Tennis: Nice legs, shame about the tennis

Wimbledon 99: Russian rolls through in straight sets but the real class is shown by second-seeded German
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THERE WERE any number of reasons why the stewards might have wanted a word in your ear on Wimbledon's Court Two yesterday but possessing a blow-up sheep had not come to mind. But you cannot be too careful when Anna Kournikova is playing and, with studied, oh-so-right dignity the life-threatening weapon was confiscated.

On it was written "Greg's Barmy Army", which not only made the owner certainly qualify for the middle word but probably put him in the unique category of being the only man there who had not come to ogle. Among so many wolves, perhaps the sheep had been taken into custody for its own safety.

In fact, Kournikova did not look good. There I said it. She was gorgeous, of course, a sun-tanned goddess with a film-star figure. But strip away the hype and there is scant glory; you still have a player who has yet to win a tournament on the WTA Tour. Nice legs, shame about the facts.

The tennis? Forget it. She won, beating an energetic but limited Venezuelan, Maria Vento, 7-5, 6-4, but did nothing to dispel the impression that her one chance of winning at Wimbledon this year disappeared when her doubles partner, Martina Hingis, pulled out of the tournament.

To be broken three times is not a recipe for success at the serve capital of the world but fortunately for Russia's up-market answer to Baby Spice, Vento had even less clue what to do when it was her turn to start proceedings and a potential disaster for the tabloids was turned into a routine win.

Well as routine as it can be given that Kournikova needed only to take off her tracksuit top to have whistles aimed in her direction. Vento came on to the court to polite applause, the No 17 seed to an orgy of non-PC acclaim.

She could go on a building site and get less chauvinistic treatment.

Within seconds the leers had turned to cheers as she broke Vento, crashing a forehand cross court to take the game, and it seemed the awkwardness of her first-round win over Barbara Schwartz had been jettisoned. Or it did until she surrendered her serve to love.

That set a pattern of incompetence that reached a glorious climax when Kournikova stretched for a forehand and skidded over. With her opponent on the floor, all Vento had to do was to lift her shot over the net and, with studied precision, she slammed it out of the court.

Kournikova righted herself physically and mentally, resisted three set points against her in the 10th game and wrapped up the set when Vento double-faulted to give the Russian her third break in a patchy set.

Kournikova also made the initial break in the next set, was pegged back when Vento returned the compliment but made it to the line when she overcame a break point to win in 1hr 8min. It will look like a straightforward win in the record books.

With anyone else it might have stayed that way until someone spotted some jewellery on Kournikova's left hand. Had she become engaged? News reporters who had been told "I have no boyfriend" only two days ago were in a frenzy of speculation.

Do you have a boyfriend? "No comment."

Do you have a ring on your third finger? "No comment."

Was it just a piece of costume jewellery? "No comment."

Are you engaged to anybody? "No comment."

Reluctantly, the topic moved on to tennis where Kournikova seems to have gone into more denial than over her marital prospects. "I'm definitely happy I'm in the third round and I think I played well," she said conveniently forgetting the three-double faults and numerous unforced errors. As for a serve that looked as creaky as an old man's back, she added: "I changed the direction all the time and I think I had a lot of clean winners."

Frankly, she is on the shelf more than she hit clean winners but maybe it is her way of dealing with being the most photographed woman in the sporting world. With Martina Hingis wounded and other prodigies burnt out even before they are out of their teens, the 18-year-old needs every defence mechanism she can muster.

"Nobody really understands what we're going through," she said, "unless they've been there. There's a lot of focus on us but for me it's OK. I just try to go out and play. I have a good team around me: great mother, great father, great manager. I'm very lucky. Also I haven't done that much, so young while Martina was No 1 at 16. I am just trying to take it a step at a time. My time will come."

The ring of confidence to go with the ring on her finger. Now only the tennis needs to catch up.