Kournikova craves to be more than a decoration

She is perceived by many observers as a petulant, poor little rich girl with romantic eyes for ice hockey players

Your correspondent once mistakenly had the impression that he was being stalked by Anna Kournikova in Manhattan. The blonde Russian tennis prodigy seemed to materialise at every turn, as if scripted by Woody Allen.

Kournikova's proximity first became apparent while dining at Smith & Wollansky on Third Avenue. There was a similar occurrence a couple of evenings later at Bice, off Lexington Avenue. Both restaurants are cheerful, neither is cheap.

On each occasion Kournikova was with the same party: her mother, Alla, who contrives to look like an older sister, her father, Sergei, short and dark, who would struggle to resemble an older brother even after a Mark Philippoussis makeover, and Cino Marchese, a silver-haired Italian tennis impresario connected with the management company then responsible for Kournikova's commercial interests.

Kournikova, then aged 11, was socialising in New York even before she was eligible to play at the United States Open across the East River at Flushing Meadows. The temptation to make an analogy with Shirley Temple resting between engagements on Broadway is resisted. Little Miss Ringlets was never that far from The Good Ship Lollipop.

At the time, Kournikova was a pupil at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the alma mater of Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. In 1995, aged 14, Kournikova was the ITF world junior champion. Two years later she became the first player to advance to the Wimbledon singles semi-finals on her debut since Chris Evert in 1972.

Now, less than two months from her 19th birthday, Kournikova is perceived by many observers as a petulant, poor little rich girl with romantic eyes for ice hockey players and competitors on the men's tennis tour. Estimates of her earnings, bolstered by endorsement deals, range between $11m (£7m) and $20m, even though she has yet to win her first WTA Tour singles title after 67 tournaments. Her website gets more hits than her racket.

So where did the tennis go off track? My guess is Devonshire Park, Eastbourne, on Thursday 18 June 1998, when Kournikova's right thumb suddenly became the most talked about part of her anatomy.

Kournikova played superbly that day, defeating Steffi Graf, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, in the quarter-finals of the Direct Line Insurance tournament. Graf, the seven-times Wimbledon champion, became so frustrated that she raged at the line judges. Even allowing for Graf's lack of match practice after spending most of the year nursing a leg injury, Kournikova's improved grass-court skills were a revelation, one of the benefits of working with Graf's former coach, Pavel Slozil.

The victory elevated Kournikova to No 10 in the world rankings, but in achieving it she tore ligaments in her right thumb during a fall in the seventh game of the final set and had to withdraw from the event, and also Wimbledon four days later. Her singles game has not sparkled to the same extent since.

Competing in Australia in January 1999, Kournikova double-faulted 182 times in 10 straight matches, an embarrassment alleviated when she won her first Grand Slam championship, partnering Martina Hingis to the doubles title at the Australian Open. Kournikova and Hingis ended the year with four more doubles titles.

There was uplifting news on the marketing front: Kournikova's Berlei Shock Absorber bra endorsement was extended from five years to seven, only two months into the contract. And Kournikova had a new coach. Slozil resigned rather than accept her mother as a technical adviser. He was succeeded by Eric Van Harpen, who guided Conchita Martinez to the Wimbledon title in 1994.

For the most part, Kournikova only loses to higher-ranked players. So last week there was reason to hope she might prosper on the clay courts at Amelia Island, Florida, in the absence of Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, particularly after Serena Williams retired injured in the early rounds.

But on Saturday Kournikova was denied a place in the semi-finals by Paola Suarez, a game 23-year-old Argentinian, ranked No 62 in the world, who wavered ominously before converting her fourth match point to win 2-6, 6-2, 6-4.

As tournaments come and go, media questioning concerning Kournikova's place in the game becomes more pointed. Is she a champion in the making, or merely decoration? The sceptical tone is reminiscent of Agassi's earlier days of showmanship without substance ("Image is everything"), although even then he was able to win tournaments outside the majors.

"I am a serious tennis player," Kournikova says, affronted. "How do I look on the court, serious or not serious? Everything that is around I always try to block out, and, yeah, maybe sometimes it is very difficult, but I can't really change it. So I just have to be even tougher. I have to have thick skin and just shut everything out and try to play more consistently. I have to be patient, play out the point. It will all get together eventually."

Perhaps she is right. The talent is there. One day she may even be fêted at the Wimbledon Champions' Dinner at the Savoy. Meanwhile it would be a relief if she could plonk a winner's trophy alongside the cruet at any bistro on the WTA Tour.

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