Spice and Spite
The repackaging of Anna Kournikova is big-and bitter-business
She has yet to win a tournament. She has yet to crack the Top 5. But when the U.S. Open began last week, no player was more gawked at or gossiped about than 17-year-old Anna Kournikova. There was her new agent, sitting in the friends' box. There was NHL star Sergei Fedorov, watching her practice. There was Kournikova, looking to somehow erase her image as the sport's Lolita.
"I'm here because of tennis," she said last Friday in the players' dining room at the National Tennis Center. "I'm not a party girl."
So begins Stage 2 of the selling of Kournikova. This week the Advantage International agency will announce the signing of the No. 14 Kournikova to a long-term contract, officially ending her strained relationship with IMG. Already, Advantage president Phil de Picciotto is talking about "toning down" Kournikova and making sure "her tennis excellence is what makes her attractive." This is like discussing hurricane preparedness the day after a Category 5 levels downtown.
In the past 15 months, Kournikova has posed for Rolling Stone wearing high heels and a panty-baring miniskirt; bragged to a Wimbledon press conference about the lack of fat on her behind; and fostered rumors of an engagement to Fedorov—11 years her senior—by flashing a ring on her left hand. She professes to have no idea why anyone would raise an eyebrow at the attire she wore for Rolling Stone. "The picture itself is not bad at all," she says.
Still, signing Kournikova is a coup for Advantage, which not only grabbed a property of seemingly boundless potential as a player and endorser but also landed a package deal: When, on Aug. 10, she told IMG of her decision to bolt, Fedorov did likewise, and is also now with Advantage. IMG had done well by Kournikova since she was nine, moving her from Russia to the IMG-owned Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and getting her rich deals with Adidas, Yonex and Rolex. Meanwhile, IMG last season negotiated a contract mat paid Fedorov $28 million for 43 games. The last time there was a defection of this magnitude, Kim Philby turned up in Moscow.
Make no mistake, the agents at IMG, the world's largest sports management and marketing firm, are livid. There is talk of payback: Sources at both agencies say IMG has its hooks into Australian star Mark Philippoussis and will grab him when his Advantage contract expires at year's end. "He won't be the last," says one agent.
Why leave IMG? "It's just that they have too many players and too many responsibilities," said Kournikova of IMG and her former agent, Tony Godsick. "How can a person manage you when he's not with you at a Grand Slam, not there when you beat the Number 1 player, or for your first Top 10 win? When I beat Steffi Graf, my agent wasn't there."
Except for the Grand Slam absence, Godsick didn't deny any of this, but he pointed out mat he missed Kournikova's win over No. 1 Martina Hingis in May because Monica Seles's father died. Like most agents Godsick has other clients, Seles and Lindsay Davenport chief among them. No tennis player has an agent on hand constantly, and de Picciotto says Advantage has no intention of "having somebody sit through matches. That's not our job."
No matter, says Kournikova. "Now I stop caring if my agent is going to be there," she says. "As long as they do a good job."