Tennis: Kournikova's ring of confidence

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The Independent Online
THE CLOTHING and racket company representatives have yet to descend on Eastbourne, though they are probably packing their bags. After years of sponsorship based on the well-hyped promise of a beautiful girl from Moscow, it appears the Anna Kournikova bandwagon is finally ready to roll.

Kournikova yesterday eased her way into the semi-finals of the Direct Line Championships with a 6-3, 7-6 win over Nathalie Dechy, of France. A win today over another Frenchwoman, Nathalie Tauziat, would take her into her third career final; unlike the other two, this time there is no Venus Williams or Martina Hingis waiting to spoil the party.

Representatives from all Kournikova's sponsors, some who committed themselves 10 years ago, have been waiting anxiously for her first title. There has never been a shortage of photographic interest, but until she wins a title on the full WTA Tour she will risk being thought of as the glamour without the game.

If Kournikova does break her duck here, it will hardly be as a veteran. It was only 11 days ago that she turned 18, but people have been talking about (and photographing) her since she was nine, and the tightening of the age eligibility rules in 1995 has made the wait seem long.

"This is my best surface," she says of grass, and her record confirms this. She was a semi-finalist at 16 in her only main draw visit to Wimbledon and is now unbeaten in 12 matches at Eastbourne (albeit six in the under- 21 event and an injury- conceded semi-final last year).

It is less easy is to see why this is her best surface. Her slice is not overwhelming, her volleys are good without being outstanding, and her ground- strokes can be as wayward as they are penetrating. "Grass suits my game, the points are fast," she said after beating Dechy, offering no real explanation.

For the second time this week Kournikova let a 2-0 lead slip after winning the first set. As the 20-year-old Dechy started moving better round the Centre Court, the Russian looked less impressive, and she twice came within two points of going to a final set. However, a series of conservative groundstrokes in the second set tie-break, allied with a failure to be put off by the occasional bad bounce, saw her home in 76 minutes.

For a while it looked as if Kournikova would today be facing Elena Likhovtseva, who took the first set 6-0 against Tauziat, but when the 31-year-old Frenchwoman broke to lead 4-2 in the second set the tide swung her way, and she lost just one more game, winning the match 0-6, 6-2, 6-1.

In today's other semi-final, Amanda Coetzer will play Natasha Zvereva. Coetzer, who seems to be making few concessions to the dictates of grass in playing very much from the baseline, beat her fellow South African Mariaan de Swardt 7-6, 6-3, while Zvereva, a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year, crushed Monica Seles's conqueror Anne Kremer 6-0, 6-1, the Luxembourger winning the penultimate game to avert a whitewash.