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Kirkpatrick: Perfect petulance

Kournikova reaches Lipton singles final

Kournikova's got game, fame
By Peter Bodo
Special to

"There's a women's tournament in Berlin and President Clinton happened to be there. The players were staying at the same hotel. Anna wanted to get into the hotel. The Secret Service guy says, 'I'm sorry, but you can't come in right now.' And she goes, 'Don't you know who I am?'" says former tennis player Luke Jensen on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury show.

Anna Kournikova
Anna Kournikova is known more for her sex appeal than tennis game.
Times change. It is a naked truism and one of the sacred, original platitudes. So how come, when it comes to dealing with someone like Anna Kournikova, the 21-year-old Russian born-and-bred tennis player and self-styled vamp of the WTA tour, so few people seem to recognize the meaning of the phrase?

Critics -- most noticeably and volubly those in the media -- have had a huge problem with the fact that Kournikova became a woman with a past before she had, in their eyes, established herself as a girl with a future in tennis. While Kournikova still had yet to earn her first WTA tour singles title by the summer of 2002, she already was ranked as the most photographed woman on the planet (summer of 2000) and the Lolita-esque Queen of cyberspace, garnering more hits to more Web sites than any other female athlete.

By the time Kournikova was 18, she had endorsement contracts that were worth millions, plugging everything from tennis clothes to bras to luxury watches. And to make matters even more provocative, even before Kournikova reached the age of consent, she was romantically and sensationally linked with NHL star Sergei Fedorov, a fellow Russian.

There also was an ad campaign, featuring a seductive-looking Kournikova in a screaming red dress on a beach, shilling for a dot-com giant. Such visions of Anna have led almost all of the enlightened, politically-and-athletically-correct pundits to scratch their heads and wonder, "Title IX, Ms. Magazine, Billie Jean King -- all for this?"

It seems a bitter blow indeed, but times change. Kournikova is of the post-feminist generation, one more likely to take its cues from MTV, Madonna and Camille Paglia than Ms. She also is of a realistic generation, and in a world in which sex sells -- no matter what anyone has said or done so far -- she has what the market wants. Having grown up relatively poor in a confused and desolate place (post-Soviet Russia), she is more than glad to exploit her natural gifts for personal gain.

But let's remember that the first and foremost of those gifts is still her tennis game, which has earned her more than $3 million in career prize-money. In November 2000, the 5-foot-8, 123-pound Kournikova reached a world ranking of No. 8 -- neither by a vote of teenage boys with acne in baggy shorts nor with smoke and mirrors. She became the eighth-best woman tennis player on the planet by winning matches.

At about the same time, Kournikova also captured the No. 1 ranking in doubles. Consider, too, that at 15 she made it to the fourth round of the 1996 U.S. Open. And that a year later she became only the second woman in the Open tennis era (after that other blonde once accused of exploiting her feminine appeal, albeit in a more innocent time, Chris Evert) to reach the semifinals at her Wimbledon debut.

Anna Kournikova
Kournikova hasn't won a singles title but has 15 doubles championships through June 2002.
In 1998, Kournikova beat four Top 10 players in as many days to reach her first career final (Lipton Tournament), and three months later, she beat Steffi Graf on grass, something only two other players accomplished in the 1990s.

As Nick Bollettieri, at whose tennis academy Kournikova shaped her game between 1992 and 1997, said: "Anna is very gifted. She's hampered by her size and inability to overpower opponents, but she's mobile and a tough athlete."

Tough indeed. One of the main factors routinely preventing Kournikova from maximizing her potential has been susceptibility to injury. Significant if not career-threatening injuries have derailed her training and playing regimen on at least four occasions since she turned pro, sometimes for months.

Consider this: In the spring of 2000, Kournikova badly tore ligaments in her left ankle in Berlin, just 19 days before the French Open. Doctors advised that Kournikova rest the ankle for a month, but two days before Roland Garros began, she booked a practice court and hit balls fed right to her racket because she could not yet run properly.

Ignoring all advice, she entered the French Open and won a round before a loss to Sylvia Plischke left her open to charges that by now constitute a ceaseless refrain: Kournikova is all glitz and no substance, she's overrated, she can't handle Grand Slam-level pressure.

"I didn't care about what anybody said about why I lost," Kournikova said. "I entered Roland Garros because I love to play and I couldn't stand the idea of missing it. This game isn't just a part of my life. Tennis is my life."

An only child, Kournikova was born on June 7, 1981, in Moscow. Ever since she first swung a racket when she was 5, "the game" has been the primary focus of her life -- a life characterized in her early years of training in Russia by hardship.

Anna Kournikova
Kournikova has been ranked as high as No. 8 in 2000.
The family -- her father Sergei was a national-level Greco-Roman wrestler and her mother Alla was a runner specializing in the 400 meters -- lived in a modest, two-room apartment in Moscow's University district.

At times in that volatile, post-Communist era of uncertainty, the Kournikovas were deeply moved to get frozen chicken wings as part of a U.S. effort to help alleviate the chaos in Russia. "Thanks God for your President [George] Bush," Sergei once said.

Like other little girls, Anna had dolls and stuffed animals. "But," she said, "I would only visit with them for five minutes every morning. Then I was off to find something more active to do. I had too much energy. I was always hanging around with the boys, yes, but only because they were the only ones who had the same energy for running around and playing games like me."

By 7, Kournikova was accepted as a junior member at Moscow's famed Spartak Athletic Club. But this rare privilege guaranteed her little. The outdoor playing season in Moscow was a scant four months, and the going rate at the few indoor courts in the city was roughly the same as the average monthly household income in the "new" post-Communist Russia -- $50.

It was small wonder, then, that from the time that Kournikova's abundant talent for the game became obvious, the family looked to get out of Russia and eventually leaped on the opportunity to move to Florida to live and train at Bollettieri's Tennis Aacademy. Within three years, Kournikova became the world junior champion (among girls under 18) in 1995 at the precocious age of 14. She turned pro that year and her ascent since then has been steady, if frequently interrupted by injury.

She steadily moved up, from 57th in 1996, 32nd in 1997, 13th in 1998, 12th in 1999, 8th in 2000 before falling back to 74th in her injury-riddled 2001 season. Of her 16 doubles titles through September 2002, 11 have come with Martina Hingis, including two Australian Open championships (1999 and 2002).

But even that successful athletic partnership with Hingis often transcends tennis. Hingis, something of a femme fatale in her own right, is reconciled to Kournikova receiving the lion's share of attention -- as long as she is acknowledged as the senior, more-talented player. Once, when Kournikova challenged Hingis' superiority in the game -- never mind that it was in a meaningless exhibition match in South America in 2000 -- the relationship between the women exploded. But they patched it up and have played together since.

Although Kournikova may still be searching for her first singles title, you know what? A boatload of journeywomen have at least one singles title -- but little else -- to their credit. Slovenia's Tina Pisnik -- career-high singles ranking somewhere in the 50s -- has won a singles title. So the fact that Kournikova has not won a title is less a telling fact than a weird aberration. So deal with it. It's a good idea, kind of like dealing with the notion that times change.

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