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Didn’t she once play tennis?

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By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 28, 2001


You remember her, don't you?

She would scurry around the court, chasing forehands and backhands, her long, blond pony-tail swinging back and forth with each stroke. Remember?

photo
[AP photo]
Anna Kournikova is better known these days for marriage, modeling and marketing, not her tennis.
She would push tennis' top players to their limits, occasionally beating them into submission but almost always giving them all they could handle. Remember?

The boys would drool over her, their puppy-love faces mashed against the fence as she practiced in her skin-tight shorts. But there was a reason they watched her beyond her cover-girl looks. She actually played the game really well. Remember?

Her name is Anna Kournikova. And, if I'm not mistaken, she was a tennis player.

We are seeing less and less of that Kournikova, and more and more of Kournikova the marketing machine. The one who is said to be the most photographed and downloaded female in sports. The one who rakes in tons more money from modeling and endorsement than from tennis.

Do you know the last time she played an actual WTA Tour tournament?

February.

It seems like eons ago. We have moved onto other names who have been blossoming in the meantime. Jennifer Capriati. Andy Roddick. Justine Henin.

They are what's hot in tennis, not Kournikova. She is becoming old news. At least, old tennis news.

She is damaged goods at the moment, hobbled these past five months by a stress fracture in her left foot. She is only now starting to practice again, training feverishly at Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County.

Not that anyone is expecting her to tear up the tour once she's healthy.

Let's face it. Kournikova, 20, is living off her reputation. Not only has she not won a WTA Tour tournament, but only once in the past four years has she made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament. Henin, 19, has done that twice this year alone.

Even before Kournikova got hurt in February, she was little more than ordinary. In four tournaments, she reached two quarterfinals and one semifinal but lost every time she faced a top 20 player.

In fact, she has rarely beaten anyone of any real consequence. She's 0-5 lifetime against Venus Williams and 1-11 against Martina Hingis. This year she already has lost to Lindsay Davenport twice.

Want to know who her biggest wins are against this year? Barbara Schett and Anne-Gaelle Sidot. Not exactly the sort of thing you walk around bragging about.

Yet, with all her mediocrity and inactivity, there's no escaping her. She is forever in the news. And almost always for something unrelated to tennis.

Think about this. When you hear her name, is tennis still the first thing that comes to mind?

Her latest headline-maker is her supposed marriage to hockey hunk Sergei Fedorov, who has been romantically linked to her since she was 15. Her people deny the whole thing, but the validity of the story doesn't really matter, does it? It puts Kournikova on the front page again, which puts more loot in her pockets and keeps her draped in the latest Dolce & Gabbana or Versace or whatever she wears.

She made a reported $11-million last year. More than The Rock, chef Emeril Lagasse and Colin Powell combined.

Who needs tennis, right?

Obviously, Kournikova doesn't. She could keep this up, raking in the off-court millions while playing just enough good tennis to get by, and wind up with a pretty nice career.

At some point, though, it's bound to hit her. Years from now she'll realize she left a lot sitting on the table. And by then, it'll probably be too late to do anything about it.

That may not sound so terrible now, but imagine waking up one day years from now and realizing all your achievements of substance can fit snugly in an empty Prada shoe box.

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