Mauresmo: No. 1 in the World, Unknown in U.S.

Do you know who the world's top-ranked woman's tennis player is?


You're not the only one. Here in the United States she isn't much seen or talked about beyond the sports pages. And even there, she doesn't get much ink.

Her name is Amelie Mauresmo. She's French. She won at Wimbledon in July, and for years, sports writers have called her one of the world's most interesting women tennis players.

"She's a magnificent athlete. She's subtle and she has power," veteran tennis writer-commentator Bud Collins told ABC News. "She's marvelous to watch."

"She is a radiant person," he continued. "Lots of confidence in herself. She's attractive, she's smart and a terrific woman."

There's another aspect to her character, which Collins told us he no longer bothers to write about because it's not an issue.

In 1999, at the age of 19, Mauresmo, responding to insults that had surfaced in the media, revealed that she was gay. Talking about her sexual orientation openly, she said her love for her girlfriend, who at the time was Sylvie Bourdon, greatly helped her game.

Anti-gay barbs of a surprising and very public nature had come from other women tennis stars, most famously from Martina Hingis, who called Mauresmo "half a man" after Mauresmo defeated her.

"She never 'came out' -- she was always out," said Collins. "She's very straightforward about it."

Open Season

Having won two legs of tennis' Grand Slam, the Australian Open and Wimbledon, earlier this year, Mauresmo, 27, is currently the world's No. 1 ranked woman player and the top seed at the U.S. Open, now under way in New York. On Wednesday she cruised into the tournament's semi-final round after beating 12th seeded Dinara Safina, 6-2, 6-3.

The U.S. Open, of course, opened last week with a special tribute to tennis great -- and open lesbian -- Billie Jean King. The United States Tennis Association renamed the Flushing Meadows, Queens, tennis center after her (the main stadium inside the complex bears the name of the late great Arthur Ashe).

The many French journalists now lurking around the Billie Jean King Center bear witness to the hero Amelie Mauresmo has already become back home.

But again, here in the United States, she struggles to receive the recognition due a player of her stature. Is it because of her sexuality?

"I've never been asked that question so often as this past week," said Micky Lawler, head of women's tennis at Octagon, an international sports management firm that has represented Mauresmo since she was 14.

"Here in the U.S., the angle is always she's a homosexual. ... This is the only country where that happens.

"I don't know why this is so front and center here," said Lawler, who grew up in Holland and has lived in the States for several years. "Maybe it's because Americans are more open and able to ask the question, or maybe it's because people here are just more conservative. I don't know."

"There won't be any pushback on my end because she's a lesbian," said one broadcast sports marketing executive who asked not to be named because he had not received clearance to speak on behalf of his company.

"Tennis is a very gender-neutral sport that reaches upscale adults 25 to 54," he said. "In that demographic, the issue of sexual orientation becomes less relevant."

"If you ask whether more people or less people will watch because she's a lesbian, I would say more will," he said, but he also pointed out that selling TV commercials on tennis tournaments is different from selling an individual player for a specific product.

Jerry Della Femina, chairman and CEO of Della Femina, Rothschild, Jeary Partners advertising agency, said, "It's only a few years since Billie Jean King had to go through so much, but it's been centuries in terms of progress on this issue."

Back in the 1980s, King lost most of her lucrative endorsements when she was outed during a divorce, and tennis hero Martina Navratilova has maintained that she didn't get the endorsements she should have because she's gay.

Still, explained Della Femina, "I don't think I would have any trouble selling [Mauresmo] to a client as an attractive spokesperson. [Her sexuality] is not going to be a problem, and might even be a positive. She's right out there with who she is.

"When you sell a sports celebrity, or any celebrity, to be a spokesperson for someone or some product you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The classic case is O.J. Simpson. With Amelie there is no other shoe. She's a great athlete who is perceived by the public as being very honest."

Lawler said that Mauresmo has lucrative U.S. endorsement deals with Dunlop and Reebok.

But back in France and Europe, her commercial relationships reach beyond the world of sports, which is possible only when an athlete has reached the highest level of pubic recognition based on general image and character. They include ads for a French natural gas company and for a maker of eyewear.

"Back home, she's really a hero, the first French woman to win at Wimbledon since 1925!" said Collins.

It's not clear whether Mauresmo has not yet reached that beyond-tennis level of endorsements here because she is only now arriving at the highest level of victory in the sport or because of endemic U.S. homophobia.

Della Femina, for one, is convinced it's the former case. "The one thing you want [in an endorsement deal] is instant recognition. She still doesn't have that here in the U.S. ... But if she wins this Open, she will."