- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It has been five years since Anna Kournikova’s last Women’s Tennis Association match, and “Annamania” has cooled a bit. But the sport’s all-time pin-up cover girl remains an attraction and a topic of conversation.

Three weeks before the start of the Olympics in Beijing, her picture adorns the cover of SI China even though she has nothing to do with the games.

This is one reason she also remains the girl a lot of people love to hate.

A pop culture phenomenon since she turned pro in 1995 at age 14, Kournikova combined blatant, bountiful sex appeal with a modicum of talent. She became a marketing empire unto herself, not to mention the object of desire for a generation of young men. She was rich and famous and beautiful, and she also played a little tennis.

She played enough tennis, in fact, to have to retire from the pro circuit at 22 because of back problems. But she made an impact, including ticking people off. She is among the most polarizing figures in sports history. To this day, her critics despise her and everything she purportedly stands for. They hate the hype and the headlines, the alleged triumph of style over substance, how she picked the glitz and glamour over the serves and volleys.

Even fellow athletes have chimed in. Pro golfer and part-time model Kim Hall recently told the Los Angeles Times she doesn’t want to be known as “another Kournikova.” Ouch.

Good or bad, she has become part of the vernacular. She is still a name, and people want to see her, and they can. Kournikova is here with the St. Louis Aces for a WorldTeam Tennis match Wednesday night against the Washington Kastles.

Oh, and one of the Kastles’ players is Justin Gimelstob.

Last month, Gimelstob, a colorful tennis commentator and columnist, went on “The Junkies” radio show on WJFK (FM-106.7) and spoke for the legion of Anna-bashers by aiming a volley of incendiary comments at Kournikova. This, in itself, was not unusual for Gimelstob. As a columnist for SI.com, he had taken his shots before.

“I’m disappointed someone with so much talent sold out to fame and fortune,” he wrote in 2005, illuminating the popular notion.

The difference this time was Gimelstob made it personal. He even (kiddingly, it is presumed) threatened to hurt Kournikova physically. For good measure, he made a complimentary reference to Nicole Vaidisova’s anatomy and called a couple of French players “sexpots.”

Outrage ensued. Tennis legend and WTT co-founder Billie Jean King chided Gimelstob and suspended him for a game. The Tennis Channel, for whom Gimelstob does commentary, let him work on its Wimbledon telecasts but apologized on its Web site and asked Gimelstob to donate to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Duly chastened, Gimelstob apologized. He said there was “no excuse” for his actions, he was “extremely disappointed in himself” and he hoped his “heartfelt remorse can begin to heal any wounds I have caused.”

The healing did not begin. The U.S. Tennis Association said Gimelstob’s comments were “derogatory and demeaning to female tennis players and to women in general” and canceled a series of commercials of him promoting the U.S. Open Series.

That prompted yet another mea culpa from Gimelstob.

“I’m sorry I didn’t represent [the USTA] or myself in the way that I feel like could have should have,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m apologetic and remorseful and wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”

But here’s the big question: Will he play doubles against Kournikova tonight? As of Tuesday, it was undecided.

Through a team spokesman, Kastles coach Thomas Blake said, “We’ll decide the lineup the way we would for any other match, based on who gives us the best chance of winning.”

Meaning it won’t be based on the WWE-type atmosphere Gimelstob created. Blake said the decision would be made sometime today.

For her part, Kournikova isn’t talking about this publicly. During a conference call with reporters, the first question was about Gimelstob.

Her answer: “I’m kind of sorry about this, but I really don’t want to get into any of the off-court stuff. I’m just gonna kind of take the high road and not get into this discussion.”

She added, “You know, WTT is not about those sorts of things. It’s about keeping it fun and positive and really the game of tennis, playing for the fans. So I really don’t want to get into any of those discussions. I really am not playing attention to that, and I don’t want to give it any more significance than it has already received.”

Kournikova was not the first and hardly the last female athlete to market her sex appeal, to have her life and romantic liaisons (Sergei Fedorov, now with the Capitals, pop star Enrique Iglesias, etc.) made a matter of public record and make millions off of it. And compared with some, Kournikova is almost modest. Although a number of Web sites promise nude pictures (as determined by professional research), she has not knowingly posed nude for profit.

But Serena Williams appeared partially nude in Jane Magazine. Katarina Witt posed nude. Practically every female Australian Olympic athlete has posed nude. The latest is tennis player Ashley Harkleroad (who?), cover girl of the August issue of Playboy and the featured subject of an article headlined, “Nude Tennis, Anyone?”

Yet Kournikova remains the poster girl, literally, for the sports-sex connection. Long absent from the tour, she still was voted the “most stylish” female player in a British newspaper poll taken at Wimbledon earlier in the month. Fueled by the symbiotic forces of Internet access and celebrity obsession, her timing was perfect. Former pro Mary Carillo, a commentator for ESPN and other networks, called her “the most downloaded athlete in any sport.”

Still, all good things must end. Russian Maria Sharapova made more money in 2007 than any female athlete in history, according to Forbes magazine, with most of the $24 million coming directly from tennis. The rest was advertising and endorsements. Ana Ivanovic, a Serbian, also is starting to cash in.

The difference, of course, is that Sharapova has been ranked No. 1 and Ivanovic was the top seed at Wimbledon. They can play. Kournikova has never been close to where they are, and this drives people crazy. Sometimes they go on the radio and vent about it.

“She’s grist for so many people,” Carillo said. “She’s a pin-up girl.”

But then she adds, “And that never was really true. She could play.”

What? Kournikova could play? She never won a singles title on the WTA tour. She did win 16 doubles titles, including two Australian Opens, but that was doubles. She was once ranked as high as No. 8 in the world.

At age 9, Kournikova emigrated to the United States with her parents. In three years, she was in international junior events.

“She was more than just a pretty face,” Carillo said. “She was a better player than people gave her credit for.”

Kournikova, however, kept feeding the beast. She loved the attention, loved cashing the checks.

“People paid so much attention to her, and she certainly didn’t shy from all that,” Carillo said. “But that’s OK. People make those kind of decisions. I just don’t like it when she gets marginalized as just a cutie pie.”

Carillo is among those who argue that Kournikova was a significant figure in tennis who helped open doors for the influx of female Russian players like Sharapova and Ivanovic. There was the Olympic movement, “and the other big thing was Anna,” Carillo said.

“There’s a lot of prize money, it’s glamorous, and here’s Anna Kournikova making a huge name for herself and achieving all kinds of fame. Not just the covers of tennis magazines. She’s on People magazine. Not just the back pages of newspapers. She’s on the front pages. The Russians who came after her have become more accomplished, but she’s the impetus.”

Now 27, Kournikova lives in Miami Beach, Fla., does charity work with children, plays tennis when she feels like it and has absolutely no regrets. None.

“I know what I’ve achieved,” she said, adding that public perception is “not something I worry about. Really, everybody’s got their own lives and too bad, you know. I’ve had so many things said about me. It’s really not something you can worry about.

“I know that I come from the Soviet Union, that we had nothing. I mean literally nothing,” she said. “I grew up in a one-room apartment with five people. I can’t believe now I’m living in America. You know, my amazing house, living in Florida, having all these opportunities. Tennis gave me a life. Tennis gave me opportunities.”

What a country.

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