70s poster icon is back, so anyone for Tennis Girl?

IT WAS the poster that adorned the walls of countless adolescents at the end of the 1970s and fuelled a million male fantasies. Caught in bright sunlight, a woman tennis player, lopes off court, rather indiscretely scratching a naked buttock.

Now Tennis Girl, taken by photographer Martin Elliott in 1976, is posed for a return match. The 2 poster that helped to establish Athena as the pioneering high-street supplier of cheap art is being reissued, but at a price. For 300, middle-aged men who grow restless as they recall the svelte teenager of the original can have a limited-edition, canvas reprint of the shot for their walls. Until now, the only place to get hold of the poster has been on auction websites such as eBay, where copies of the original can appear for 300.

Elliott, now 60, says the picture was posed at a tennis court in Birmingham. Neither he nor the model - his then girlfriend, 18-year-old Fiona Butler - could actually play tennis and the equipment and whites were borrowed.

Taken as Britain came to the end of one of the hottest summers on record, it was issued as a poster by Athena in 1978 and sold about two million copies. It was a steady seller throughout the 1980s, and only went of circulation in 1994 when Athena's parent company put its troubled high street stores into receivership.

Elliott says he has received regular requests to reissue Tennis Girl over the years. The retro fad for the 1970s and 1980s has only underlined its place in the pantheon of post-modern kitsch. Jonathan Ross, Frank Skinner and Ricky Gervais are among those who confess to being fans of the shot, and Kylie Minogue referenced the famous bare-bottomed pose for a cover of the men's magazine GQ.

But did Elliott know he was creating a classic as the shutter clicked on that summer day in 1976? "Christ, no. My conversations with Athena revolved around what was it that was making every bloody person buy it. There was no formula. It is just one of those odd things that happens occasionally in every sphere of life; something inexplicably becomes famous."

Tennis Girl was only one of Athena's products that decorated a generation of bedsits and student halls of residence throughout the 1980s. Erotikiss, an airbrushed sapphic fantasy of two women kissing, became a trademark image, as did the likes of Long Distance Kiss by Syd Brak. A 1986 Athena poster called L'Enfant, right - more commonly known as Man and Baby - achieved iconic status and massive sales with its depiction of a bare-chested man holding a baby, its mixture of muscle and apparent new-man sensibility catching the female imagination.

However, Howard Sounes, author of Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade, has a rather more basic explanation for the success of Tennis Girl. "It's soft porn to put on a teenage boy's wall so he can gaze at a girl with no knickers. It's not art, it's just soft porn... it's not a particularly good picture."

Sounes also says the focus on kitsch icons such as Tennis Girl overlooks the true pop-art achievements of David Hockney, Gilbert and George and Andy Warhol in the same decade.

The marketing expert Mark Borkowski cites Tennis Girl as "the first glossy popular pornographic shot", adding: "It was fairly innocent - it was one of those student posters."

However, he believes its revival now is purely driven by nostalgia. "The need for those kind of bedroom images is now fulfilled by lads' magazines. It's playing on nostalgia, there will be more publicity than there will be sales."

Borkowski insists Athena's role in popular culture history was a commercial one. "They were the first to provide cheap posters you could adorn your horrible bedside wall with."

In addition to its airbrushed fantasies of enigmatic women with ruby lips and blue-lidded eyes - some sporting the Sony Walkman headsets just emerging in the era - Athena also did much to popularise classic black-and-white photography, typified by 1950's Kiss by the Hotel de Ville taken by Parisian photographer Robert Doisneau. Athena was not entirely preoccupied with the artistic qualities of monochrome, however - it also knew black-and-white pictures would go with pretty well any kind of wallpaper.

Athena's demise was a mixture of the artistic and the commercial: airbrush art had become rather pass by the 90s, and Athena stores found themselves often in shopping centres with high rent but little passing custom. Some stores, sold to independent buyers, still remain, but large chain stores such as IKEA have arguably filled the gap for new homeowners who need to put Dali reprints or 1920s shots of New York skyscraper workers on their sparse walls.

Elliott split up with his girlfriend in 1979, and, for her, Tennis Girl appears to have been a less than happy experience. "Fiona never really wanted to be associated with it. She got married to a very wealthy guy and I was perceived as the ex-boyfriend, which I was. She tried to dismiss the picture for his sake. There was a time when the tabloids tried to get hold of her [but] she never wanted to talk about it."

In a 2001 interview, Fiona, now a mother of three and married to a millionaire, said: "I'm not at all embarrassed about that photo."

She said she had not made a penny from the picture, but insisted: I don't want to be in the news again."

Elliott holds no cultural claims for Tennis Girl. "I see it as a photographic seaside postcard, I suppose. It was staged; neither of us played or had any interest in tennis whatsoever. It was just an idea we had."

Now living in retirement in Cornwall, he will only say the royalty cheques are "a nice little pension". He goes on: "People say, 'You must be a millionaire', but that is ridiculous. You do okay. It's a nice little earner, though I know that's an Arthur Daley phrase."

The photographer owns the copyright to the image and has not licensed it to any poster company since the demise of the Athena chain, occasionally selling rights to the image to newspapers and magazines.

But he has given the go-ahead to art company Pyramid Posters to produce 1,850 canvas reproductions, 23.6ins by 31.5ins, which it plans to sell online.

Ally Mayer, managing director of Pyramid Posters, said: "Tennis Girl is one of the most famous images of all time. It has a huge following, which has grown enormously since it came off the market 25 years ago.

"We are anticipating a huge demand, from both Tennis Girl fans, old and new, and art collectors keen to make an investment."

Elliott says he has only agreed to this reissue because it will be produced on canvas.

He says he will sign the limited editions, but may have no need to display one in his own home. "I have one poster of Tennis Girl on my wall," he admits