Anna Kournikova: Winless superstar

With nary a victory and not much of a game, she's the hottest ticket at Wimbledon. And she deserves to be.

Topics: Tennis,

Anna Kournikova won her first-round match at Wimbledon Monday. That’s not particularly big news; she’ll join 64 other women in the next round. It’ll sure play big with the London tabs, who will use the excuse of Kournikova’s upset of 10th-seeded Frenchwoman Sandrine Testud as reason for more Anna reverie, which peaked last year when the Sun actually bumped one of its topless Page 3 girls in favor of a steamy shot of the Russian tennis star.

And of course they would: The people (or at least men) have spoken, and they want Anna Kournikova. Lycos has named her the most popular athlete on the Internet, receiving more than twice as many searches on the Lycos site in the last year as the No. 2, Michael Jordan. She’s also the highest-paid female tennis player, raking in more than $10 million in endorsements every year. All this, as many a tennis purist will point out, without ever having won a tournament, and with her last important match victories coming two years ago, when she was already pushing the prodigy put-up or shut-up age of 17.

Now, her ranking matches her age (19) and what seemed like an impressively balanced all-court game hasn’t matured well; she’s never really beefed up a pitty-pat serve, and while she’s quick, she’s nowhere near as quick as the Williams sisters or world No. 1 Martina Hingis. She hits reasonably hard, but her shots seem like whiffs compared to the whacks from bruisers like Lindsay Davenport or Mary Pierce or, again, Serena and Venus Williams. She’s good, nothing more.

Yes, she’s lovely, there’s no getting around that. She’s a pretty young woman in the most conventional of ways: long blond hair, naturally pouty, with the body of a well-endowed woman who works out an awful lot. But the eye-batting girly routine she’s worked hard through the years feels more girly-show now; it’s hard to believe this woman — she’s been on-again, off-again dating Russian hockey star Sergei Federov since she was 15; he’s more than 10 years older — hasn’t been around the block a few times.

Attempts to portray her as a “Lolita”-like idol are forced; Frank Deford’s heavy-breathing paean to her in the June 5, 2000, issue of Sports Illustrated made the magazine pages feel sticky. John McEnroe even turned the idea that Kournikova could possibly still be a virgin into a rude little joke on Letterman last week.

Still, she’s by far the most popular tennis player in the world, and she deserves to be.

Not because she’s earned it, of course, but because no one else in the sport, male or female, seems inclined to want anything more than a big fat paycheck and to be left alone. The best American stars, including Pete Sampras, Davenport and now even Andre Agassi, have the passion of a self-actualized e-commerce entrepreneur: They speak mellowly of how they won because of the hard work they put into it, because they ate right or because they got a lot sleep. They seem to spend a lot of time explaining, with a twinge of defensiveness, why they’ve earned their money. (“It’s cool. I really earned it this week,” Davenport says. “I think I deserved it,” Sampras says.)

They have a right to be uninteresting, though Sampras often seems mildly contemptuous of attention. But Martina Hingis, remarkably talented and quite beautiful — arguably more so than Kournikova in a refined sort of way; kind of Jaclyn Smith to Anna’s Farrah — is clearly a pill. Her frequent tantrums and nasty side (she referred to a lesbian opponent as “half-man” once) make you want to see her get the Dr. Laura treatment, and with many audiences, she frequently does.

And Serena and Venus Williams, dynamic, flamboyant and two of the most interesting and outspoken athletes around, disappear for months on end and talk about their ability to take or leave the sport. “I tell my kids you have to get out while you’re ahead,” says their dad, Richard Williams. “The best time to get out is right now. They know too much about the real world to stay in sports.”

That’s fine; smart, even. But it’s hard to invest as a fan when a player doesn’t seem to be clocking in for the long haul. These aren’t people begging for your attention the way, well, Kournikova does. Sure, it’s a little cheap, and it’s an act that’s just going to look cheaper with age. But at least she doesn’t seem to mind.

Kerry Lauerman

Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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