Next Kournikova? These two focus more on game than looks

In Baltimore tomorrow, Sharapova, Harkleroad downplay glitz factor

These two seek to be the model of success

Tennis

December 03, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Anna Kournikova brought youthful glamour to women's professional tennis, but after seven full years on the WTA Tour, Kournikova has yet to win a tournament, and during 2003 she played only six matches and lost five.

Glitz and glamour she has in abundance but, as Andre Agassi found out years ago, image really isn't everything.

Still, that doesn't mean it doesn't have its place. And on the WTA Tour, the search for the next Kournikova, for the next leggy and shapely young woman to be, well, the next poster girl, is well under way.

The tour wants to find the next pretty face to give the game the pizzazz it can't seem to generate with beautiful tennis and the interest competitive play alone evidently can't create.

Sex appeal continues to be at least part of the game.

Two of the women who are constantly mentioned as prospects for this role are Ashley Harkleroad, 18, and Maria Sharapova, 16. Both will be at 1st Mariner Arena tomorrow for the Mercantile Tennis Challenge.

Harkleroad and Sharapova will play in the Future Legends Match that will start the evening. World No. 1 Andy Roddick and James Blake will play in the feature match.

Neither Harkleroad nor Sharapova, however, express much interest in the glitz blitz.

"I don't think it's really important to be the babe of tennis," Sharapova said, when asked earlier this fall. "I'm there to play tennis. That's my No. 1 priority. To be a babe, that's like the last thing on my mind."

Sharapova, who like Kournikova is from Russia, looks the part of a fashion model at 6 feet, 130 pounds. The New York Daily News has described her as the one most deserving of the "next Anna" tag, "[She] isn't afraid to show off her lovely frame," Dave Goldiner wrote. "A long blond ponytail flowing behind her, she walks with the self-assured gait of a runway star and boasts a scrapbook filled with magazine spreads."

And she already has something Kournikova doesn't - two tournament wins. The victories in Tokyo two weeks after the Open and in Quebec City make Sharapova, who is ranked No. 32, the youngest titlist on the tour this season. (The second title came by default.)

"Playing tennis and winning are what's important," said Harkleroad, who played well last spring and into the early summer, qualifying to the semifinals of two tournaments and to the third round of the French Open.

She tore a ligament in her right elbow after the French but tried to play Wimbledon. Sharapova beat her in the first round there, and Harkleroad took the rest of the summer off to heal. Since coming back, she hasn't made it past the second round of any tournament.

"But that's just the way tennis is," she said. "You know, it's up and down. You have injuries. You come back from them. You just have to deal with it."

As for off the court, she said, "I don't know much about what is said about me on the glamour side."

Harkleroad can see the fun in the glamour hunt, though. She remembers clearly the form-fitting, blue outfit she wore for her U.S. Open appearance last year - and a lot of people remember her for wearing it.

"Hey," she said when asked about it, "we're teenagers; it's supposed to be fun."

But Harkleroad, who has climbed from a ranking of No. 252 in 2002 to No. 52 currently, says the search for the next Kournikova is a fruitless one.

"The thing is everybody is trying to find another Anna Kournikova, and they're not going to do it," said Harkleroad, who grew up in Flintstone, Ga. "There is only one of her, and she came along at a time that was perfect for her. There are a lot of girls coming up now who are attractive, but I doubt any of them can be like Anna.

"And I don't want to be. There's a lot of pressure that would come with that, and the most important thing to me is to play tennis. I don't think about or want to think about other things, and I don't try to be something I'm not."

Basically, Harkleroad, about 5-7 and 121 pounds, is your typical American teenager. She dated Roddick three years ago when they were both in junior tennis - "He was my first real boyfriend," she said. Now, she's dating Alex Bogomolov Jr., who is also trying to make his way on the men's pro tennis tour.

"Alex is officially my boyfriend," Harkleroad happily said. "He might come to Baltimore with me. We'll see how our schedules work."

Tennis comes first and Harkleroad has plans for this offseason.

"I want to get stronger," she said. "I want more pop on my serve, to get to the net more and finish points at the net. I want to make it into the Top 30 this coming year and definitely, I want to win my first tournament."

At a glance

What: Mercantile Tennis Challenge

Site: 1st Mariner Arena

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Featured participants: Andy Roddick, James Blake, Ashley Harkleroad, Maria Sharapova

Tickets: Call 410-481-SEAT or visit ticketmaster.com

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