From the Jerusalem Post:
Nov. 21, 2003
Tennis star Anna is still Israel's net gain
By FRANKIE SACHS
She's Israel's top female tennis player, and some say the top Israeli woman athlete overall, but Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi wasn't born here, she doesn't live here, and she scarcely visits. Her lack of Israeli grounding has raised the ire of many in the sports world, including Israel's lone member on the International Olympic Committee, Alex Gilady, who recently said that "a tennis player that doesn't compete at the Israeli Championships, isn't worthy of representing Israel at the Olympics."
But Smashnova, who only learned about Gilady's swipe from The Jerusalem Post, stands her ground.
"I have always made myself available for Israel, and I have indeed represented my country in international team competitions such as the [Federations] Cup for many years," she replies via e-mail from her home in Rome.
Smashnova is now taking a break after the 2003 season, during which she won two WTA tournaments and earned a No. 16 world ranking.
Perhaps still smarting from the Israeli Olympic Committee's decision not to send her to the 2000 games in Sydney, despite the fact that she had met the international requirements, Smashnova added, "I am currently the No. 16 player in the world, and deemed eligible to play in the Olympics by the International Tennis Federation and the International Olympic Committee."
That's the kind of blunt retort for which Smashnova has become known. Tennis is clearly number one for her: "A tennis professional has to fully focus on her game and that's the kind of dedication that I have..."
While playing for Israel is an "honor," she isn't running after Israeli fans. Not that she'd turn down their support, either: "I always play under the Israeli flag and represent my country at every tournament. I am happy to see the widespread support that I receive from Israeli fans throughout the world."
Born in Minsk, Smashnova began her tennis career at the young age of six, quickly moving up the Russian ranks to become the No. 1 girl player. She moved to Israel in September 1990 and continued to shine, winning the French Open juniors title in 1991.
In 1994, Tennis magazine named her "Rookie of the Year," but it took a while for Anna to realize her potential, failing to earn a tournament win on the WTA Tour until 1999. Since then, she has scored eight, six of which have come in the last two years.
Despite her growing success, Smashnova has repeatedly stumbled at the Grand Slams. Since 1994, she has been knocked out of the first round of Slams twenty times, including eight straight exits starting at the 2000 US Open and culminating at the 2002 Wimbledon.
This year, it appeared that Smashnova had finally resolved her jinx when she reached the third round at the Australian Open in January and followed that up with a second round appearance at the French Open. But then she was ousted again in the opening round of Wimbledon and the US Open.
Smashnova doesn't seem too concerned with the so-called jinx: "I will of course work on a few improvements in my game that I hope will pay off in the future. But I don't really think that one can talk about a jinx. I am looking forward to playing the majors in 2004 and am confident that I will be able to play my best tennis at the Slams next year."
Her road to the first of the Slams (the Australian Open in January 2004) will start in Auckland and then move to Sydney.
Two tournaments that she won at the start of 2002 helped propel her from 87th at the end of 2001 to 16th by the start of 2003. That jump put her in the big leagues, competing with the likes of world No. 1 Serena Williams.
Smashnova seemed sanguine when asked about Williams: "She's good, but far from invincible. Kim Clijsters had match points and a 5-1 lead in the third set before bowing out to Serena at the Australian; [Amelie] Mauresmo beat her in the semis of the Italian; and Justine Henin-Hardenne beat her at the French."
What Serena and her superstar sister Venus have done, though, is help to dramatically increase the popularity of women's tennis.
Says Smashnova, "In the United States, they say that tennis is the first women's sport to become more popular than its male counterpart. The women's final at the US Open is shown in prime time on a Saturday evening while the men's final is shown on Sunday afternoon."
And how does this growing popularity bode for tennis in Israel – women's or men's? Smashnova sees a "strong future" especially with players like "Shahar Pe'er [who] has a lot of potential. She is ranked Top 17 in the juniors and has a very good attitude."
She is also optimistic about Dudi Sela, who reached the semis of the US Open junior boys event, noting that "they both have a good shot. They have to keep working hard and it's important that they believe in themselves."
Smashnova knows first hand that hard work and self-confidence do pay off.
Now that her world ranking is earning her increased international recognition, she is looking to expand her endorsement deals. But, according to Smashnova, "considering the extensive amount of media visibility that I've been fortunate to enjoy these past two years, [my managers] inform me that they would have expected to see more interest coming from multinational Israeli corporations."
Perhaps they aren't chomping at the bit quite yet because Smashnova still isn't seen as a homespun commodity.
"I believe that the Israeli public might just not know me well enough to embrace me as they may have embraced other Israeli athletes. And if there are people who don't appreciate what I have done, I can only say that I am sorry that I cannot reach out to everyone..."
Other than her annual visit or two to see her parents, who live in Herzliya, don't expect too many Anna sightings in Israel. In fact, when she's not on tour, Smashnova can be found at home with her Italian coach and husband, Claudio Pistolesi.
Certainly not the first female athlete to have a relationship with her coach, Smashnova is adamant about what is important for her: "I didn't marry Claudio because he's my coach but because I'm in love with him."
No longer a newlywed, Smashnova is philosophical about the effects of love on her game.
She said, "I think that marriage has balanced my life more. It makes it easier for me to positively focus on tennis and it's nice to have someone to depend on, no matter what happens at an event."
Perhaps as a nod to coach-cum-husband's balancing influence, Anna announced that now that her first year of marriage is behind her, she will be hyphenating her last name professionally, rather than just using Pistolesi, as she did all of 2003.
"You know, measuring by the number of e-mails I received on the matter [regarding my last name], it's nice to know that I do indeed have a little bit of a following."