Wimbledon 1997: Kournikova's game of spice at a price

Stan Hey studies the Russian girl who is more than just a pretty face

Arriving at Eastbourne's Devonshire Park last Saturday morning to find the grass courts bathed in sunshine was an unexpected surprise, but not as surprising as finding a crowd of 150 or so standing around a practice court. The object of their attention - and it has to be said that the majority were teenage boys still at the Clearasil stage of life - was the 16-year-old Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova.

Dressed in a sleek Adidas training top from which spilled an expensive gold chain, her pony tail dangling from a white baseball cap, Kournikova must have seemed to her courtside admirers the seaside language-student of their dreams.

Of more relevance to women's tennis were Kournikova's fizzing ground strokes, hit two-fisted on both wings, and her speed across the court the armoury with which this latest teenage prodigy will go to war.

At Eastbourne, she was playing in the under-21 tournament, which she won without dropping a set, but here at Wimbledon at just 16 years and three weeks old, she is in among the big girls. Last Tuesday she made her debut at Wimbledon on Centre Court, a choice of stage which may have been engineered by her marketing people and acceded to by Wimbledon on the grounds of public interest, specifically the cameras of 50 or so photographers who duly turned her into tennis's version of a Spice Girl.

However, Kournikova thankfully did more for her cause than just steam up a few lenses by seeing off the infinitely more experienced Chanda Rubin, 6-1 6-1 in just 44 minutes, adding further evidence that there is more to the Russian girl than meets the eye.

This much must have been hoped for when the Moscow-born Kournikova was signed by Mark McCormack's sports management company IMG at the tender age of nine.

Anna Dmitrieva, senior broadcaster with Russia's NTV, who knows the family well, sketches in the background to a set-up that might have seemed akin to white slavery were it not for careful parental involvement and an alliance of specialist tennis coaching with formal education. "Anna began to play when she was around seven. She was a member of Moscow's Spartak Tennis Club which had a good coach in Victor Rubanov who is the husband of one of our best known tennis players, Olga Morozova."

Anna's father, Sergei, was also a tennis coach, albeit of a less exulted status, but it was her mother, Alla, who alerted the Russian Tennis Federation to her daughter's skills, and soon sporting grants and coaching of the highest class were coming her way.

"Anna began to play with Larissa Preobazhenskaya, one of our best ladies' champions. They still practised together until summer last year when Anna began to go full-time on the WTA tour," Dmitrieva says.

Kournikova's talent and the expert coaching brought her a place in the Kremlin Cup team at the age of nine and the deal with IMG was soon struck. This resulted in Anna moving to Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida in 1992, at the age of 11.

Bollettieri is one of the more colourful characters on an increasingly bland Planet Tennis. He became a self-taught coach and made his reputation by fulfilling many of the dreams of tennis parents - he played a key part in the careers of Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and Mark Philippoussis.

In his recent autobiography, My Aces, My Faults, Bollettieri's assessment of Anna is as follows: "Right now, if I had to choose among Hingis, Venus Williams and Anna, I would certainly lean towards Anna. She's survived a tough couple of years and begun to grow on court and off. Her self-confidence is considerable."

Dmitrieva concurs with the optimistic view. "Anna is going to be a star. She can already play really well, is very quick and light on her feet. I think all she needs now is a regular coach to be with her all the time, but that is not easy to get."

Although Vitali Yakovenko of Russia's Tennis + magazine is happy to confirm Anna's star status, he harbours some doubts about her ability to fulfil her long term potential. "She is a very talented girl, but I fear that it might be difficult to find the right path with her. There are too many managers and too much media attention for a girl of this age."

If Kournikova can survive off court, she will be worth watching on court over the coming years. WTA statistics now suggest the average age of a Grand Slam winner is just over 20. Last season, she made the fourth round of the US Open and this year has seen her defeat Amanda Coetzer and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

Yesterday, she staged a remarkable comeback against Germany's Barbara Rittner, winning 6-3 in the third set after being a set and 5-1 down. Kournikova will surely shine again at Wimbledon once the sun comes out.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?