Some Russian sight-seeing
Tuesday, April 18, 2006 20:50 IST
The sad bit about Anna Kournikova’s legacy is that no one really remembers her for her tennis. In the self proclaimed “I am beautiful, famous and gorgeous” typecasting, Anna made for better copy on account of her lissome legs and pop singer boyfriend Enrique Iglesias.
The ironic bit is that, beyond the fluff, this woman helped propel a revolution that has borne 11 Russian women in the top 50 of the women’s tour for the first time ever.
Anna proved to be a shining beacon that lit the way to stardom for hundreds of Russian girls.
Dinara Safina, the sister of men’s star Marat and presently ranked 18 in the world said: “Women’s tennis, in Russia and around the world, is popular because of Kournikova. A lot of players want to be like her.”
But somehow, in being part of the 1998 People magazine “50 Most Beautiful People” list and close to the top 50 in the Forbes Power list which measures celebrity power vis-a-vis their visibility in the media, Kournikova the pioneer tennis player got lost. She became a victim of her own adulation and, since a 305 year-end ranking on the 2003 Tour list, has not figured on the tennis registers.
Sergei Kournikova was a former wrestler earning in the vicinity of $140 a month as a teacher in the Russian Physical Culture Ministry. Sergei and mom Alla chose to sell their TV to get their five-year-old a racquet so that she could attend a weekly tennis programme in Moscow.
By nine, the talent was obvious enough to be spotted by a sports agent who had discovered the agency’s youngest signatory.
The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida followed where the coach, who had shaped the arsenal of Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, would groom her potence. “The only person I could compare her to is John McEnroe,” said the ex-paratrooper.
By end 1995, Anna was the number one ranked junior in the world. She was 14. On a surprising high of 57 on the WTA rankings, she was voted the most improved player next year. In 1997, she became only the second woman in the Open Era to reach Wimbledon semifinals on her debut.
Early autumn however, the initial promise failed to flower. Despite 16 doubles titles, Anna failed to win even one singles crown on the Tour. She would stoop to the lowly $400,000 events too to jettison the pesky monkey, but it persisted in keeping her back.
Google Anna Kournikova and you get 58 lakh plus hits.
The game became secondary for her largely male fans who made her picture one of the most sought-after on the net. In her book Hidden Side of Women’s Tennis, Nathalie Tauziat points to new found motivation amongst the ranks the queen had ruffled.
“Everybody in women’s tennis plays their hardest so they can beat her and prove her looks are useless,” she wrote. Pam Shriver found her attention to looking good irritating enough to suggest that Anna should focus on her game rather that at wearing down the locker room mirror.
Even as the game refused to sizzle, off court Anna certainly did. An alleged affair with NHL star Sergei Federov at 16 had her saying: “He wishes.” On the Jay Leno show she explained away her micro-minis: “It’s not that my skirts are any shorter than other players; my legs are longer. You cannot disagree with that, can you?”
Still only 24
A self-imposed withdrawal from the sport has left in Anna’s wake a lingering question mark. The sex symbol image by far outweighs her tennis exploits. But then she is all of 24. If Martina Hingis can have a second innings, why not Anna?
The prod of Russia’s miserable living conditions immediately after the end of Communism is but a far memory for Anna now; $3.5 million in prize money and much more from endorsements has ensured that. The years have not flown away but Anna’s spark sure has. Her millions of fans await a rekindling.