T365 Recall: When the Madrid Masters used models as ball girls with Andre Agassi joking ‘it was tough to focus’

Madrid Masters model ball girl

Society has changed for the better over the past few decades with Page 3 models a thing of the past for many newspapers. Heck, even Formula 1 has done away with grid girls. But there was a time when the Madrid Masters ignored modern day societal norms and employed models as ball girls.

Former tournament owner Ion Tiriac has never been afraid to push the boundaries and back in October 2004 organisers of the Madrid Masters (as it was known before they renamed it Madrid Open) ruffled feathers when they replaced the traditional ball boys and girls with models for the hard-court event.

Instead of using teenagers who spend months practicing for big tournaments, organisers opted for 19 to 28-year-old professional models.

The Telegraph reported that the models “were selected from 80 candidates from Spanish model agencies” and “they wear T-shirts and skirts split just above knee-length and are each paid £600 for the tournament”.

It was, of course, met with outrage and even the Spanish government got involved as Soledad Murillo, an official from Spain’s labour ministry, said it “contributes to fomenting clear discrimination towards women who appear as simple objects of decoration and amusement”.

Ball model at Madrid Masters

Even Andre Agassi didn’t think it was appropriate.

He initially joked: “It was difficult, to say the least, to concentrate on the ball. But I suppose I had an advantage, I’m used to playing with my wife.”

He then got serious and felt it’s not something that tennis needs.

“I need some time to let it absorb. It’s important for our sport to understand its product clearly… but I’m not quite convinced it’s part of our product,” he added.

However, the head of the company running the tournament Gerard Tsobanian didn’t want to budge.

“We will continue with our project until the end,” he said. “We want to do something new. This is not machista, we want a women’s tournament here, too, and for that we would use male models.”

Marat Safin won the 2004 edition featuring models and it was very much a case of “all publicity is good publicity” for the Russian.

“The models mean people are still talking about tennis. Good publicity, bad publicity. It doesn’t matter,” he said.

Despite the uproar, the models returned the next year and the year after and the year after. Perhaps the outfits were not as skimpy as they were during the first edition.

In the 2006 and 2007 WTA Tour Championships in Madrid, male models were used for the women’s events.

“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 Dementiava said.

Kim Clijsters admitted that players chatted about the innovation and she was “excited”.

“I was talking to Maria [Sharapova] in the taxi and she said they looked nice,” the Belgian said. “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.”

They eventually made changes as the traditional ball boys and girls returned during the early rounds, but the models were back for the showpiece matches as they “worked” during the semi-finals and final.

By 2018 the models started wearing three-quarter tights under the skirts, but thankfully no other tournament followed in their footsteps as they continued to use teenagers as ball boys and girls as was a short-lived craze.

Țiriac sold the tournament to IMG for approximately €390 million in 2021 and the New York–based company is unlikely to try similar follies.

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