Beauty and the beast

Tennis: She is the sport's glamour queen, but Anna Kournikova has a competitive fire that keeps her focused on her first priority: her game.

November 22, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The door opens into the players' lounge, and there is Anna Kournikova, sitting on a couch, eating a cold-cut sandwich. She is dressed in a sweat suit. Her long, blond hair is bundled into a braided bun on the back of her head, and she looks like a typical teen-ager.

Kournikova, however, is not known for being typical.

The young woman, who will appear tomorrow night with No. 2-ranked Lindsay Davenport in the Chevy Chase Bank Tennis Challenge at Baltimore Arena, is the current glamour queen of professional tennis.

She is one of the most sought-after players on tour. Crowds gather to watch her sweat through practices. Fans scramble for autograph position as she is about to leave the court after a match.

Photographers chase after her. Television cameras zoom in for close-ups.

Even on the Internet, Kournikova is -- according to a Yahoo! search -- the subject of 18,000 Web pages and is the most searched athlete based on Lycos' weekly list of the 50 most popular people, places and things users are searching for.

All for this 18-year-old, ranked No. 12 in the world, who has yet to win her first WTA tournament.

For the most part, she has always seemed to enjoy the adoration. And, on first meeting, you might expect her to be aloof or arrogant. Walking into a players' lounge, you might anticipate finding her polishing her nails or primping in some other way.

Instead, Kournikova is girl-next-door charming and has a tendency toward warm laughter.

"I can't change what people think," Kournikova said. "It's like there are two people -- the tennis player and the other Anna Kournikova. Sometimes, people don't know why I'm here. I am not here for fun."

She appears to find it frustrating no one seems to realize how hard she has worked to be a successful player.

"Don't ask me about glamour," she said, taking a big bite of her sandwich. "You can see, it's not that glamorous. It's a job, 24 hours a day. I'm trying to play tennis, and not just for fun. I would not put in all these hours for 12 years of my life for fun."

And when she is on the court, there is no doubt about her seriousness. Her expressive face reflects everything, as her emotions slide from intensity to irritation to determination.

She let's loose with an "Oh, my God!" when she misses a forehand. And then a satisfied smile crosses her face when a backhand overhead lands deep and unreturnable in the far corner of the court.

Last week, when she lost to No. 5 Mary Pierce in three sets in the first round of the Chase Championships, tears of disappointment glistened in her eyes.

Pam Shriver, the former highly ranked pro who created Baltimore's charity tennis event, said Kournikova's situation is a trade-off.

"The reality on the court is her competitiveness," Shriver said. "You can see that she works hard, that tennis is her No. 1 priority and all the other stuff is a second-tier priority. It could be a distraction. She is very popular. But she doesn't have to worry about a crowd being against her.

"And as I watch her, on the court and off the court, I see only 100 percent professionalism."

Kournikova came on the pro tour in 1996 like a burst of sunlight. At 14, she became the youngest player to compete and win in Fed Cup competition, and that same year she was named the WTA Tour's Most Impressive Newcomer.

Since then, she has risen as high as No. 10 in the rankings, but despite having wins over nearly every Top 10 player at one time or another, she has yet to win a tour event. In Grand Slams, her best has been a 1997 semifinal appearance at Wimbledon.

"I have goals," Kournikova said. "Though I'm not telling you what they are, everybody wants to achieve something. In my business, everybody wants to win. But everybody has their own time. Martina [Hingis] won her first Grand Slam at 16, but Lindsay didn't win her first until she was 22. There is no time frame, no age frame. For everyone it is different."

She continues munching away on lunch as she talks. Her parents, Alla and Sergei, are seated nearby, as is her coach, Eric van Harpen, whom Kournikova introduces amid a peal of giggles as "Eric, vhat Happened?"

Van Harpen also laughs, and offers a return ribbing.

"If Anna had been on the Titanic," van Harpen said, "she might not have made it off the boat because she wouldn't have been able to decide whether to save her boyfriend or her telephone."

Van Harpen turns serious.

"For Anna, it is not so easy," the coach said. "She is 18. She is the beauty queen, the pinup girl, the Playboy cover. It is always young boys, `Anna, you can have my body. Anna, you can have my blood. Anna, you can have everything.' For all that, she is quite normal."

He said she likes children and animals and is honest.

"I think that says a lot if you can tell me that about a young woman," van Harpen said. "I like her. I think it speaks well of her that I can say it is nice to work with her, something that isn't always true about top women players."

Challenge facts

What: Chevy Chase Bank Tennis Challenge

Where: Baltimore Arena

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Who: The Salomon Smith Barney Legends Match featuring Lori McNeil, Brian Gottfried, Johan Kriek and Ilana Kloss; followed by the featured singles match between No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and No. 12 Anna Kournikova; followed by the Orioles' Challenge Match, with outfielder Brady Anderson and Kournikova facing shortstop Mike Bordick and Davenport.

Benefits: Baltimore Community Foundation and area children's charities.

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