me.

 

"One morning I woke up and saw a picture in the newspaper of the house I was staying at and everywhere I went people would point and whisper. I went to dinner with a male friend one night and then I got calls from the media asking for more details about my new boyfriend. It was just a series of things like that.

"It was not easy to concentrate on tennis. I thought I could handle it though. But maybe if I didn't have those distractions, I could have played better."

One player who managed to perform well despite the distractions was Jelena Dokic, Schett's opponent in the third round. Dokic woke up the day of the match to find the Daily Mirror had run an inflammatory article titled "Babsi v The Beast", in which it deified its golden girl while trashing Dokic's controversial and heavy handed father Damir.

The tabloid even ran a boxing-style "tale of the tape" featuring an angelic photo of Schett opposite the snarling Damir. Dokic was not impressed and took out her rage on Schett, beating her 6-3, 7-5.

"She was just furious and I don't blame her," said Schett. "I talked to Jelena before the match and told her that I had nothing to do with the story. If you know me you know I wouldn't do anything like that. But Jelena and I are fine, we get along good."

In fact Schett claims to get along with most of the girls on tour, despite being officially designated "sexier" than them. "I have a very good relationship with all of them," said Schett. "I'm not sure if there is some jealousy, but I don't really see any."

She claims to have been genuinely shocked when Ace named her the sexiest femme ahead of the more celebrated Kournikova. "I was very surprised when I heard," said Schett. "My first reaction was to laugh and say this is not possible, why me? I was honoured, of course, and it was nice, but I don't take it too seriously."

She admits with a giggle to having a healthy following of adoring males in her home country but says there is no such international phenomenon. "In Austria it's different, there is a fair bit of attention," she says. "But not all around the world, at least not before the last Wimbledon."

A winter sports power gearing up for a haul of medals at the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Austria is not exactly a hotbed for tennis talent. "They put you on skis in Austria when you can walk and I do enjoy it," she says.

"But I always liked playing tennis. In Austria it would be almost impossible for me to win athlete of the year because there are just so many talented skiers." But she keeps playing, better than any woman ever has in her ski-mad country, in fact. "I love playing on the tour and I rarely get homesick because I love the travel," she says. "That's why I'm looking forward to playing in Hong Kong. It's been a few months since I played a competitive match and I am anxious to get going again.

"As far as the Australian Open later this month, you have to check yourself out first and see how things are working. A lot can depend on the draw. I'm optimistic it will be a good year and I know that it will be a quiet Wimbledon this year."

Along with a number of goals on the court, Schett also has one simple request. "I don't mind being in the newspaper," she says with a smile, "but I would like it to be for my tennis playing". Sounds like a lesson learned.