When London's ever-leering tabloids were reduced to running
photos of Tim Henman's nervous wife, Lucy, last week, it could
mean only one thing: Anna Kournikova was truant from Wimbledon.
Depending on whom you believe, Kournikova has a back injury or
has come to realize she can mint money without breaking a sweat.
Whatever, tennis's great fantasy figure hasn't played a
sanctioned match in more than a year. "I'm still playing and
working out every day," she said last week, not ready to declare
herself retired. "My goal is to become healthy."
But if Kournikova was physically absent from the All-England
Club, her influence was everywhere. For we live in the age of the
Soviette take-ova. Six of the top 13 seeds were Russian,
including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Maria
Sharapova--and it's clear who paved the path. "Anna helped us
understand that we could be the same as her," says Anastasia
Myskina, 23, "or even better."
At the French Open, Myskina beat fellow Russian Elena Dementieva
in the finals, and Sharapova looked strong on Monday plowing into
the Wimbledon quarters. Like Marushka dolls, these prodigies who
can hit the bejesus out of the ball just keep coming. If the
world junior rankings are an indication, in a few years more than
half the WTA's top 50 players could be Russians. Meanwhile, the
tennis program at Moscow's Spartak Club, now known as "the Anna
factory," has twice as many women as when Kournikova trained
there as a teen. "Russia always had great athletes," Kournikova
says. "Now there is more chance to play and travel."
Kournikova's timing was perfect. She was born in Moscow in 1981,
and her ascendancy coincided with the fall of communism. She
became the exponent of the New Russia--multilingual, brash and
capitalist. She was a talented player, reaching the 1997
Wimbledon semifinals as a 16-year-old. But her real gift was an
ability to swaddle herself in celebrity. As she once famously put
it to SI, she was not a tennis player; she was a star. And she
was paid like one. Her $3.5 million in career prize money was
easily eclipsed by her off-court income. Girls in Moscow and
Murmansk, seeing both her tennis success and the velvet rope
lifestyle it afforded--one glamorous sighting: the pages of the
most recent SI swimsuit issue--had a source of inspiration. Says
19-year-old Kuznetsova, "Anna showed there was possibility
Divas, of course, tend to not tolerate their own kind. Sharapova,
a leggy, blonde 17-year-old who has won three WTA tournaments,
has been particularly aggressive in fashioning herself as the
anti-Anna. "You can't compare us," she recently brayed. "People
seem to forget that Anna isn't in the picture anymore. It's Maria
time now." But Sharapova's marketing strategy--posing
suggestively for men's magazines, using the Internet to brand her
image--comes straight from the Kournikova handbook.
The irony, of course, is that as her disciples thrive,
Kournikova, at 23, is in E! True Hollywood Story mode. Her
parents are suing her for two thirds of her $5 million Miami
Beach mansion. (Anna has countersued, claiming she only put their
names on the deed for planning purposes.) She may or may not be
married to Enrique Iglesias, and may or may not be pregnant. She
is kicking off transatlantic boat races, attending B-movie
premieres, pitching a reality show and generally leading La Vida
Hilton. History will probably recall Kournikova as an
underachieving player, albeit a pulchritudinous one. But as
tennis adjusts to life without Anna, we ought to acknowledge her
role in the Russian Revolution. If nothing else, it makes her
famous for something other than being famous.
--L. Jon Wertheim
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"If I fight Tyson, it'd be sad. But people love a train wreck."
--LENNOX LEWIS Q&A, PAGE 24