Kournikova getting back on track | TheUnion.com

Kournikova getting back on track

It was a brush with greatness, and it still has some of my friends looking at me with jealousy in their eyes.

That’s right – Anna Kournikova brushed against my shoulder. Yep, the left one right there.

Kournikova is playing at the Bank of the West Classic tennis tournament at Stanford University this week.

After five years of interviewing sweaty guys, this was a sublime moment. Never mind that I got the brush in a crowded media room at Stanford and that it was merely an accident of positioning by the center aisle – this was a high point in my career, at least in the eyes of my friends.

I’ve met and talked to NBA stars, members of the U.S. soccer team, international figure skaters and even world champion rodeo cowboys, but none have inspired the reaction from fans that Anna does.

She is alternately loved or loathed by the public, and the media have the same split personality when it comes to Kournikova.

Tuesday at the Bank of the West Classic, Kournikova defeated Anna Smashnova in two sets, 6-3, 6-2.

“That’s a great step forward,” said Kournikova afterwards. “It’s my first match win since Rome, I think.”

It was some good tennis, and Kournikova showed more confidence than she has since a series a injuries hobbled her play.

Prior to this, she had been bumped out in the first round of five straight tournaments. On this night, though, the hard work we’ve been hearing about finally paid off for her.

“I felt really good,” she said. “It felt like everything was good – my shots, my serve. I’m finally feeling comfortable on the court.”

And guess what?

The stands were filled. Like it or not, Kournikova brings in the crowds.

She was the only player that required extra security to hold back the crush of fans. An extra barricade had to be erected.

Women’s tennis really has come a long way, baby. In 1970, Billie Jean King and several other players started the evolution when they joined with a tennis publisher, Gladys Heldman, and started a new tournament.

It wasn’t a popular move with the tennis establishment and the players were banned from playing in the Grand Slams; but they held out, and by 1971 the fledgling women’s circuit had grown to 19 tournaments.

In 1973, King played former

Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” She won in three sets. A record 30,472 people watched the match.

There are now 67 tournaments on the tour, with more than $51 million in prize money. The women have even been outdrawing the men when it comes to television audiences.

That’s a long way indeed.

Maybe one of the best measures of the success of women’s tennis is how much talent matters.

Thirty years ago, the establishment, and much of the public, thought that women should be pretty and play pretty tennis.

Now it’s not enough to be pretty. Players need to be able to play.

That’s the mess Kournikova finds herself in. She’s pretty and she hasn’t been playing well.

Don’t count her out, though. She has always been more than just a pretty face. Go ahead and laugh, but Kournikova was ranked as high as No. 8 in the world before her injuries, and she was the No. 1 doubles player in the world.

Now she has a new coach, a new practice regimen and a desire to prove that she can indeed play the game.

When asked about fans who seem to have given up on her, she had a quick answer.

“That will be too bad for them,” she said. The only thing missing was the wink.

Can she work her way back into the top 10? Probably, but there will be a lot of obstacles. Maybe she’s finally ready to overcome them.

In the meantime, Kournikova plays again today. And guess what? The stands will probably be packed – and that’s good for women’s tennis.

Shawn Swillinger is The Union’s sports editor. He can be reached at 477-4240.

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