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.