Time was, a tennis fan could justify rooting for Anna Kournikova on the grounds that she was a credible top 10 player. As her handlers would say, she may not be the MVP of women's tennis, but she's an All-Star. No longer. Kournikova won only 10 matches last year and finished the season at No. 74, a drop of 62 places since the beginning of 2001. Last week, in the season-opening ASB Bank Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, Kournikova blew a golden opportunity to pick up her first tournament victory by losing in the semifinals to the lightly regarded (but powerfully named) Anna Smashnova, ranked 88th in the world.
A stress fracture in Kournikova's left foot that required surgery and forced her to miss three Grand Slam events last year was the main reason for her plummeting ranking. Although she rehabilitated her foot, she didn't cure her notoriously shaky nerves. After returning to the tour in July following a five-month absence, she lost five consecutive first-round matches, mostly to unknowns like 248th-ranked Galina Fokina, who beat her in October in the Kremlin Cup.
If the 20-year-old Kournikova continues to be so ordinary, her extraordinary endorsement portfolio will suffer. Companies like Adidas, Charles Schwab, Lycos and Omega pay her an estimated total of $12 million a year because of the exposure she receives; when she loses in the early rounds, that exposure is limited. "There's a point at which people lose interest even in someone as attractive as she is," says Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based marketing firm.
For now Kournikova's sponsors profess satisfaction—"She's still a global icon," says a Lycos spokesperson—and her agents at Octagon say they keep fielding new offers. Kournikova claims to be unburdened by her on-court failures, but others suspect otherwise. "I think Anna puts on a big front," says Carling Bassett-Seguso, a TV commentator and former player who, like Kournikova, was known more for her looks than her results. "There's a huge element of fear and insecurity there."