Tennis: Kournikova a model professional

An 18-year-old who has yet to win a major title is now the world's most marketable sportswoman.
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AT HALF past three yesterday afternoon, dozens of immaculately dressed fashion executives from around the world gathered outside an anonymous doorway a stone's throw from Covent Garden, in central London. After a nod from a walkie-talkied bouncer, they were led up a series of silver- walled stairways, past dimly lit but sumptuously decorated offices and into a small room crammed with chairs, a small table and a video screen. Their mission? To see an 18-year-old girl in a bra.

Not just any 18-year-old, obviously, but the Russian-born tennis player, Anna Kournikova, arguably the most marketable sportswoman in the world. Kournikova will be paid a huge amount of money over the next five years to promote the Berlei Shock Absorber, one of "a range of sports bras for the new millennium". Berlei would not put a figure on the deal, but said it would be "commensurate with Anna being an international tennis star." Combined with money from Adidas, her kit sponsors, it would not be too far-fetched to believe that Kournikova will earn a substantial amount more off the court each year than the pounds 300,000 plus she makes each year on it.

Such earnings are not to be sniffed at for a player who has yet to win a major singles title and has struggled with an inconsistent serve that has often handicapped her chances on the big stage. Kournikova only won her first major doubles title in January - with Martina Hingis in the Australian Open - but a lack of trophies has not stopped her meteoric rise.

Such is the peculiarly lofted status of young tennis players these days that Kournikova chose the bra launch as her first British public appearance of the summer rather than a tennis court at Edgbaston - where the DFS Classic is taking place this week - or at Eastbourne, where she will take part in next week's pre-Wimbledon taster.

"It's great to have different personalities in tennis," Kournikova said yesterday of what she was worth to her sport (and her bra's makers). "It's good to have experienced and younger players, who can bring new audiences," she added.

Kournikova turned professional in 1995, aged 14. She became the world junior champion, reached the Wimbledon semi-final at her first and only attempt (two years ago) and has now become one of an increasingly large band of teenage superstars. Last weekend's women's doubles final at the French Open exemplified the trend. Kournikova (then 17, her birthday was on Monday) partnered Hingis (18) as they lost to the Williams sisters, Serena (17) and Venus (18).

It does not take a genius to work out why they are coveted by marketing men looking to expand into countries where tennis might not be popular but stylish and attractive young women always will be.

As for tennis, Kournikova is looking forward to Wimbledon. "I have great memories," she said. "It [the semi-final] was the best experience I have ever had. It's a very special tournament. I love grass."

Do the demands of a commercial life not interfere with her game though? "The pressure comes with the job. I face more pressure in matches. This [promotional work] is fun and it comes naturally to me."