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Anna Kournikova
Frank Deford
June 05, 2000
She won't win the French Open but who cares? Anna Kournikova is living proof that even in this age of supposed enlightenment, a hot baby can count as much as a good backhand a good backhand
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June 05, 2000

Anna Kournikova

She won't win the French Open but who cares? Anna Kournikova is living proof that even in this age of supposed enlightenment, a hot baby can count as much as a good backhand a good backhand

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True enough. It's almost been forgotten how the child jumped from the despair of Moscow to a sweet spot in the Florida sun, and cut a swath right away. "Oh, there was an immediate first impression," Bollettieri recalls, smiling. "Everything about her said, Here I am! She knows who she is and how to take over. No matter who I was working with—Seles, Agassi, whoever—she would call out, 'Nick, my turn.' She was very impatient. She had to be the center of attention. We had a little weekend camp-out, and Anna wanted to know why she had to get her own meal, why she couldn't be served her dinner."

She did work hard, but in the same way that her looks triumph for her off the court, her athleticism—her quick feet, her anticipation—lifted her game. There is a certain irony in that: Because Kournikova moves in such a lovely fashion, even when she plays well we tend to see the beauty and not the player. But never mind: If she is to shoot to the top, she must make substantive improvement in her game. Some even think that Kournikova's high-water mark is past, that she peaked two years ago when she had a superb spring, beating almost everybody, including Graf, right before Wimbledon. But she sprained her thumb in that match, and since then there's been no quantum improvement.

Kournikova's dilemma is that although she hits hard, she cannot match the power hitters, such as Davenport. And although Kournikova has a fine all-court game, she is not the equal of the brilliant Hingis. She's a tweener. Kournikova is wonderful at the net—as proved by her eight doubles championships, including the 1999 Australian Open title with Hingis—but how does she get to the net? Her serve, more a push than a hit, is weak, sometimes so rife with double faults that Bjorkman, the tour mimic, imitated it in a skit that brought down the house at the men's tour cabaret night in Monte Carlo.

Van Harpen, an acerbic Dutchman, Kournikova's coach of nine months, tries to be tough on her. "So many people are clapping for you," he tells her, clapping foolishly himself, like the gaga guys who watch her, "so why pay me to do the same?" He hovers by her on court, watching her practice, the way all the older men coaches stand near their young women, like film directors with their ingenues. "How do I motivate her?" Van Harpen asks. "You will have a Porsche? She has one. You will have jewelry?" He touches his neck, his wrists, his fingers; we can visualize the jewels. "No. So I tell her, 'Sure, you are a beautiful girl, but there are enough of them in the world. But Anna, there has never been a beautiful girl who can win at tennis.' "

Yes, he insists, there has been improvement. The main problem with the serve was the toss. Kournikova is learning to play angles better, too, becoming more patient. "I'm building points," she says. "I'm getting more confidence because of my patience." Perhaps.

Says Van Harpen, "She's like a lot of girls. She returns active on an active ball, passive on a passive." Women, he says, "are different to coach. More emotional. Men play to win. Women play not to lose. I know they will get mad at me for saying such a thing, but"—he shrugs—"it is so. Very few women play their best when they are ahead. You want to see a woman play her best? She is down 5-2. She plays so loose, so well. They are so relaxed then. But, if they catch up...." He shrugs again.

Give Anna her due, though; she often veers to the opposite. "The people can see she will be risky," her mother says proudly. "I have seen her try drop shots on match point. The crowd goes 'Ahhhh.' It is not just her looks. They like Anna for her tennis."

To Van Harpen, though, the risks Anna takes are a function not so much of her game as of her glamour. "The people who make 'Ahhhh,' they don't know anything about tennis," he says, scowling. "I remind her of that, but she loves the applause. She is the queen. So she thinks she must play like the queen." He pauses. "Sometimes, though, it is better to play like the beggar."

So maybe it is not Davenport and Hingis and the others across the net whom Kournikova must overcome. Maybe it must always come down to the internal rivalry: the Beautiful Celebrity versus the Gritty Athlete. Is it possible to succeed as both, simultaneously? Anna herself is convinced that the old-hat oppositions do not imperil her game. "For others it will be hard to understand, but," she says blithely, playing with her lip, "I have been interviewed by The New York Times from the age of nine."

Yet she so often remains that little girl—even, occasionally, her mother says, "still a baby." Bollettieri muses, "Sometimes Anna must be lost. She never had a childhood. She must wonder what it's like to live a normal life."

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