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From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Anna's legacy: Winsome loser

Published August 3, 2003

There was the incident in the U.S. Open dining room, where Anna Kournikova wheeled around angrily to face a security guard who had whistled at her and told him, contemptuously, "You couldn't afford me."

But my all-time favorite Kournikova moment came on a sweltering Saturday in late March 1998, when, at age 16, she had just lost a three-set Lipton final to Venus Williams.

"She didn't beat me," Kournikova insisted after her 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 defeat. "I lost."

There have been so many other special Kournikova moments. The day she cried after losing love and love to Martina Hingis in the semifinals of the U.S. Open juniors. Those petulant moments when she had been asked, for the umpteenth time, if she would ever win a tournament.

But for me, that day on Key Biscayne was the topper, in large part because it was the closest she ever came to winning an important tournament in a nine-year career that now seems just a formal announcement away from being over.

She had swept through Williams in 24 minutes to win the first set.

"One of the finest sets of women's tennis I've ever seen," tournament founder Butch Buchholz said a few days ago as we contemplated the end of Kournikova's disjointed career.

There was no sense then that five years later she would still have not won a tournament and that that would be her unfortunate legacy -- more than the magazine covers and internet shots that have made her the most photographed female athlete in history.

The count is now at 109 tournaments. One hundred nine without a title. She's 22 now, with a bad back and a rusty game. What is there for Kournikova to come back to, even if she can get fit? The game is dominated by bigger women who hit the ball harder.

Her game more resembles that of Hingis, winning points by consistency and moving the ball around. Though she is far more athletic than Hingis, she never understood the game as Hingis did.

Who knows how good she could have been had she taken a different track when she reached 18?

She was injury free then but determined to make millions in front of cameras as well as on court. In 2000, she reached No. 8 in the world. But there was never a total commitment to tennis.

Her focus narrowed a couple of years later when she hired Harold Solomon, the former top-10 player who lives in Fort Lauderdale, to revive her game. Solomon never had much of a chance with a player who first had a wrist injury and then a serious back injury.

She hasn't played since she retired in a first-round match at Charleston, S.C., on April 7, and has been in intermittent pain from her back injury since.

Her lifetime record is 184-122 and, surprisingly, she always played well against Jennifer Capriati. And, for a month, Kournikova was the No. 1 doubles player in the world as Hingis' partner.

But her aggregate record against seven top players (Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Hingis, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters) is 6-41.

And she was never physically ready when the big moments came. By the fourth game of the second set of that final at Key Biscayne, she was leaning on her racket with fatigue.

It should surprise no one that her career record in three-set matches was 51-52.

She played 21 Grand Slams, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1997 and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in 2001.

If and when she retires from tennis, she will be missed ... by the photographers who swamped the courts at her matches to get salable material for the internet. And, naturally, the British tabloids.

For the rest of us, she'll be remembered as little more than a blip on tennis' radar.
And the promised pic:
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