I’m not just writing about Anna Kournikova to bump up the hits on my blog… well, it’s not only that. Someone recently posted a Youtube video on wtaworld.com (great forum for women’s tennis) from Kournikova’s win over Lindsay Davenport, and it brought back a lot of Anna memories.
To sports fans now, Anna’s name is pretty much synonymous with “hot non-achiever,” “style over substance,” and “winner of, count ’em, zero titles.” That’s too simple of an Anna-logy, if you ask me. It’s obviously true that much of the attention on Anna came not due to her tennis but to her looks and charisma. She is simply the hottest tennis player ever. There had been attractive tennis players before, of course. Chris Evert was wholesomely pretty (though she was every bit the maneater that Anna was). Carling Bassett and Andrea Temesvari were both blond bombshells in their day. And the “divine Argentine,” Gabriela Sabatini, was actually even more beautiful than Anna. However, Gaby’s perfect features were those of a statue, not a pin-up, more intimidating than inviting (Lucy Lawless actually used Gaby as a role model to play Xena the Warrior Princess). It was Anna who first threw away all pretense of being the girl-next-door. Modest, wholesome? Forget that, Anna basically declared. She was a star and expected to be treated as such. It was the combination of beauty and attitude that made the public enthralled. So yes, her tennis game was not the key component of her notoriety. But the sword worked the other way as well. Just as overwhelming popularity came her way due to her court(ly) presence, so it was with an astonishing amount of venomous criticism. “She can’t play,” people said time and time again. “She didn’t win anything; what does THAT tell you?” Snickers all around.
Are those comments warranted? Arguably so, if you look at the latter stages of Anna’s career. But for now, let’s press rewind and go to Anna’s career at the summer of 1998. She was in England to play the Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Eastbourne, and she defeated Steffi Graf for the first time. She closed out the win, but she suffered a thumb injury during that match, and she not only had to pull of the tournament final but also was sidelined from the tour for several months, missing Wimbledon in the process. Although few people could have guessed it, in retrospect, it seems a clear turning point in Anna’s career. For whatever reason, physical, mental, emotional, whatever, her game was never the same. I saw her matches when she came back to play later that summer to play the U.S. Open, and while she was still a decent player, something was clearly missing. The lack of fear, the creativity of her full arsenal, the absolute confidence (to be more accurate, arrogance) that she had possessed were no longer there. Although she would have good streaks now and then, she would never display the same lack of fear she had.
Anna’s major breakthrough came when she was 15 years old. A qualifier, she beat seeded Austrian Barbara Paulus (great backhand) on her way to the 4th round of the ’96 U.S. Open. I clearly remember watching that match on TV. Even then, Anna was striking-looking (in fact, Anna’s beauty really peaked when she was in her teens; she’s now become a plastic Barbie-clone). But I kid you now when I say that it was her game that was just as attention-getting. She was still raw, but she had an incredible variety to her game. She made great use of the drop shot and was fearless when she attacked the net. And when she had time to set up, she generated pace seemingly effortlessly on her backhand side. It wasn’t that she hammered her swings, a la Williams, but it was the perfect way she turned her shoulders and timed the ball perfectly.
Anna didn’t have one killer shot to blaze winners or to set up winners (a la Graf with her forehand), but she had a hundred ways to peck you to death (In that aspect, she was similar to Martina Hingis, but Anna had considerably more power, while Martina was far more consistent and, as time would prove, more mentally durable). Her game was based on using a dazzling array of shots, and such a game could not flourish with even the smallest amount of self-doubt. And in that first stage of Anna’s career, there was none to be found as she kept moving on up and getting closer to the top.
In 1997, she reached the semifinals in her Wimbledon debut. Early the following year, Anna got to the final of the Miami event, beating 4 Top Ten players in succession: Monica Seles, Aranxta Sanchez Vicario, Lindsay Davenport, Conchita Martinez. In the final, she played her contemporary, Venus Williams, and for one set, Anna dominated Venus. Then Venus played her way back and won the second set, at which point Anna folded. Still, Anna retained her Anna-tude, as she infamously crowed in her post-match press conference, “I didn’t really lose. She didn’t beat me; I beat myself. That shows I’m better than her.” Ridiculous logic? Yes. Self-doubt? None there.
In this video, Anna is seen playing (and beating) American great, Lindsay Davenport in that Miami event. Both her variety of shots and her abundant confidence are on full display. I love how she executes awesome winners (check out that unbelievable drop shot from behind the baseline at 7:35), then just quickly turns around with a flick of the ponytail, clearly thinking, “Of course I made that shot.” And it should silence any naysayers who still insist she couldn’t play. It’s true, as her too-soon career wore down, she was broken down from injuries, mental issues (her double-faulting woes became legendary), and perhaps one photo shoot too many. But when Anna was in glorious form, as she was pre-Eastbourne, she was simply amazing to watch. And people need to remember that Anna always played the biggest events when she was rising. If she had bothered to play lower-level tournaments early in her career, is there really any doubt that she wouldn’t have won one? Besides, reaching the Wimbledon semifinal and getting to the finals of a big tour event like Miami or Charleston earns MORE ranking points than winning a low-level event, and justifiably so.
The fact is, Anna was ranked as high as No. 9 and had wins over pretty much every great in her time not named Williams: Graf, Seles, Hingis, Davenport, Capriati, etc. Just because she received a huge amount of publicity for her off-screen persona doesn’t mean that her game needs to be viewed as worse than it once was. For it was Anna’s game that was also incredibly beautiful, if only fleetingly so…
And here’s the song she inspired: