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Stunning off-court success

Kournikova banks on endorsements sans singles title

By Ray McNulty<br />Special to The Denver Post

Thursday, November 29, 2001 - While watching Anna Kournikova play two summers ago at Wimbledon, Martina Navratilova was asked if it was difficult to see a young player - a teenager who hadn't won a tournament on the women's tennis tour - with so many lucrative endorsement deals.

MS Tennis Classic <br />When: Thursday, 6 p.m.

Where: Magness Arena, University of Denver

Who: Monica Seles and Anna Kournikova; Luke and Murphy Jensen; Maria Sharapova and Bethanie Mattek

Why: Proceeds to benefit the Colorado chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Rocky Mountain Multiple Sclerosis Center

Schedule: 6 p.m., juniors match, Sharapova vs. Mattek (pro set); followed by Colorado Tennis Association Hall of Fame induction ceremony; 7 p.m., Seles vs. Kournikova (best two of three sets), followed by mixed doubles match, Seles-Murphy Jensen vs. Kournikova-Luke Jensen (pro set)

Tickets: Available through Ticketmaster - call 303-830-TIXS, or online at <a href="" target="_blank"></a> - or at the Ritchie Center box office at DU. Prices range from $50 to $150. <br /> <br />Navratilova didn't flinch.

"No, it doesn't bother me at all," Navratilova replied, much to the surprise of her broadcast partner and longtime tennis commentator, Mary Carillo.

Navratilova played two decades with little more than a racket endorsement deal, despite a Hall of Fame career in which she was arguably the greatest women's player of all time. And there, in front of her, was Kournikova, whose off-the-court earnings have been estimated to be in excess of $10 million annually.

It was, Carillo thought, the perfect setup - a verbal lob that screamed, "Hit me!" - and she waited eagerly for Navratilova to attack. But Navratilova responded without bitterness.

"First, she's beautiful," Navratilova said. "And it's not like she's taking money out of other players' pockets. That money is not there for other tennis players."

But it's there for Kournikova, whose cover-girl looks and sex appeal have made her the most recognized, most photographed and most marketable female athlete in the world.

In 1998, she was one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People." She has been romantically linked with NHL stars Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure. And no other athlete's website gets more hits.

It's no wonder, then, that Kournikova, who will play Monica Seles in tonight's MS Tennis Classic at the University of Denver's Magness Arena, is paid handsomely to endorse Adidas shoes and apparel, Yonex rackets, Omega watches and Berlei sports bras.

<br />Anna Kournikova talks to the media Wednesday in anticipation of her match today against Monica Seles in the MS Tennis Classic. <br />Her agent, Phil de Picciotto of Octagon, said Kournikova's international fame rivals that of golf's Tiger Woods and basketball's Michael Jordan.

"Anna is one of the few athletes whose fame goes beyond the boundaries of the sport," de Picciotto said. "She has entered the realm of celebrity-hood."

And, remarkably, she has done so without winning a singles title on the WTA Tour.

"I've been close a few times, very close in a few finals," Kournikova said. "Sometimes, I've been tired from the matches before. Sometimes, I've been unlucky. Sometimes, I was playing against a great player. It just hasn't happened yet."

Kournikova, in fact, has played in only three finals - Moscow in 2000, Hilton Head Island (S.C.) in 1999 and Key Biscayne (Fla.) in '98 - since turning pro six years ago, losing to higher-ranked players in each. She has reached 16 semifinals and 15 quarterfinals.

Only twice has she advanced beyond the Round of 16 in a Grand Slam event, getting to the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1997 and the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open.

"Anna has had some injuries that have slowed her progress," Seles said. "She has beaten some top players, which doesn't happen if you're not a very good player. And a lot of her losses have come against higher-ranked players. She was a top-10 player last year at this time."

Setback in 2001

Kournikova's tennis career was progressing as expected until this year, when a stress fracture in her left foot kept her off the courts for seven months. Her year-end rankings have climbed steadily: No. 57 in 1996, No. 32 in '97, No. 13 in '98, No. 12 in '99 and No. 8 last year. She arrived in Denver on Wednesday ranked No. 73, having played in only 10 tournaments in 2001.

"Athletes get injured, so you have to get used to it," Kournikova said. "My goal right now is to get back to the form I was in last year, when I was ranked in the top 10."

In addition to this year's stress fracture, she sustained torn ankle ligaments that limited her movement for two months last year. She missed 10 weeks, including the U.S. Open, with a stress fracture in her right foot in 1999. In 1998, she tore ligaments in her right thumb during a quarterfinal grass-court victory over Steffi Graf in Eastbourne, England.

"It's obvious she has talent," Carillo said. "When she was 12, she was the next Martina Hingis. She was the No. 1 junior in the world, and she was hungry. And she still wants to be a tennis champion."

But can she?

Better yet: Is she willing to do what it takes to become a champion?

Seles said Kournikova is one of the hardest workers on the women's tour. And de Picciotto insists tennis is her priority.

"Everything else is ancillary," de Picciotto said. "She has no concept of life without tennis."

But de Picciotto acknowledged Kournikova must be careful to not allow the distractions of fame to impede the development of her game.

"Those things certainly aren't helpful, especially when you're as sought-after as she is," de Picciotto said. "But Anna isn't easily distracted. Despite the demands on her time, she handles herself with real professionalism.

"Time management is very important with her. She still fulfills her obligations to her sponsors, to the tournaments, to the WTA Tour. But she also puts in the time she needs in the gym and on the tennis court."

More than distractions and demands on her time, however, Kournikova's coachability could be hampering her progress.

Coach changes aplenty

Since coming to the United States from Russia as a promising junior, Kournikova has gone through several coaches, starting with famed tennis guru Nick Bollettieri and ending with Eric Van Harpen, who ripped Kournikova in a German magazine after they parted company in July. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Van Harpen called Kournikova a "little queen" who lacked discipline and cared more about fame than her on-court results.

Kournikova since has been coached by her parents, Sergei and Alla, neither of whom played competitive tennis. Her father was a national-level Greco-Roman wrestler; her mother a 400-meter runner.

Van Harpen and Bollettieri have said they believe Kournikova can become a fixture in the top 10, if she develops a dependable weapon and plays with more discipline and patience. She must cut down on her unforced errors and punch up her serve, which generally is considered to be the most glaring weakness in her game.

A proven coach would help, according to Bollettieri, who made that suggestion to Kournikova's parents. But Kournikova said she feels comfortable being coached by her parents and believes they can help her reach her goals. And now that she's healthy, she said, she has committed herself to tennis.

"I've been practicing really hard, not thinking about all those other things," Kournikova said. "I know what I'm here for. And what I really love to do is play tennis."

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17,358 Posts
Seles, thanks for posting the article. It's a shame Monica crushed Anna. It's only an exhibition. So, it's supposed to be fun. Right? It's too bad Anna didn't prepare for the match. The Denver public was probably more impressed with Maria Sharapova than Anna Kournikova.
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