By age eight it was clear that she had preternatural hand-eye coordination and a one-in-a-billion aptitude for hitting a tennis ball. Given her skill, her physique and a face that could launch a thousand endorsements, Popova was nicknamed Predopredelena (the Destined) by Uzbekistan Tennis Federation officials. Two years later she was delivered to IMG, the Cleveland-based management behemoth. The whole Popov family left Tashkent for a three-bedroom condo, provided free of charge, at the IMG-owned Bollettieri Academy. ("From one gulag to another," jokes Sergei.) Simonya began taking classes at the academy and was soon speaking fluent English. (She now quotes Lil' Romeo and Romeo Montague with equal proficiency.) Her tennis flourished. Says Bollettieri, one hardly given to overstatement, "The first time I saw Sim, I thought of Flo-Jo: the speed, the grace, the determination. I said to myself, Nick, you got a world Number 1 on your hands."
Though she is still two months removed from her professional debut, Popova is hip to the realpolitik of the WTA tour. Like many stars, she has already made a fuss about wearing the tour's sponsor patch on her shirt, lest it reduce the value of her apparel deal. Popova has also let it be known that, like Kournikova, she won't lodge at designated tournament hotels. She'll take a suite, preferably at a Ritz, though an Inter-Continental will do. ("And not one of those add-a-desk-and-call-it-a-junior suites," she adds. "I'm talking the claw-foot tub, the polished rocks in the ashtrays, all that stuff.") With IMG's behind-the-scenes finagling, she has been guaranteed that she won't have to play her first match at tournaments until Wednesday, something of a status symbol among top players.
Time, of course, will tell if Popova's abundance of confidence is justified. But with skills to compete with the Williams sisters and a celebrity force field to rival Kournikova's, Popova is precisely the player longed for by a tour that's losing its mojo.
If only she existed.