An interesting interview with Marin Čilić's agent Vincent Stavaux by @franckramella of L'Équipe appeared over the weekend. In it he addressed the issue of his client's lack of popularity in what passes for tennis media and why companies like Nike haven't pursued him. Thanks to @markalannixon for the translation.
Tell us why we should like Marin Čilić?
"People need to find out who he really is. He's atypical on the tour. His natural kindness, not false, his amenability, his availability are to me exceptional. Everyone says: "Yes, but he lacks charisma and that sort of thing", but as soon as they meet him, they change their minds about him. We had a meeting here (in Marseille) with seniors, they were astonished by his kindness. He spoke to them in French, they were touched. And every tournament director will tell you: "Marin Čilić is special because everything he does he does with a smile." He's available when that's not always the case. He plays the game and never shows up just for the appearance money. In Rotterdam, he asked me Saturday morning, because he lacked a bit of confidence: "You believe in going to Marseille? I don't want to go there if I won't do well." I swear he said that!"
But he's not mentioned much - not by the media either -, while attention is paid more easily to the more extroverted ones ...
"To me, that's an excellent societal question. Everyone screams about and spits on the paparazzi and the sensationalist tabloids, but they have readers. It's a bit the same here. I have trouble understanding that, in relation to Marin, people prefer watching Kyrgios who throws his racquet and spits, though I have nothing against him. But hearing that sort of thing is problematic. Because what? For tennis to be fun you have to insult the umpires? Shout "fuck" everywhere? Watching a Roger at the top of his art entertaining the crowd, that's tennis to me. Not smashing racquets or whatever .. That's hypocritical."
Do you think we push too much for excess while constantly complaining that the sport is too policed?
"Stop! If people don't want to watch that sort of tennis, they can watch another sport. I'm against all rules that that make the game colourless under the pretext of making it more pleasant for the majority of people."
How do you fight for Čilić's existence in that world?
"What's a shame is that sponsor brands look strongly for that. Either you're right at the top or you're outrageous. But if you're in the category of player like Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer or Marin Čilić, you're nothing.Every time. They hide behind excuses like: "He's from Croatia, it's not a market." It's a very small argument."
Go ahead. We're giving you the chance to sell us Čilić ...
"His generosity. I think Marin Čilić is Pat Rafter's successor in the sense that he does a lot of things for a lot of people. He helps without talking about it. I was astonished when I found out years after that Rafter had built a hospital from the ground up with his own money. Marin gets involved, gives quite a lot to foundations. If people only knew what a big heart he has ..."
The thing is many of the players, male and female, coming up are in the category of Tomáš Berdych, David Ferrer and Marin Čilić. The problem is tennis has never been good at marketing players like them and worse at marketing players from Eastern Europe.
Players from Eastern Europe who play for Western European countries like Belinda Bencic and before her Martina Hingisová Molitor who played as Martina Hingis do get/got the full star treatment. Angelique Kerber is Polish but plays for Germany. And there's Simona Halep of Romania. None of them, not one, can headline an event. None of them have that "thing" that draws people to them.
It's the same on the men's side. The top male player, despite all of the effort his people put into promoting him, is not as charismatic as the two men who despite their current woes are still the biggest stars in the sport. And he doesn't wear Nike either. Let's look past him at the up and comers. Alexander Zverev is of Russian descent but both he and his brother who plays as Mischa Zverev play for Germany. Borna Ćorić of Croatia has the good looks that could get him places à la Marat Safin but none of them have the star power to draw casual fans to the sport. Čilić is a very handsome man but as his agent opines he comes from an area of the world that is not considered "a market". The same thing is said of Tomáš Berdych.
Since Čilić brought up David Ferrer I'll mention him briefly. People rant and rave about Feliciano López but in person Ferrer is the much better looking man. Still, neither one of them wear Nike or Adidas, the top brands in sports.
And yes there is Maria Sharapova who, to put it mildly does get a lot of publicity. The WTA has a type and she is still it. Did she get the push because she is based in the States while players like Maria Kirilenko, Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva were unknown outside the world of tennis fanatics?
So what is going on? Why are players who have been consistently top ten so hard to market? Why is there such a push for players like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic but not for men and women, with few exceptions, out of Eastern Europe? Is it language? Is it that many of the Eastern European countries are poor? When the duopoly is gone who will replace them in terms of marketing? I have no answer and from the interview posted above agents are hitting a brick wall with the big ad agencies and clothing purveyors. If a marketing strategy can't be created now what is going to happen in the next two or three years? Who will be the standard bearers for a sport that will be dominated by players from countries that are not "markets"?
If tennis doesn't want to fade in the minds of sports fans a solution to the marketing problem will have to be found.
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