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.

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
boksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor