Russian tennis player
Anna Kournikova is arguably the most marketable woman in sports, despite having won no WTA Tour
singles tournaments. "Anna Kournikova is sex with a tennis racket attached," Bud Collins, longtime expert in the sport, said on ESPN Classic's Sports Century series. Kournikova has only once reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam event, yet Web sites related to the attractive young Russian woman annually receive among the most "hits" worldwide. ESPN televised the filming of her skin-revealing 2003 calendar five times during Christmas week, 2002. It drew a 1.1 rating, considered high for an ESPN non-event telecast.
"Kournikova is of the post-feminist generation, one more likely to take its cues from MTV, Madonna and Camille Paglia than Ms.," Peter Bodo wrote on the ESPN.com Web site. "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." In 2000, she was one of five female tennis players named to Forbes magazine's Power 100 in Fame and Fortune list at No. 58.
Kournikova, beset by injuries in 2001 and 2002, does have two Grand Slam women's doubles titles. She and Martina Hingis teamed together to capture the Australian Open in 1999 and 2002 (they no longer play together). She was ranked as high as eighth among singles in May, 2001, before injuring her ankle. As 2002 ended, Kournikova was playing Monica Seles in exhibition matches. In tune-ups for the January, 2003 Australian Open, she was 35th in the Women's Tennis Association rankings. As the year 2003 began, Kournikova's pro singles career tournament drought stood at 115.
Born an only child in Moscow, Kournikova first swung a tennis racquet at age 5. She came from an athletic family; her father, Sergei, was a Greco-Roman wrestler and her mother, Alla, ran the 400 meters. At age seven, Kournikova was accepted as a junior member in Moscow's renowned Spartak Athletic Club, but the city's climate limited outdoor play to four months, and indoor courts were cost prohibitive.
The family moved to Florida in the early 1990s, enabling Kournikova to enroll at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy, which launched the likes of Seles, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to stardom. Kournikova spoke no English when she arrived. "But Anna knew who she was, and wanted everyone to know who she was, too," Bollettieri recalled. "She thought she was Queen Tut."
She turned pro at 14, making her WTA Tour debut at Moscow as a qualifier, defeating Marketa Kochta before losing to Sabine Appelmans. A year later, she surged 224 spots to a No. 57 ranking and, in her first Grand Slam, reached the fourth round before losing top-ranked Steffi Graf . She also represented Russia in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In 1997, at age 16, Kournikova toppled No. 5 Iva Majoli and No. 10 Anke Huber at Wimbledon and reached the semifinals before losing 6-3, 6-2 to Hingis. She was the second woman in the open era, after Chris Evert , to reach the Wimbledon semifinals in her debut. Kournikova, who admitted to soreness in her left hip, said she saw her run as a learning experience. "It's unbelievable, I got to the semi-finals," she said. "I was dreaming about this. I'm definitely going to take a lot with me from this tournament, and from this experience."
Early the next year, she rose to No. 16 by reaching her first final, in Key Biscayne, Florida. She knocked off four straight top-10 players (Seles, Conchita Martinez, Lindsay Davenport and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario ) before losing the title match to Venus Williams in a full three sets. She also defeated Graf at Eastbourne. Kournikova missed Wimbledon that year, however, because of a thumb injury. In her other noteworthy Grand Slam singles performance, she reached the 2001 Australian Open quarterfinals, where Davenport proved too much, 6-4, 6-2.
Kournikova ended 1999 with a number one in doubles. A year later she finished number eight, her first top 10 singles ranking. Her beauty and success were magnets for sponsors. She pitched brokerages and dot-com companies on television. By then, her personal life had also made big headlines. She was romantically linked to Russian-born hockey stars Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure. She was also linked to musician Enrique Iglesias, with whom she made a video. Some observers say her off-court distractions hurt her game, although an injured left foot has also troubled her. Her record in singles matches in 2002 was only 28-24.
"I do think someday she will hate herself for not giving tennis her best shot," ESPN.com 's Chris McKendry wrote. "I don't think Kournikova is a fraud or the product of PR packaging. I do think she's a lucky winner of the 'birth lottery'—born beautiful and athletic—and that's not her fault. But she is to blame for underachieving." McKendry added: "So when exactly did Kournikova become less of a tennis player and more of a pop icon?
