What's more, Popova has charisma to match her game. For the past few years, in a Faustian bargain, the WTA and various management groups have reaped short-term gains from hyping the players' sex appeal. Kournikova was the most obvious example, but other stars like Hingis and even the religious Williams sisters were happy to vamp. Recently, however, the tour has been backed into a corner as more and more players have made it clear that they want to be perceived only as athletes. "We're playing a great game and doing it very well," says Martina Navratilova. "We've gone away from the sex-appeal thing."
Take Daniela Hantuchova, 19, a tall, blonde Slovak who is closing in on the top 10 and is being pushed to fill what tour insiders refer to as the "Anna vacuum." One veteran tour staffer refers to Hantuchova as the Bratislava Babe and eagerly notes that her 44-inch legs are the longest in the history of women's tennis. Problem is, Hantuchova, awkwardly cast as a sex symbol, wants none of it. "I'm concentrating on my tennis," she says. "I don't need the other things."
Nor, apparently, does 17-year-old Ashley Harkleroad, who's been hailed as the American Anna. Harkleroad caused a minor stir at last year's U.S. Open when, with Nike's encouragement, she violated all the laws of physics by squeezing her body into a skirt and tank top that were several sizes too small. (Not coincidentally, several days later tournament schedulers put her match in Arthur Ashe Stadium.) This year she is insisting that any outfit she wears on court first be approved by her mother.
Elena Dementieva, another blonde Russian, was expected to follow in Kournikova's tracks, but she too has demurred. "I don't like the show-business side of tennis," Dementieva says.
Same for No. 4-ranked Jelena Dokic of Yugoslavia. Earlier this summer she was approached about a photo shoot by GQ, which had done earlier layouts with Hingis (cover line: THE CHAMP is A VAMP) and Kournikova (headline: FROM RUSSIA WITH, UM...LOB?). To the tour's dismay Dokic declined, preferring to spend time on the practice court. Dokic also stands sentry over her private life. Recently asked by a journalist about her romance with Formula One driver Enrique Bernoldi, she responded, "Why don't you think of a question that is your business, and you can ask me that." This attitude is anathema to a tour that rose to prominence by promoting its players as glamorous cultural curiosities rather than as athletes.
Just how desperate is the tour to keep the focus on style over substance? Earlier this summer the WTA ran a series of ads in USA Today promoting its summer tournaments. An illustration of a curvaceous player was accompanied by pro-wrestling-style tag lines, including, "I'm your worst nightmare: a bitch in a headband." A number of players were so incensed that, through their agents, they demanded that the tag line be removed, which it was. "It's as if they want to portray us as being catty," says one top player. "I guess controversy sells, but for most of us, it's not our nature."
Fortunately for the WTA, Popova has pulchritude and attitude in equal measure. Her midriff-baring outfits, so small they appear to come from Gap Kids, highlight her ample d�colletage. She has already agreed to pose for the tour's annual swimsuit calendar. When she turns pro, an image consultant hired by her agent will travel with her.
"Simonya is to marketability what John McEnroe is to self-promotion," says her agent, Max Eisenbud. "We're talking off the charts."
Better still, unlike the Williams sisters, who have become increasingly opaque figures, reluctant to let down their guards for an instant, Popova is a beacon of candor. "I have no secrets," she says. "I'm like Hingis when she started out. I'll say anything." Indeed, with only a modicum of baiting, she is inclined to, well, Popov on a variety of subjects. "If women's tennis is all that, how come we still make, like, 40 percent less than the men at events outside the Grand Slams?" she asks. "Did you know that 26 men have won more than $500,000 this year, but only 12 women have?" And don't get her started on Kournikova. "I hear Anna wants to write a biography, but can you publish a book if you don't have a title?" she says. "Seriously, Anna's nice. It's just that she's, like, so jumped the shark."
Kournikova did, however, write the career blueprint that Popova—and dozens of other young players from the former Soviet Union—have followed. In the late '70s and early '80s, her parents, Sergei and Raisa, both gym teachers in Tashkent, were so poor that they went weeks eating nothing but borscht. After their fourth son was born, Raisa vowed that her fecund days were over. "She was going to get tubal litigation, or whatever you call it," volunteers Simonya. Raisa didn't, and Simonya was born on Oct. 22, 1984.