- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

It's getting tougher and tougher to justify the Anna fix.
Nobody wants to watch tennis with his hands covering his eyes. But if you care about the game even a little, she keeps cutting down on the options.
Monday at the U.S. Open, Anna Kournikova hit a new low. She made 40 unforced errors in just over 40 minutes and lost her first match, 6-3, 6-0 to Indonesian teen-ager Angelique Widjaja. Kournikova exited to boos.
On the court, Kournikova looked lost, like Rick Ankiel holding a tennis racket, unable to hit the side of a barn it when it counted. Only Kournikova is better looking and a million times more popular. And she looked as if she couldn't care less.
Maybe that's why it's time to avert your eyes, for a little while at least for her good more than your own. Right now, what Kournikova needs is a little less of the spotlight.
Sports can be a glamorous business, but it's always a tough one. There's no way to paper over a lack of skill or prop up a fragile ego for long. Old-timers liked to say that the ball always "finds" you. It's consistently found Anna lacking.
Anna is on a par with Tiger and Michael, above Andre and Venus and Serena in her own sport, when the measure is recognition. And she's in another stratosphere still when you throw in the number of pictures.
But unless she learns to play better, it's going to wind up a very short flight. Kournikova, her handlers and her enablers inside the tennis world and out have to be able to see that by now. The one place she absolutely has to be on a tennis court could turn out to be the only place where overexposure can seriously damage her image.
Putting her on one of the show courts at Louis Armstrong Stadium was a nod to her drawing power, not her ranking (37th). One New York newspaper noted that the arena was packed with the 18-to-34 male demographic, then quoted this exchange between two guys who arrived midway through the prior men's match.
"Do you want to leave?" one asked as the men's match was ending.
"Not until I see what she looks like and what she's wearing," the other replied.
When Kournikova burst onto the scene with a surprising run to the Wimbledon semifinals in 1997, you could say you followed women's tennis for the tennis. Just like you read Playboy or FHM for the articles.
But the wheels soon came off. She began 2001 by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and she hasn't won a Grand Slam singles match since.
Kournikova is still just 21, but it doesn't figure to get easier any time soon. Venus and Serena are only improving, and a few women who are both hungrier and more powerful than Kournikova are poised to pounce on any titles that slip through the sisters' hands.
Kournikova was asked after the Open debacle if a few more performances that bad would drive the paparazzi away.
"Good," she snapped. "Good if they don't show up anymore."
Up to a point.
Jim Litke
ASSOCIATED PRESS


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