U.S. Open '97 The New York Times Business
August 26, 1997

Kournikova: Part Phenom, Part Press Agent's Dream


NEW YORK -- Match point is not cold yet, and the Clearasil junkies are scrambling forward in the stands, creating a mosh pit at courtside. They are a lunging, swarming mass of adolescent boyhood, each kid climbing over the other as if the last Sega on the shelf were at stake.

This is better than that. This is the sun-kissed Anna Kournikova.

"I scored," said Mark Tarmeki, obviously age 14, holding up Kournikova's autograph like a trophy. With limbs intact, he had survived the post-match melee following Kournikova's easy defeat of Sabine Appelmans, 6-2, 6-0, on a well-stocked Stadium Court Monday at the U.S. Open. Mark had lived only to be asked the most ridiculous of questions: What's the big deal?

"Are you kidding?" he said. "She's the bomb."

The bomb is blond, tan, with a heck of a backhand, the toniest girl in Adidas stripes. The midriff queen of the court. Certainly there is style, but is there substance?

"I think that tennis is a lady's sport, so we should look out there like ladies," said Kournikova, whose tennis ranking has improved from 281st to a current ranking of 25th over the past two years. "I just try to look after myself and really play. They wouldn't come here if I couldn't play."

Just when someone thinks about casting off the 16-year-old Kournikova as a player as thin on talent as the pinups she graces, she rips a winner down the line. Just when you believe she is a marketing creation dreamed up to add sex appeal to the game, Kournikova knocks the cynics silly by playing her way into the Wimbledon semifinals this year.

Just a year ago, Kournikova was considered more fluff than fury when she arrived in New York, but she quickly wowed everyone when she made it to the fourth round of the Open, beating Barbara Paulus on Stadium Court.

"That's where I made my first, biggest match," said Kournikova, who is Russian-born but distinctly American in style after spending much of her childhood in Florida. "This year, I had already played on Centre Court at Wimbledon, and so I'm used to that kind of big court. I felt very comfortable."

It is the crazy attention that can be irritating. And this is where her petulance shows. Any boy in the pack who thinks he has a chance at a prom date should know that the cool Kournikova -- with the Detroit Red Wings' Sergei Fedorov often at her side -- has been known to give groupies that fat-chance look as she slips on by.

At least she is honest. And she is definitely not shy about speaking her mind. She was not pleased to find out that 15-year-old Mirjana Lucic was extended a wild card by the Open. Under WTA Tour rules, 15-year-olds can play in only eight tournaments and no Grand Slam events, but the Open operates outside of tour rules and allowed Lucic to play.

"I think it's very unfair to me and to all the other players," Kournikova said. "You can't make any exceptions if you already made the rule."

She is not a fan of the rule. This year, she is allowed to play in only 13 tournaments plus the four Grand Slam events. Kournikova wants the full-time tennis life and cannot imagine living in a world outside the tour, knowing she would "get bored" staying in one city too long. Whatever normal teen-age life she is missing out on -- whether that means a stable school environment or working at McDonald's for gas money -- Kournikova does not consider herself a burn-out case in the making.

"I still think everyone is different," she said. "It doesn't mean that what happened to some of the other girls is going to happen to me. Obviously, I'm still here. And I am sure I'm going to be here, and nothing is going to happen to me.

"They shouldn't make those kinds of rules. I've been practicing my whole life to play. And I'm just like, you know, just waiting right now. For what, I don't know."

Typical teen, she cannot wait to be treated like an adult. Impatient youth. One day, she may be a serious rival for Martina Hingis. One day, her look will be less of an issue once she is recognized for being something besides "the bomb."

Not that she claims to notice the special attention from the young guys who claw after her autograph. As the bedlam continued Monday, one young guy yelled out, "I love you, Anna."

"I think that happens to everybody," Kournikova said, as if anyone believes that teen-age boys would risk life, limb and their pride for any other player.

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