Witness for the Defense: Anna K
Witness for the Defense
The chorus of Anna-Bashing has finally gotten through to us. Somehow, something seems to have snapped in the media world. Everywhere, we're seeing extreme and unjustified attacks on the game of Anna Kournikova.
Now let's get something straight here: We admit the existence of Anna-mania, and it's not something we're overly fond of. Defending Kournikova is not a job we want! When Kournikova is voted the world's sexiest woman, that clearly distracts from her tennis. When she and Martina Hingis play the only first-round doubles match on Ashe stadium, and the only second-round match, that shows disrespect for tennis; they're shoving Kournikova out there for her sex-symbol-hood, not the fact that she's a great doubles player (though she is a great doubles player). Natasha Zvereva, after all, is a great doubles player, and she didn't get put on center court. Neither did Hingis, back in the days when she was trying to complete the Grand Slam in 1998! We like seeing doubles on center court (Daily Tennis prides itself on our coverage of women's doubles, and we even try to cover men's doubles as time -- and the ATP's attempts to suppress the sport -- permit) -- but we'd like to see it there for its own sake, not Kournikova's.
But does all this mean that Kournikova should somehow be suppressed? That she is not a player? That she isn't serious about the sport?
If she isn't serious, why has she played 23 events already this year? The only top player with more is Tatiana Panova with 24. And if Panova is doing better than Kournikova in singles, she certainly isn't matching Kournikova's Australian Open doubles title, or her Wimbledon semifinal in doubles.
Frankly, the best thing all the Kournikova-bashers could do is what they claim to want to do: They could stop covering her. Kournikova is not a bad player. She is a player gone bad, which is something entirely different. And it's the media attention that's done it.
Let's recapitulate Kournikova's early career, to prove just how much potential she had. We're not talking about junior results; those of course don't prove much.
Contrary to popular belief, Kournikova has won singles titles. Not on the WTA Tour, no, but she does have Challenger victories: In 1996, she won the Challengers at Midland and Rockford. In that same year, she became the youngest woman to win in Fed Cup competition. And then -- the U. S. Open. Playing in her first Slam, Kournikova qualified and reached the fourth round of the 1996 Open, beating Barbara Paulus along the way. Kournikova has since reached the fourth round of every Slam at least twice, and as recently as 2001 reached the Australian Open quarterfinal.
Her most impressive Slam result came in 1997, when she reached the Wimbledon semifinal. In that year, she beat three Top Ten players, and never lost to a player ranked below #15.
Her breakthrough came in 1998, though, when she beat four Top Ten players on her way to the Miami final -- a feat never before accomplished. At Berlin, she beat Martina Hingis -- they first player younger than Hingis ever to beat the then-#1. At Eastbourne, she beat Steffi Graf.
In addition to that win over Hingis, she has three career wins over Lindsay Davenport, and two of them were on hardcourts! She has also beaten, at one time or another (and all these wins when the players were at or near the top of their games), Jennifer Capriati (at the Chase 2000, when Capriati was #13, plus other wins), Amanda Coetzer (assorted early wins), Anke Huber (ranked #10 at the time of the win in 1997, plus other wins), Iva Majoli (#5 in 1997, plus other wins), Conchita Martinez (#5 in 2000, plus other wins), Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (#5 in 1998, plus other wins), Barbara Schett (#19 in 1999), Patty Schnyder (#10 in 1999, plus other wins), Monica Seles (#4 in 1998), Nathalie Tauziat (#8 in 2000, plus other wins), and Sandrine Testud (#10 in 2000, plus other wins).
Even this year, she's managed wins over Elena Dementieva (Pan Pacific), Anna Smashnova, Anne Kremer, and Alexandra Stevenson.
At the time of her thumb injury in 1998, Kournikova was #10 in the world -- and under-ranked; she was still playing an age-restricted schedule. Her ranking under a rational (divisor-based) ranking system would have been between #7 and #9, depending on the exact rules used. And if she had continued to accumulate points at the rate she had until then, she would have ended 1998 no worse than #5 in the world.
Kournikova has never been the same since that injury, but she still made it back into the Top Ten in 2000, finishing the year at #8.
Kournikova has three career WTA finals. All of them have been at Tier I events: Miami, Hilton Head, Moscow. And in those finals, she faced Venus Williams once and Martina Hingis twice. It's hard to really fault those losses.
The unquestionable conclusion: Kournikova had the goods. She was a potential top player. She has good tools: Blazing speed, pretty good power, an all-court game, and even -- once upon a time -- a good serve.
And that's even without her doubles!
Kournikova came to the 2002 U. S. Open with two doubles Slams: She won the Australian Open in 1999 and 2002. She also reached the 1999 Roland Garros final. She has twice won the year-end championships. She ended 1999 #1 in the world in doubles. She has a total of 15 career doubles titles -- and while most of those are with Martina Hingis (which rather reduces the value of Kournikova's contributions; after all, Hingis once won a Slam with Mirjana Lucic, and Hingis is second only to Martina Navratilova in the number of players she's won Slams alongside), Kournikova also has titles with Monica Seles (in fact, Kournikova won her first doubles title with Seles, who is really not a noteworthy doubles player), Barbara Schett, Julie Halard-Decugis, and Natasha Zvereva.
In 1999, Kournikova and Hingis posted the Surface Sweep, winning five titles together including the Australian Open on hardcourts, Rome on clay, Eastbourne on grass, and the Chase Championships indoors. It's worth noting that only one other active team -- Raymond/Stubbs -- has a earned a calendar year surface sweep together; the only active players to have accomplished the feat are Hingis, Kournikova, Raymond, Stubbs, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Elena Likhovtseva, Natasha Zvereva, and Martina Navratilova. Pretty good company.
In 2000, Kournikova posted a record of 49-12, earning six titles with three different partners; in her last five events of that year, she was 18-1. She also reached two Slam semifinals without Hingis, meaning that she has six Slam semifinals in her career.
Even in 2001, when she played only six doubles events, Kournikova picked up two titles (Sydney with Schett and Moscow with Hingis), two finals (Pan Pacific with Tulyaganova and Los Angeles with Hingis -- that played while she was still suffering from her stress fracture), and the quarterfinal of the Australian Open (with Schett); she and Hingis were in the Filderstadt semifinal when Hingis had to withdraw. So her record that year was 19-3.
In 2002, coming into the U. S. Open, we show her record as 17-1 with three withdrawals.
Obviously Kournikova has slipped. It's not clear that even her 1998 form would put her in the Top Ten in singles now; whatever you say about depth on the WTA Tour (and what you say depends on how you define depth), it's clearly harder to get into the Top Ten now than in mid-1998, when Kournikova was #10 to Irina Spirlea's #9 and Amanda Coetzer's #8.
But does that mean Kournikova should retire? Remember, she's still barely past 21. If she were Pete Sampras's age, we'd say "get out." But she still has half her career ahead of her (indeed, she probably has more years of tennis left than modeling. For that matter, if she stopped playing tennis, it would be much harder for her to stay in model-shape; what makes Kournikova so attractive, at least to the author, is not her pure looks but that healthy-animal look she gains from her tennis fitness). She's #37 in the world even without a Slam win. Reason to retire?
Well, think about this. Another Anna, Anna Smashnova, lost first round at all four Slams last year .(plus the first three Slams of this year). But Smashnova has three titles this year, and is in the Top Twenty.
And Kournikova beat her at Stanford and San Diego.