Probably the first female athlete who was also allowed to be enticing was Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer and diver who toured the U.S. in 1907, performing in a scandalous short-sleeved bathing suit. Generally, though, it is the sequined figure skating princesses who have most often been permitted their sexuality. Sonja Henie became a first-rank movie star, Dorothy Hamill was accepted as the American model for hair style, and both Peggy Fleming and Katarina Witt were revered as classic beauties. An occasional swimmer—notably Esther Williams and Eleanor Holm—has achieved crossover status. So did Flo-Jo, the sprinter, and two golfers, Laura Baugh and Jan Stephenson. In fact, it is Baugh whom Anna's critics most often cite as the most apt analogy to Kournikova, for whereas Stephenson became a champion, Baugh's game never lived up to either her glamour or her promise.
Except in the bush leagues of beach volleyball, team sports never produced sex objects until the U.S. women's soccer team took on its celebrated babe status last year. Brandi Chastain's striptease was, possibly, as much an affirmation of that emergence as it was a show of exuberance. But, most curiously, whereas tennis has always been in the front rank of women's sports, it has never produced a real sexpot. Helen Wills was stylishly gorgeous but without any come-hither; Little Miss Poker Face, they called her. In this generation Gabriela Sabatini likewise had the looks but not the electricity. The sexiest players who briefly achieved some acclaim—such as Gorgeous Gussy Moran or the Golden Girl, Karol Fageros—were not big stars. Chris Evert was cute, Miss American Pie, but hardly a femme fatale. So the stage has been set for a long time for a Kournikova. To her good fortune, she took the stage at a time that was especially ripe commercially.
So Kournikova makes something like $10 million a year in endorsements, 58th on the Forbes worldwide celebrity power list, slightly behind Colin Powell and Donna Karan. As her manager, Phil de Picciotto, president of the Octagon agency, points out, she has several advantages. First, tennis is far and away the most prominent women's sport throughout the world. Even in soccer-mad countries, Brandi Chastain has all the visibility that a badminton star has in the U.S. Plus, while many male athletes must share the spotlight, Kournikova has the women's field almost to herself.
Billie Jean King made women's tennis, but she gained almost no endorsements. Still, she looks at Kournikova's uncommon success pragmatically. "We have a chance to do what no other women's sport has done, to gain equity with comparable men's sports," King says. "That's done at the box office. It doesn't bother me at all if some of the guys come out to watch women's tennis because they want to see a beautiful woman. Who could hold that against Anna? Still, it is unfortunate when others with a high skill factor don't win the endorsements. Sure, the good-looking guys get more endorsements, but the difference in men's sports is that the ugly ones get their share, too."
Perhaps, in the future, advertisers will be more inclined to employ the same standards for female athletes. For now, though, Kournikova is the original, made for the moment. As beautiful as Stephenson was, she came too early—in the '70s and '80s—to cash in; she was generally invited to promote only golf, not products. "Women are employed more intelligently now in commercials," says Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age. "You see fewer girls in bikinis draped over cars. Instead, the women you see might still be sex objects to men, but they appeal to women as successful people, as role models. Most advertisers want to use a woman who has achieved something, who is more than just beautiful. Anna Kournikova fits into that perfectly."
Unlike Hingis—or for that matter, Steffi Graf, who also wore Adidas—Kournikova is what is known as "cross-category." She even moves stocks and bonds for Charles Schwab, and Adidas has discovered that she sells menswear as well. In fact, there is something of a gender reversal evident in the behavior of her fans. Traditionally, young girls have emotionally responded to male singers because, sex symbols though they may be, they are safe and distant. One gets the same sense with many of Anna's younger male fans, who worship her from afar. The Web sites are often fawning, nearly pathetic. Ball boys moon over her. When she tosses away her towel, the boys in the stands dive for this sweaty talisman quite as girls go berserk scrambling for some rock star's handkerchief. After all, unlike actresses and musicians, female athletes do not present themselves primarily as sexual figures. They are not as intimidating. As seductive as Kournikova sometimes appears, she is still, at least for a bit longer, the child-woman in the clean, neat tennis dress, with the girlish braid and the sneakers—the best of wholesome sexuality.
Jan Stephenson remembers how much the other players hated her for being a sex symbol. "They were so jealous," she says. "I'd walk into the locker room, and there'd be dead silence, and it was so embarrassing, because I knew they'd been talking about me. They wouldn't acknowledge that I was helping them. If I'd come to a tournament ahead of time and promote it, we'd draw something like 20,000 extra people. But the other players thought I was flaunting it." After a while Stephenson would skip the locker room and change her spikes in the car.
Tennis now is different from golf then. The tennis stars all have their own retinues, so the sorority atmosphere is diminished; besides, there's plenty of money to go around. Obviously, though, many players don't look at Kournikova as generously as Billie Jean King does. "I just don't like her," No. 33-ranked Patty Schnyder told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April. Asked if other players share her sentiment, Schnyder said, "If I see everybody looks happy when she loses, I assume it's the case."
"I like her, but who does she think she is when she parades around like a queen at the French Open, so absorbed that she does not even notice hands holding out autograph books for her to sign?" Nathalie Tauziat, the No. 7-ranked player, writes in her new book, The Underside of Women's Tennis.
But Kournikova is, after all, awfully good at what she does. She beats most other players and commands a grudging respect. Says Monica Seles, a mature person of particular sensitivity, "Anna has things that the rest of us don't have, so, yes, some of the players are envious of her. But others who know her like her. They all know she works hard. Remember, she comes from a hard place, too—yes, like me—so perhaps Anna should get more credit than some want to give her."