Tennis: Centre court, centre fold

Anna Kournikova revels in the attention of admirers. Now she is adding authority to her glamour game; Ronald Atkin assesses the talents of a Russian girl whose play is matching her looks
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STUNNING, eye-catching, breathtaking. Those are only descriptions of the way Anna Kournikova plays tennis. How this Americanised Russian, who turned 17 only a fortnight ago, goes about her work is rapidly becoming more relevant than the Lolita stuff regarding waist-length blonde tresses, the boob tube in which she likes to practise or the briefest of shorts hugging what Kournikova herself calls "my neat butt".

Not that the gaze should be averted from those looks. That's absolutely the last thing Anna herself wants. Pavel Slozil, the Czech whose coaching skills have helped her rise from 31st in the rankings to the brink of the top 10 since they teamed up at the start of the year, insists: "Anna likes all the attention. It doesn't distract her, it helps. She is a girl who loves attention." Just as well, then. She can't, in that case, possibly mind being on the World Wide Web in a section labelled "Anna Upskirts" or object to that section of the male population not in need of Viagra salivating over things other than her double-fisted backhand.

In doling out star quality looks as well as a high talent, life has been generous to Anna, who has not been lax when it comes to cashing in. Prodded along, and closely chaperoned, by her mother Alla (a pushy mum makes a welcome character change in women's tennis from the dad from hell), Kournikova's clothing, equipment and other contracts have enriched the family enormously before she has even won a single tournament as a professional.

Runner-up spot at the Lipton Championships in March and the semi-finals in Berlin a month ago and on her debut at Wimbledon last year are her best efforts so far, but Slozil is certain that titles will soon be tumbling her way. "This year she has improved in all departments and is much more consistent, winning more matches in a row." Five in succession at the Lipton, four in Berlin, and the run at Eastbourne over the past few days in which she beat Steffi Graf and which was ended by her precautionary withdrawal from the semi-finals because of a sprained thumb. Most significantly, a succession of top-tenners have been seen off this year by Kournikova, not least the No 1, Martina Hingis.

For someone schooled on Florida clay, Anna shows a surprising aptitude for grass-court tennis. An increasingly penetrating serve, deep, flat forehand, sound overhead game and a readiness to come to the net showed the measure of her recent improvement at Eastbourne, where her mother, plastic daisies decorating her blonde pigtails, crouched in a courtside seat endelssly urging "C'mon, c'mon", while her daughter threw glances of triumph or frustration - mostly triumph - in her direction.

"She is very good on grass," said Slozil. "She moves well, she can volley and maybe one day she can win Wimbledon. But she is also good on hard courts. Clay, too. She beat Hingis on clay in Berlin. She is now more patient and can play long rallies if necessary." Anything not quite up to scratch then, Pavel? "She is not yet physically 100 per cent but we are working on it slowly, step by step." People have been working on Kournikova and her tennis since the daughter of Alla and Sergei, a former Greco-Roman wrestler, was a five-year-old in Moscow. She was sent to the Spartak Olympic Sports School, one of the former Soviet Union's hothouses for burgeoning talent and where they still claim her as their own.

It was a more significant hothouse, the world of agents, where Kournikova next attracted attention at the age of nine. Competing in a tots' sideshow event at the Kremlin Cup tournament in Moscow, she caught the all-seeing eye of Mark McCormack's International Management Group and a contract was flourished in the direction of the Kournikova family. Before Anna had reached her 10th birthday she and her mother were transported to the IMG-owned tennis factory farm, Nick Bollettieri's Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a production line which turned out a stream of talent including world No 1s Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles, as well as Mary Pierce, Marcelo Rios and Iva Majoli.

Kournikova has described her Moscow childhood as "a bit like Cinderella - a tiny, two-room apartment, holes in my tennis shoes, my parents forced to sell the TV to buy me rackets". At the Bradenton academy Cinderella had a ball as the unblushing Bollettieri generated so much publicity for someone he tagged "the find of the century" that by the time she was 11 Anna was deflecting would-be interviewers with the classic line, "You'll have to speak to my agent". "Of all the stars who have passed through my academy," said Bollettieri, "Anna is the highest profile girl ever in the sport, not only because of her ability to play great tennis but because of her looks and all the other things which put her into a different category.

"When she came to me I quickly knew she was something special, not only on court but in the way she conducted herself. She was very bright, knew exactly what she was doing and was far ahead of everybody else. Anna knows everything and what she doesn't know she thinks she does. But I have to admit I didn't know she was going to turn the world upside-down with glamour.

"She is almost like a Michael Jordan, not in performance of course, but wherever she walks, whatever she wears, she is different. If an assessment was based on playing ability alone Anna would have potential but the excitement and charisma make her someone very special." Bollettieri stepped aside as Kournikova's coach because he was no longer able to travel full-time with her, and was replaced by Slozil, who formerly worked with Graf. "Anna works hard like Steffi," said Slozil in Eastbourne last week. "They are both winners with a lot of similarities but different characters. Steffi is typically German, very professional, doesn't like people around her trying to photograph and interview her. Anna loves all that." Detractors call Kournikova egotistical and arrogant, but that is the nature of an essentially selfish sport like tennis. Self-effacing boys and girls tend not to do well at it, as we in Britain know. Signing autographs with a regal "Anna K", she made her debut (a winning one) at 14 for Russia in the Federation Cup women's world team event, wowed Moscow by beating Graf in a one-set exhibition there at 15 and ascended to No 1 in the world junior rankings.

Along the way there were sometimes differences of opinion between Alla and Anna - "a smart, disciplined little girl" according to the mother. Bollettieri recalled: "What I tried to do sometimes was mediate between mom and Anna because her dad wasn't around much. I would say nice things to her if mom was a little bit rough. But I never had an argument with her in six years."

Since modesty does not appear on Kournikova's CV there are those not averse to a spot of deflation or envy. Pam Shriver observed that last year at Wimbledeon Anna was in danger of wearing out the mirror in the locker room, while Lindsay Davenport, the world No 2, observed: "Anna is beautiful and that's what people regard as the priority." La Belle Kournikova is unrepentant. "People ask me why it's necessary to look good on court. But, to me, it's like a theatre and I have to express myself every way I know. Why should I have to look ugly just because I'm an athlete?" Why indeed. Anna Kournikova has been through the Bollettieri school of hard knocks, learned her job and now, having previously been permitted only a limited tournament schedule because of the age restriction rules in women's tennis, her game is blossoming spectacularly.

It is, in Bollettieri's opinion, deserved reward. "She never complained when she was with me, no sir, always ready for more work, a very special little girl." Now that the little girl has grown, Nick has joined the fan club. "We have pictures of her up all over the academy, oh God yes. And she is all over my apartment and office."