Not just another pretty face
By Chris McKendry
Page 2 columnist

I am a freak of nature.

Anna Kournikova
It's difficult to take Anna Kournikova seriously on the court when she seems more focused on selling sports bras.
I am a woman, and I don't hate Anna Kournikova.

But I do think someday she will hate herself for not giving tennis her best shot.

Last week, Kournikova withdrew from the Kremlin Cup after partially tearing a ligament in her left ankle. Her season is over. A stress fracture to the same ankle and foot cost Kournikova nearly all of the 2001 season ... and maybe her Top 10 career. She's now ranked 36th in the world, and famously winless in 118 tournaments, a fact that makes it infinitely easier for Kournikova's critics to toss her aside as tennis' Britney Spears -- all style and no substance.

I'm not one of those critics.

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. And it's her fault that she has lost focus and confidence, though even as I say this, it's important to note that she's hardly the first athlete to fall short of her potential. (Hey, just last week, 32-year-old Raul Mondesi announced he'll play next season, earning $13 million, and retire. Now, ask yourself ... has Mondesi lived up to expectations after being the 1994 NL Rookie of the Year? Granted, he has never been as popular as Anna, but has he done enough to earn his paycheck everyday?)

To truly understand Kournikova's underachievement on the tennis court, you must remember her promise, and what first attracted the writers and cameras -- her athletic success. In 1997, as a 16-year-old, Kournikova became only the second woman in the Open Era to reach the semifinals in her Wimbledon debut. In 1998, she was the first Russian woman to be seeded at the U.S. Open in 22 years. Also in 1998, she beat Steffi Graf in the quarterfinals at Eastbourne. At that point, she became one of only eight players ever to have defeated Martina Hingis and Graf.

Anna Kournikova
Most of Kournikova's celebrations have been reserved for the doubles court.
As recently as two years ago, at the end of the 2000 season, Kournikova's ranking had kept pace with her popularity. Although winless in singles events, she was a Top 10 player, ranked No. 8 in the world. Kournikova's singles career peaked in 1998, when she went 40-19, meaning she was getting deep into tournaments -- the quarterfinals and semifinals in most cases. But since then, it has been downhill. This season, Kournikova was a mediocre 25-23 in singles matches.

During this slide, her window of opportunity to win a Grand Slam event closed. I think this for the same reason I also believe it's unlikely Hingis will win another Slam event. Both players are missing what the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and even Monica Seles have -- incredible strength and a powerful serve. Hingis and Kournikova are missing that one huge weapon that could bring them easy points. Kournikova's best shot at a Slam title was likely a few years ago, when Hingis still ruled. Many players on the tour face the same dead end, but Kournikova is the only one being called a sham.

So when exactly did Kournikova become less of a tennis player and more of a pop icon?

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.

Anna Kournikova
Kournikova came close last month in Shanghai, but her winless streak remained intact.
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.

Which is extremely odd, because Kournikova has actually been, for most of her career, a diligent worker ... when she puts her mind to it. Her coach of less than a year, Harold Solomon, isn't the type to settle for anything short of hard work. Remember, he's the coach responsible for re-establishing Jennifer Capriati's game and career more than three years ago. It'll be interesting to see what he teaches Kournikova. Of course, her health puts everything on hold for a while, which brings me to another point:

Kournikova's stress fracture suffered in 2001. Mary Jo Fernandez has said that, after suffering a similar injury, it took her one full year to recover. Because Kournikova's presence was missed by fans, tournament directors and sponsors, she felt pressured to return quickly. Whenever an athlete misses significant time, it takes awhile to return to peak form.

Upon her return, Kournikova, as should have been expected, struggled. She lost in the first round of this year's Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. But she did improve as the summer progressed. Her hardcourt season was impressive. After a quarterfinal finish in Stanford (losing to Venus Williams, ranked No. 1 in the world at the time) and a semifinal finish in San Deigo (losing to Jelena Dokic), Kournikova looked ready for a run at the U.S. Open.

However, in the first round, unheard-of Angelique Widjaja beat her 6-3, 6-0 despite the fact Widjaja did not hit a single winner in the entire match. It was a disaster for Kournikova. Unable to construct a point, control her unforced errors or even to concentrate, Kournikova was out of the singles tournament within an hour (and a couple of days later, she was back in the off-court spotlight, this time at Iglesias' side for the MTV Video Music Awards).

Anna Kournikova
You can't blame Anna for all the photographers at her matches ...
But teamed with Martina Hingis in doubles, Kournikova cruised through the doubles draw deep into the second week. She looked like a different player, smiling and confident. The explanation is simple -- Kournikova is an underrated athlete but not a good tactician on the court. So when teamed with tennis' best thinker in Hingis, Kournikova wins ... a lot. In fact, Kournikova has won 16 doubles titles on the WTA Tour, pairing with Hingis to win a pair of Grand Slams.

Of course, American Lisa Raymond is a tremendous doubles player and doesn't get an eighth of Kournikova's ink. And that's the real beef everyone has with Kournikova -- she gets too much attention and money for someone who has never won a singles event.

I do agree with that. But each tournament she enters uses her likeness to sell tickets. Networks and Internet sites will go to any length to use her image. So what's fair here? That everyone is making money by promoting a winless player? I don't think so.

Anna Kournikova fan
... or all the admirers in the stands.
As for the people she dates, who do you expect her to meet? Where in the world would a 21-year-old pro tennis player -- who has been a pro since age 14 -- meet the fraternity guy next door? Now that I think of it, why didn't anyone call Brad Pitt a tart when he went from Gwyneth Paltrow to Jennifer Aniston? I dismiss criticism of Kournikova's love life as nothing more than a double standard.

As for young girls looking up to her, all I can say is this: Kournikova is an athletic 5-foot-8, 125-pound beauty. Who's a better role model -- Anna or some skinny heroin chic model?

Recently, during an interview with Billie Jean King, I asked her about Kournikova. The first thing King said was that we cannot hold Kournikova's (or anyone's) looks against them. But, she qualified, the results have to be there. One's win-loss record must play some role in their popularity.

That's the real problem. 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.

SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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