- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England The first day at Wimbledon does strange things to people, especially if they've been wandering about without a hat in a sun as strong as yesterday. "Shall I take a picture of her?" said a girl to her boyfriend as an attractive blonde in a trouser suit was doing a television interview outside the players' entrance. "What on earth for?" he replied. "Well everyone else is," she said. "For god's sake," he sighed. "It's Sue Barker."
Sue Barker, Ronnie Barker, the Lord Chief Barker who cares? If it's famous, snap it. Anyone vaguely dressed like a tennis player sparked off an avalanche of whirrs and clicks, and however many millions the All England Club make from their annual garden party, it's petty cash compared to the printing and developing department at Boots.
The most photographed tennis player at Wimbledon every year is, by some margin, Anna Kournikova, which is quite an achievement for someone who generally parts company with the tournament so quickly that her courtesy car driver leaves the engine running. Anna was one of 11 "Ovas" in action on the opening day, losing her match to one, Tatiana Panova, and, according to a readers' poll in a tennis magazine, being relieved of her "sexiest woman player" title by yet another one, Daniela Hantuchova. It's Ova for Anna, in more ways than one.
There was no split decision for the glamour title in Kournikova's match against her fellow Russian, Panova, and if this had been the James Bond version of From Russia with Love, it would have been the equivalent of Tatiana Romanova versus Rosa Klebb. There were more cameramen than anyone could remember seeing before on Court 2, and not many lenses were aimed at Miss Panova's side of the net.
The biggest cheer of the match, in fact, came before a ball had been struck in anger, when Kournikova removed her tank top to reveal a bare midriff and a slit skirt that was more of a pelmet. After that, though, silence descended as Kournikova spent the first set giving a passable impression of someone who had mixed up her appointment book, and had turned up for a modelling engagement instead of a tennis match.
Kournikova's determination not to shed any perspiration at all was a disappointment to everyone, not least her male admirers in the crowd, and her clear intention not to get involved in long points led to a mixture of blistering winners and shots that would have been called out in the court next door. It was a bit like watching Devon Malcolm in a Test match. A rapid middle-stump yorker, followed by a leg-side wide and a full toss over the wicketkeeper's head.
Panova may be ranked the 22nd-best woman player in the world, but this tells you more about women's tennis than anything else, and she actually lost to the 45-year-old Martina Navratilova at Eastbourne last week. She has approximately half the talent of Kournikova but twice the application, and while her opponent was the clear winner in the curves stakes, Panova certainly had a better grasp of angles. She ran for everything, while Anna's shoes were relevant only for the purpose of advertising Adidas.
However, after losing the opening set 6-1, it all altered in the second when Kournikova, without ever changing tactics, started to hit more good shots than bad. She was broken to go 3-4 down with her opponent to serve, but then broke back twice to win the set 6-4, and actually appeared to be the stronger at 3-3 in the final set. However, Panova dug a bit deeper than Kournikova was prepared to do, and evidence of what this match meant to both of them came as they walked off. Panova was so emotionally drained she was close to blubbing, while Kournikova smiled (as she had done all match) and gave a cheery wave to the crowd.
The money she collected for losing pushed Kournikova's career earnings to more than $3 million, which, for someone who has not won a singles title of any description, tells you something about the obscene amounts of money sloshing around for players of modest ability. However, next to what she earns for modelling sports bras and adorning magazine covers, this is the kind of cash she probably keeps in a biscuit tin in the kitchen, and it makes you wonder whether she'll soon give up on tennis (it's only a hobby after all) and devote her full attention to the day job.
As a Russian with a deeper Florida accent than Chris Evert, Kournikova is entitled to feel a bit mixed up, and Evert has already advised her to give up the glamour work if she wants to make a serious go of her tennis. Kournikova, however, says that she doesn't get involved in half the modeling work people claim, and that she is still "100 percent committed to tennis."
"I didn't expect to do too great here this year, and my main goal was to enjoy myself and have a good time. I played much better than I have been doing, which is why I was smiling a lot on court. After all, I was close to winning against someone ranked 20-something in the world."
However, the difference between the Kournikovas and the Panovas is the difference between a Centre Court debenture holder and one of those hardy souls who turn up every year, where finally getting hold of a ticket is a triumph for patience, humor, the ability to sleep on pavements and a strong bladder. It all depends whether you want it or need it badly enough.


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