Has Kournikova become irrelevant?Posted: Thursday January 24, 2002 10:17 AM
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
The weirdness continued later in the afternoon when the doubles team of Kournikova and Hingis played their semifinal match not in Rod Laver Arena or even Vodafone Arena, but on an outside court. During the match the cheers were just as loud for Hingis as they were for her partner, purportedly the most visible woman on the planet.
After tallying a gajillion hits on the Internet, a billion hyperventilating fans and tens of millions in endorsement dollars -- and, of course, no tournament titles -- could it possibly be that at long last the world has wearied of Anna Kournikova? In recent years, women's tennis has been full of gripping theatrics and colorful stars. Kournikova often outshone the rest of the field. Now the star wattage is dimming. "When you list the big names you say the Williams sisters, Lindsay [Davenport], Martina, Monica, Jennifer [Capriati] and maybe now the Belgians. Then, and only then, do you add Anna," says a veteran doubles player. "It's almost like she doesn't count anymore."
Part of it, of course, is her atrophying game. After losing her first-round dustup to Justine Henin, Kournikova has now gone more than a year without winning a match at a major and has a ranking that has plummeted outside the top 100. Five years have elapsed since her semifinal showing at Wimbledon. It's getting increasingly tough to justify rooting for Kournikova on tennis grounds. What's more, this whole icy demeanor and you-can't-afford-me thing has gotten stale. When she was an attractive teenager with a bright tennis future, her abundant attitude and queenly bearings were amusing. Now, after five years of on-court futility, she's simply churlish and disagreeable.
After her loss to Henin, Kournikova faced the media, a task she enjoys as much as cats enjoy bathing. At one point an interrogator asked if she had a ranking goal for 2002. "Well, I already answered that question," she snapped. (In fact she hadn't.) The follow-up inquiry was equally tendentious: Did she care to predict how long it might be before her game was back on track? "Can you predict the weather?" she shot back.
Kournikova (or "Tennis Barbie," as the Aussie press has dubbed her) is like one of those teen bands that recorded a hit, became enormously popular and then within months dissolved into a Jay Leno punchline. One senses that before long, today's fans will be mortified that they once rooted for her. Her posters, the swatches of her adidas dress, her exercise video ... they'll soon be campy cultural relics like Debbie Gibson CDs and Shaun Cassidy lunchboxes.
Truth be told, Kournikova is capable of getting back on the charts. In Thursday's doubles match against the top-seeded team of Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs, she more than held her own, volleying expertly, belting her serve and playing with savvy as she and Hingis won 6-7, 6-1, 6-0. She's still a long way from the top 10, though the notion of her winning an event isn't so absurd. But so long as she continues to flounder, the buzz will continue to abate. And soon there will be another new kid on the block, ready to take her place as tennis' resident teen idol.
Lleyton Hewitt is in good company. Veteran chair umpire Wayne McKewan also has come down with a case of the chicken pox. ... During the interminable doubles match between Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro against Arnaud Clément and Julien Boutter, play was halted when Llodra killed a sparrow with a forehand. ... Billie Jean King's suggestion for reducing injuries: have two warmup tournaments precede each of the four Slams and make the rest of the season World TeamTennis. ... After her disappointing loss to Capriati Wednesday, Amelie Mauresmo and the French media had an extended dialogue regarding her inability to win big matches. ... The Australian postal service will issue a stamp in honor of Hewitt. You're advised not to lick the back if you haven't had the chicken pox.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is filing reports from Down Under this week for CNNSI.com. Click here to send a question to his Tennis Mailbag.