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Kournikova exhibits old form

The 71st-ranked Russian shows she is recovering from injury in the win over No. 2 Jennifer Capriati.

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[Times photos: Brendan Fitterer]
Anna Kournikova may be more famous for her looks than her game, but said she works harder on tennis and fitness than endorsements.

By SHARON GINN
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2001


TAMPA -- As impossible as it is to imagine, Anna Kournikova all but disappeared this year.

While her romantic entanglement(s) provided gossip fodder, while she coolly discussed her portfolio in commercials for her financial planner, while thousands -- millions? -- of worshiping fans downloaded her pictures on the Internet, Kournikova was hobbling from one rehab appointment to another.

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In a rare hometown appearance, Jennifer Capriati dropped the first four games of the first set and appeared sluggish at times in the exhibition at the Ice Palace in Tampa.
A stress fracture in her left foot required surgery and months of physical therapy, and forced her to take an extended break from tennis. Her ranking, a career-high No. 8 a year ago, plummeted. She played a few matches late in the season and is ranked No. 71.

What, Anna worry?

"Just because my number is different, it doesn't mean I'm a different player," she said this week. "All I have to do is just play."

That simple strategy sufficed Friday night. In front of 8,821 at the Ice Palace -- some of them Anna fans masquerading as tennis fans -- Kournikova breezed past world No. 2 and hometown favorite Jennifer Capriati in an exhibition match.

Using a wide range of shots, Kournikova needed about 1 hour, 15 minutes to beat Capriati 6-4, 7-5.

Neither played her best tennis, but Kournikova looked spry while Capriati appeared sluggish. The difference was most pronounced early in the first set, when Kournikova broke Capriati's serve twice and raced to a 4-0 lead.

The pair traded some long points in the first set, but the second was characterized more by unforced errors.

Kournikova closed out the match by taking the final three games.

Officially, the match mattered not a whit. But both called it a useful warmup for next season and January's Australian Open, which Capriati won last year for her first Grand Slam title.

The match seemed more important to Kournikova, who said she is playing without pain despite a titanium screw in her foot. She said she felt "quick and fresh."

"I felt like I was doing everything normal, like I was used to doing before the injury," she said. "I was doing everything mostly automatic, which was perfect."

"Perfect" is a word often used to describe Kournikova -- in any given outing she can net as many marriage proposals as winners -- but not so much, lately, to describe her tennis. She is often criticized because in six years on the WTA Tour, she has yet to win a tournament.

Capriati characterized Kournikova as inconsistent but said she is a very solid player who "gives a lot of top players a lot of trouble. I think yeah, she's probably underestimated in her tennis."

ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale agrees.

"She's quick. She's aggressive. She takes risks," Drysdale said. "Maybe more than she should, but nevertheless it's attractive to watch her as a player, regardless of her many attributes as a woman.

"My own feeling about her is sympathetic. I think she's a very good athlete. One of the problems that she has is for every $10,000 she makes on the court, she's making $1-million off the court. It has to have some effect on her motivation, I think."

But Kournikova, who reportedly works hard at managing her time, protests that she spends little time on endorsements compared with her fitness and practice regimen.

"I don't think I can love the game any more," Kournikova said. "I love it. That's it. Period. I love it as much as I loved it (when) I was 5.

"I'm very competitive. I really enjoy making something on the court, and creating good points -- testing myself out there. Just try to outplay the other person."

Drysdale said if Kournikova's fitness level is high, the time off might do her game some good. He predicts she will win a tournament next season.

On Friday she forced Capriati to recall other matches she has lost to Kournikova, when Capriati was trying to get her game back together.

"She's gotten back a lot of the same shotmaking ability that she has," Capriati said.

But even if Kournikova gets back to her form of a year ago, she'll have a tougher time reaching the top.

When she was No. 8, she was ranked ahead of Capriati and Belgian up-and-comers Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

"She's in a very competitive time," Drysdale said. "The most competitive time in women's tennis history."

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