Kournikova limits her partners to Hingis

Russian counters marriage rumours as she tries to regain form after frustrating return from injury
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The Independent Online

While taking a morning stroll during the Federation Cup in Prague in 1986, a British tennis journalist noticed a newly-wed couple outside the old Town Hall. "She looks like Hana," he thought. Dismissing the notion, he walked on by. Upon arriving at the stadium, the journalist discovered that the bride in the mid-blue leather suit was indeed Hana Mandlikova. She called a press conference to announce that she had just married Jan Sedlak, the owner of a restaurant in Sydney, Australia.

Their union did not last. Mandlikova, the winner of four Grand Slam singles championships, later became a coach (she guided Jana Novotna to the Wimbledon title in 1998). Two months ago, Mandlikova, 39, gave birth to twins, Elisabeth and Mark. The children, whose father agreed not to be identified, are being raised in Boca Raton, Florida, by Mandlikova and her companion, Liz Resseguie, a personal fitness trainer.

The journalist who stumbled across Mandlikova's wedding in Prague has retired. He states categorically that he was nowhere near Moscow recently when Anna Kournikova was reported to have married Sergei Fedorov, her Detroit Red Wings ice hockey beau. It seems unlikely that Kournikova herself was in Moscow at the time, not to mention "Hello!", "OK!", or even "Niet!" What is indisputable is that Kournikova spent last week at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, near San Diego, California, playing tournament tennis, a pursuit denied to her since February, when she damaged her left ankle competing on an indoor court in Paris.

A couple of Russian journalists were in attendance at La Costa, convinced that Kournikova was married because she was wearing a ring on her wedding finger. "I don't need to justify every single rumour from the tabloids," Kournikova said. "If I did, I wouldn't have any time to concentrate on my tennis and that's what you guys say I need to concentrate on. I've always been doing that but I'm trying to prove it to you. So I'm not going to justify any false rumours."

If the rumours were false, why did she not simply say: "I am not married?" The point was pursued by a representative of an American website, tennisreporters.net, and Kournikova was persuaded to issue a statement through her advisors, Octagon: "While I don't typically comment on my personal life, let me confirm once again that I am not married. I can't be any clearer on this subject and I hope the rumours will stop."

Concerning the injury, a stress fracture, Kournikova said she first took six weeks off and had the foot put in a cast. When the cast was removed, the injury had not healed, so, in April, she had surgery and a pin was inserted.

"Every time, every month, you are waiting and waiting," she said. "It got a little frustrating. I was on the court during the French Open, practising in London, but then I felt discomfort. I had to stop again and was in a cast for another three or four weeks because the foot was inactive for so long. I hope that doesn't happen this time. I have to be really careful. Everything is so new again."

Kournikova did not make an impressive start to her comeback in the Acura Classic. Seeded No 9, she lost in her opening singles match, 6-7, 6-1, 6-3, to the unseeded Nicole Pratt, of Australia, whom she had defeated in three previous meetings. There were moments when the Russian seemed like a stranger to the game, although her post-match comments had the ring of experience.

"For a first match I didn't play so bad," she said. "It was the best day I've had since starting to practise two weeks ago. In the first set I was fresher. Nicole is a player who always fights to the end and tries to hit everything back. I had a little difficulty finishing the points. But it was just a great feeling to be out on court moving again, even though I wasn't moving perfectly sometimes. I was making such giant steps that I completely had no rhythm."

There was to be a bonus. Kournikova renewed her doubles partnership with Martina Hingis – another 20-year-old multi-millionaire anxious to rehabilitate her game – and the pair, seeded No 1, advanced to their 14th final, having defeated Jennifer Capriati and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the semi-finals, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

Going into last night's final against the second seeds, Cara Black, of Zimbabwe, and Elena Likhovtseva, of Russia, Hingis and Kournikova were clearly pleased to have had so much time and enjoyment on court in extending their record to 47 wins in 49 matches.

The partnership, which appeared to have ended acrimoniously after yielding nine titles, including the 1999 Australian Open championship, may have been revived as an occasional association. Hingis, who generally prefers playing doubles to practising during regular tour events, tends nowadays to concentrate her energies on the singles at the Grand Slam tournaments.

Playing doubles and singles last week, having returned to the court for the first time since her embarrassing straight-sets defeat in the first round at Wimbledon to Italy's Virginia Ruano Pascal, was part of Hingis's drive to get in shape for the United States Open, which is due to start three weeks today.

Hingis blamed an injury to her lower back for her lack of mobility at Wimbledon. In the meantime she has had treatment at a clinic in Austria during a break from attending to promotional duties. Back in action, she discovered that the competition is as fierce as ever.

Having been bombarded at frequent intervals in recent years by powerful rivals such as the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, Hingis was overwhelmed by Monica Seles, 6-3, 6-4, in the semi-finals at La Costa. Spectators were aghast at Seles's form, particularly as she was playing in only her third tournament since damaging her right foot in March, an injury which resulted in her withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon.

Seles's competitive overdrive had prompted Capriati to complain about "noise interference" during their quarter-final, which Seles won, 6-3, 6-3.

The only sound that troubled Hingis was the boom of Seles's 31 winning shots en route to meeting Venus Williams, the defending champion, in yesterday's final.

None the less, Hingis will today embark on her 200th week as the world No 1, a career total only surpassed by three players since the WTA computer rankings began in 1975: Steffi Graf (377 weeks), Martina Navratilova (331 weeks) and Chris Evert (262 weeks).

Hingis realises she is perched atop a shaking tree, having failed to add to her five Grand Slam singles titles since the 1999 Australian Open.

Moreover, she has five WTA titles to defend before the end of the year, and Capriati, Venus Williams and Davenport are closing in.

"I have a lot of points to defend, and a lot of players want to be No 1," Hingis said. "It depends who's hungrier and wants it more. I just hope not to be exhausted before I get to the US Open."

Capriati, the winner of the Australian Open and French Open titles, was asked how she reacted when people said she was really the No 1 now. "I don't pay attention to that," she said. "I follow what the ranking is, and it's been around a long time. Maybe if something was set up different, like a [season-long] race or something, I would have been No 1 just for this year. To be No 1 in a year, that's great. But I think it is great also when you can be consistent and keep going for a few years like Martina has."

Kournikova, who does not have a singles title to her name, would love to be the subject of such high-powered speculation.