All eyes on Kournikova at Wimbledon's first day


Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- Thirty photographers lined up courtside, all facing the same direction, like birds on a telephone wire. As usual, every long lens focused on Anna Kournikova.

The cameras went through a lot of film Monday at Wimbledon. Kournikova played for 2 hours, 21 minutes before beating 10th-seeded Sandrine Testud 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.

Kournikova's best win this year ensures at least a second round of Annamania, the curious phenomenon that makes an unseeded teen-ager Wimbledon's biggest celebrity simply because she's a beautiful blonde.

In London newspapers, special sections previewing the tournament offered a cornucopia of Kournikova coverage -- mostly photos. One tabloid ran a picture of a topless Kournikova lookalike, surely prompting plenty of double-takes from subway commuters. Demure by comparison are 1,500 new billboards along British roadways showing the Russian in a sports bra.

The daily Wimbledon program, reflecting England's tolerance for sexism, touted Kournikova on Monday as ''Dish of the Day.'' She was assigned the first women's match on Centre Court, attracting a capacity crowd that included the Duke of Windsor and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, hockey star Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings.

Speculation about Kournikova's romantic relationships is part of Annamania, even though she's mum on the subject. At a recent news conference to promote the line of bras she's endorsing, she coyly cut off questions about her personal life with a memorable response.

''Let's talk about bras,'' she said.

Instead, let's talk about tennis, the sport that first made Kournikova famous. When she reached the Wimbledon semifinals at 16 in 1997, she was regarded as one of the teen queens poised to take over the women's game, along with Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.

Injuries curtailed Kournikova's progress, and three years later she's still seeking her first tournament title. She has slipped from a career-high 10th in the rankings in 1998 to 19th this week, which is why she's unseeded.

But of all the Grand Slams, Wimbledon offers her best chance for a breakthrough.

''I feel comfortable on all surfaces,'' she said, ''but grass probably the most.''

Even if Kournikova were uglier than a shanked overhead on match point, she would still have a beautiful game. She hits harder than Hingis, moves better than Lindsay Davenport, mixes her shots better than the Williams sisters and volleys better than any of them.

All of her strengths were on display against Testud, but also her biggest weakness: She's still learning how to win.

In the first set, Kournikova let four set points slip away before winning the set. In the second set she led 5-2, then lost five consecutive games, failing to convert two match points along the way.

In the third set she again led 5-2, let another match point get away, lost her serve and flirted with disaster before settling down to close out the match.

''I got a little bit of course uptight,'' she admitted.

Such shaky play could be viewed as enhancing Kournikova's charm -- she's not perfect! -- but instead the media and many players are annoyed that she remains popular despite her struggles on the court. Anna-bashing has been a predictable reaction to Annamania.

''What's the problem?'' Serena Williams said. ''I don't see a problem with what she's doing. She's just being herself. It seems like everyone has a problem with it.''

Overlooked amid the hype is that Kournikova desperately wants to win, especially in the face of daily questions about her ability to do so. When Testud dumped a backhand into the net on match point, Kournikova gleefully shouted ''Yes!'' and punched the air with her fist.

And as she celebrated, Kournikova made sure that she turned toward the photographers.

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