|1981||Born in Moscow, Russia|
|1986||Began playing tennis in a weekly children's program|
|1992-97||Trained at tennis professional Nick Bollettieri's camp in Bradenton, Florida|
|1995||Made professional tennis debut at age 14|
|1997||Broke from coach Bollettieri|
|2000||Plays French Open on badly injured ankle, against doctors' advice|
|2000||Makes cameo appearance in Me, Myself & Irene, a motion picture starring Jim Carrey|
|2001||Suffers stress fracture of left foot|
|2001||Appears in Enrique Iglesias' video "Escape."|
|2002||Settles out of court with Penthouse magazine over publication of topless photos on a beach; photos were not of Kournikova|
|2002||Thirty-minute feature: A Date With Anna: The Making of the Anna Kournikova Calendar airs on ESPN/ESPN2|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1996||Reached fourth round of U.S. Open|
|1996||Improved world ranking 224 spots, to No. 57|
|1997||Reached Wimbledon singles semifinals in her fourth Grand Slam tournament, losing to eventual champion Martina Hingis|
|1998||Upset Hingis, then ranked No. 1, in German Open quarterfinals; defeated No. 5 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in same tournament and rose to 13th place|
|1999||Wins Australian Open doubles championship with Hingis|
|2000||One of five female tennis players named to Forbes magazine Power 100 in Fame and Fortune list at No. 58|
|2002||FHM Magazine names her sexiest woman of the year, an award usually reserved for fashion models|
In 2001, Kournikova reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Then came the stress fracture and, although she withdrew from the year's other major tournaments, she did not withdraw from public life. That decision has proven to be costly. Fair or not, it looked as though she did not care to be on the court. She attracted flashbulbs everywhere she went, making headlines with her latest beaus, and making a music video with one steady, Enrique Iglesias. "Smooching and rolling around with the singer in his 'Escape' video sent Kournikova's negative public image—and the media—over the top. This season, back from injury, Kournikova's life, not her tennis, became topic No. 1 … and only."
Seles Defends Her
After an exhibition match in December, 2002, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Seles quickly denied reports about resentment toward Kournikova by other WTA tour players. "I don't think there's animosity. My gosh, that's a strong word to use," Seles said after beating Kournikova in the Minnesota Tennis Challenge. "She's dedicated her life to this sport. She's one of the hardest workers on tour. She's a gorgeous girl. What can she do about that? She can't just hide her face."
Bodo admires Kournikova's work ethic. "Consider this: In the spring of 2000, Kournikova badly tore ligaments in her left ankle in Berlin, just 19 days before the French Open," he wrote. "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."
Kournikova's one wish for 2003, she said, was "to stay healthy, go back and try to play a full season this time." Her latest coach is former men's star Harold Solomon, a no-nonsense type credited with saving Jennifer Capriati 's career. Off the court, meanwhile, she sued Penthouse magazine, which published photos in 2002 purporting to be Kournikova frolicking on a topless beach. The magazine apologized for a misidentification and settled out of court.
McKendry feels Kournikova's best chance for a Grand Slam title may have eluded her, given the dominance of the Williams sisters. "Both (Hingis and Kournikova) are missing what the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and even Monica Seles have—incredible strength and a powerful serve," she wrote. "It has been too long since Kournikova's play justified her popularity. But don't call her a nontalent. Nobody, not even Anna, can fake their way to even the No. 36 ranking in the world. Fact is, somewhere under the piles of publicity is a good tennis player. And the only way for her to prove her critics wrong is to prove that … again."
While leveling her share of criticisms at Kournikova, McKendry still feels there's more to like than not to like. "As for young girls looking up to her, all I can say is this: Kournikova is an athletic 5-foot-8, 125-pound beauty," she writes. "Who's a better role model—Anna or some skinny heroin chic model?"
Model or Tennis Player? You glow, girl
Anna is coming.
A not-quite-life-size cutout inside the Xcel Energy Center heralds her arrival … Above this picture, block letters promote the main event: SELES VS. KOURNIKOVA.
Anna's is the only image within sight.
She is a cover girl, a global celebrity. She is a tennis player who never has won a singles title.
Anna Kournikova will play tennis tonight against Monica Seles at Xcel. Thousands will come. Guess why.
"Pretty and sexy, that's the message," said Mary Jo Kane, director of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.
Source: Hamilton, Brian. St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 14, 2002.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY KOURNIKOVA:
Berman, Connie. Anna Kournikova. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
"Anna Kournikova Career Highlights." ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/tennis/s/wta/profiles/kournikova.html, (December 30, 2002).
"Anna Kournikova Press Conference Interviews Archive." http://quickfound.net/sports/kournikova_interviews_archive_index.html (December 30, 2002).
Bodo, Peter. "Kournikova's Got Game, Fame." ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/Kournikova_Anna.html (December 28, 2002).
Hamilton, Brian. "Model or Tennis Player? You Glow, Girl." St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/sports/4736736.html (December 14, 2002).
Harris, Elliott. "Contemplating Anna and Other Moot Points." Chicago Sun-Times, http://www.suntimes.com (December 30, 2002).
McKendry, Chris. "Not must Another Pretty Face." ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/page2/s/mckendry/021010.html (October 10, 2002).
Mushnick, Phil. "Fran's the Man in Booth." New York Post. http://www.nypost.com/sports/66178.html (January 5, 2003).
"The Official Anna Kournikova Website." http://www.kournikova.com (December 30, 2002).
Schatz, Aaron. "Lycos 50: Anna on Top Again in 2002." Fox Sports, http://foxsports.lycos.com/content (December 3, 2002).
"Seles: No Kournikova Hatred." Sky Sports, http://msn.skysports.com (December 18, 2002).
"Tennis Men goining the Fashion Parade." The Star On-line, http://thestar.com.my/news (December 17, 2002).
Sketch by Paul Burton