By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 25, 2003
Anna Kournikova is ranked 66th, has not been a top-10 player in some time and still is without a singles title.
It doesn't matter.
When the 21-year-old Russian plays, fans flock to the courts and media coverage grows. Because of this, organizers of the Sarasota Clay Court Classic March31-April6 at the Meadows Country Club were thrilled when Kournikova accepted a wild-card entry.
"It's great to have someone of her ability in our event," tournament director Lesley Eckert said. "Obviously, her stature in the sports world and in other areas like modeling brings different clientele to our event."
Kournikova joins an already impressive field.
Eight players are ranked in the top 25, the headliners being No.9 Jelena Dokic and former major champion Mary Pierce, who lives in Sarasota. No.29 Paola Suarez is another new entry, replacing former Florida standout Lisa Raymond, a late withdrawal. Suarez, along with Virginia Ruano Pascual, earned the WTA award last week as the top doubles team in 2002.
Kournikova has ties to the Sarasota area, having been a student at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton from 1992-97 before moving to Miami.
Often forgotten is her impressive doubles record. She twice teamed with Martina Hingis to win the Australian Open (1999, 2002) and was ranked No.1 in 1999.
Kournikova was as high as No.8 in singles in 2000 but has been slowed by injuries the past three years. She lost in the first round last week at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Key Biscayne.
Ticket sales were well ahead of last year's even before Kournikova's commitment, Eckert said. Tournament officials will not know when Kournikova's first-round match is until Sunday night, but she will play Monday or Tuesday. For information, call (941) 894-0040 or visit www.sarasotaclaycourtclassic.com.
HE'S BAAAAAACK: Richard Williams, father of stars Serena and Venus Williams, told the Miami Herald last weekend he plans to bring back the hand-written, pro-Williams signs he once hoisted during matches, much to the chagrin of some fans and TV commentators.
"I haven't done it the last two or three years," the 61-year-old Williams said. "But I'll be bringing more signs before the (Nasdaq-100 Open) is over. It's inspirational to fans, and I actually think it helps the tournament. Tennis needs a lot of help. Clap your hands, tap your feet, blow your horns. Tennis needs something other than 'shhhhhhhhh!"'
FRIENDLY SURFACE: With her powerful groundstrokes, one would not think Serena Williams would be a fan of clay, the slowest surface. But that isn't the case. She won the French Open last year on the famous red surface at Roland Garros in Paris and has fared well in other clay events.
"Clay is better for your knees," she said. "Hardcourt wears your body out. I love playing on that surface, and I'm really looking forward to playing on clay. My dad has two courts at his house that are clay."
LOCAL FLAVOR: Marlene Weingartner, a German citizen who lives in Wesley Chapel, has posted three of the WTA Tour's biggest upsets this year. She defeated Saddlebrook's Jennifer Capriati in the first round at the Australian Open, then topped No.17 Amanda Coetzer and No.15 Eleni Daniilidou at the Nasdaq-100 Open before losing to No.4 Justine Henin-Hardenne in the fourth round. The 23-year-old is ranked 99th but should make a significant jump when rankings are released next week.
LAST WORD: "Andre Agassi is in the top shelf of the all-time greats. He has done something very few people have done. It's a miracle and inspiration to see how well he prepares and see how well he is technically. Other guys should model themselves after him, especially those that play with two hands."