Oh So Pretty for Nike

NEW YORK Have you seen my good friend Maria? The craziest girl on the block. You’ll know her the minute you see (and hear) her—she’s the one with the amazing, court-deafening grunt in this latest Nike commercial.

Released just in time for Sharapova’s highly anticipated matches at the U.S. Open, the spot is as irresistible as “I Feel Pretty,” the song from West Side Story featured in it. (The “pretty, witty and gay” line seems to be omitted, however.)

It’s an entertaining and memorable spot, but as peppy as the song is, the device used for presenting it—different people coming into the frame to sing each successive line of the song—is tired, tired, tired. There are at least two other spots on the air now doing the same thing. But it’s Nike, so the timing and the cuts are flawless.

And to be fair, there is an extra twist—the genius of the spot is the way it plays off the “pretty” lyrics. Sharapova is currently ranked No. 4 in the world, and with her recent victory at the Acura Tennis Classic, she’s just won her 12th career title. Yet at the same time, there’s no denying that she has become the highest paid female athlete in the world, with the lion’s share of the money coming from endorsement deals because of her supermodel bod and Gwyneth Paltrowy good looks. (She just signed a lifetime deal, reportedly in the $20 million range, with Prince, and she also endorses Tag Heuer, Motorola, Parlux, Sega and Land Rover, to name a few, in addition to Nike.)

Google her and you’ll find many more listings of “sexy pics” than tennis stats. (This year alone, she filled six pages in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, side by side with supermodels, and Maxim magazine named her the” hottest athlete in the world.”)

So against the ever-more campy “I Feel Pretty” lyrics, we watch as Sharapova dresses, leaves the Waldorf-Astoria and heads to Flushing Meadows for the matches. “Don’t watch me because I’m beautiful,” she seems to be saying; she’s got a game face on her otherwise beautiful puss that could scare a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.

En route, the hotel maids and bellman sing and twitter around her, but they’re not exactly joyous, either. (The funniest cut is the one with the brothers McEnroe—John and Patrick—in the booth. They laugh and gamely sing their line, and seem not to have gotten the “Don’t call me pretty!” memo.)

In the department of grim, that cut is more than made up for by the cameraman’s singing moment. He’s got to be the geekiest, most dour figure ever to darken Arthur Ashe stadium.

Then she serves with a trademark grunt that silences the entire arena and shows just what “pretty” can do. It’s all about winning, and she looks like she wants to murder her opponent.

Oh yeah, there’s the Nike dress. It’s a fabulous black-and-white asymmetrical number, with a top cut almost like an evening gown. And yes, there will be a separate, custom-made performance dress for her “evening matches.” (And you never knew tennis had eveningwear!)

It’s the kind of spot that delivers something new in every viewing (tennis Olympian and gold medalist Mary Joe Fernandez is also one of the singers.) Most important, the commercial does exactly what Nike has always done with male athletes: it cuts to the heart of her character (in this case, the duality between being beautiful and being a killer athlete) and presents it in a funny way.

And it is indeed alarming how charming that feels.

Barbara Lippert is an Adweek columnist.