Do you remember Anna Kournikova? Do you remember the summer of 1997, when she was the coming star of women’s tennis, all pony tail and drop shots, working her way through Wimbledon as an unseeded genius?
Much has been written and said about Kournikova, not least after her retirement from first singles, then doubles. Most of it has been based around the fact that she appeared more model than tennis player, and it was a narrative that was convenient to follow when her career, which had started so promisingly, began to decline.
Back to the beginning
To tell the story properly, one can’t begin at Wimbledon 1997, but must travel back a little further than that. Arguably, if one talks to her coach, Kournikova was bound for stardom as early as five years old, but its better to at least let her become a proper tennis player first.
Kournikova was a name that was on the rise through 1995 and 1996, with Olympic appearances, a fourth round in the US Open (losing to eventual champion Steffi Graf) and a spot in Russia’s Fed Cup team. She had a great deal of promise, which was cemented by winning the WTA Newcomer of the Year award.
She was becoming known for her presence off the court by this stage. It was difficult at the time, and is even moreso in hindsight, to know how many of the stories around the Russian prodigy were fabricated to get her name, and picture, into the newspapers, and how much truth there was in any of the. Be it her coach telling her to respect other players, or claims of favouritism in terms of court allocation, Kournikova was big news.
It is also worth noting that women’s tennis was in something of a lull in the mid 1990s; the era of Steffi Graf was coming to an end, and it wasn’t certain where the next stars were coming from. The big hitters; the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, and so on, were yet to come to prominence and Kournikova was one of a few names who was thought of as one of the next big things.
Perhaps it was because it was where I saw her play most, but something about Wimbledon suited Kournikova. She wasn’t a power player, but she had a solid backhand, and a drop shot that was sublime. In 1997, we saw the best of that talent set in a run that took her past Chandra Rubin, Barbara Rittner (saving a match point), Anke Huber, Helena Sukova and Iva Majoli, fresh from the Croat’s French Open win.
The meeting with Martina Hingis in the semi-final was a real line in the sand for the new guard in women’s tennis; one 16 years old, the other 17, both viewed as the faces of the game for years to come. It is impossible not to acknowledge that the match was exactly what the press wanted – the two pretty young things of tennis facing one another, ideal to salivate over in that distasteful way that newspapers have made their modus operandi.
Hingis won that semi-final and went on to enjoy the better career, but for a while, it could have gone either way. The Swiss beat Jana Novotna in the final to secure her second grand slam title that season, before adding the US Open; Kournikova’s season rather spluttered after that, at Flushing Meadows she crashed out in the second round to Irina Spirlea.
So to 1998; and signs were good early on. At the Miami Open in March, Kournikova became just the 8th player to beat four top ten ranked players at the same tournament, before losing the final to Venus Williams in three sets.
That took the youngster into the World Top 20, and she kept climbing, reaching the top ten in June. Her defeat in Moscow to Farina Elia was the first time in 34 losses Kournikova had fallen to a player ranked below her in the world – a record – and her first defeat to a player outside the top fifteen for two years.
At this point, there seemed to be no stopping the Russian’s on-court progress. Yet the following years brought injuries; stress fractures to both feet, and considerable time lost to those. Kournikova’s doubles game was on the rise (she finished 1999 ranked number one in the world, no less, and won a first grand slam when paired with Hingis at the Australian Open).
The injuries began to mount, and this is important. As Kournikova’s tennis faded from view, her other enterprises became more prominent. It was, really, the injuries that took their toll on her career, and she listed in an interview how frequently she would miss tournaments.
“In ’97 I had a stress fracture and was out for three months,” she explained as long ago as 2003, “in ’98 I had a torn ligament in my thumb and was out for three months; in ’99 I had another stress fracture for three months; and then in 2001 I didn’t basically play the whole year.”
Allied with those injury problems, Kournikova was plagued by problems with her service – the further you look through her career statistics, the more double faults she made. Memorably, one match in the 1999 Australian Open against Miho Saeki saw her serve (or, rather fail to) 31 double faults.
Amidst injuries and loss of serving confidence, the last years of the former prodigy’s career must have been phenomenally frustrating to endure and her retirement, when it came, was inevitable.
Kournikova has not played professional tennis since 2003, the stockpile of injuries preventing her retaining fitness enough to enter a tournament where games come every couple of days.
Her tennis career is almost a footnote now, despite the two Australian Open doubles titles, despite the one-time number eight ranking and topping the doubles ranking. She might always have been better known for modelling, the FHM shoots, the sports bra adverts, the outfits she wore to various awards shows, but she was a very good tennis player and, had injuries not got the better of her, could have been better still.
In other words; her career might not have worked out as it looked like it would, but it wasn’t her fault.