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Can Kourni join tennis' elite?

Riley Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Anna Kournikova's rare beauty has been well documented, but can the Russian sensation make the move to tennis great? No longer the ingenue, "Kourni" needs a big victory to make a name for herself as a serious tennis player, and not just as an international sex symbol.

The 19-year-old sports goddess has all the makings to perform well on fast courts, with hard, flat ground strokes, deft angle play, and solid volleys. But she lacks the killer instinct needed to title on the WTA Tour, how else can you explain zero singles championships in five years of professional tennis?

It would appear as though Kournikova needs to play in more of the "little" tournaments overseas to land in the win column, but her high-profile persona and big-time sponsors prevent the tennis teen from playing in the circuit's lesser events. She wouldn't be giving her products the full exposure they receive/require in the bigger markets.

Kournikova typically plays well against lower-ranked opponents, but struggles against higher-ranked stars, specifically Top-10 performers (Hingis, Davenport, the Williams sisters, Seles). She went against part of this theory recently, however, disappointing her faithful by bowing out against then world No. 58 Justine Henin in the third round of the U.S. Open.

I guess the teenage vixen is still too busy selling/endorsing underwear, watches, sports apparel, athletic equipment, etc.

Kournikova did show tremendous promise at Wimbledon three years ago, when she soared all the way to the semifinals at the tender age of 16.

She does possess some on-court strengths, such as athleticism, a nice forehand and quickness at the baseline; but she also displays some glaring weaknesses, like a flimsy serve, a feeble backhand, and a just-above-average return game. The stronger players like Venus, Serena and Davenport tee off on Kourni's flat, often short serves.

Will she be able to improve upon her shortcomings to contend with the big girls, or in a tennis world where three of the Top-6 women are 20 years of age or younger, is time running out for the blonde bombshell?

Kournikova, currently ranked 13th in the world, has not so much as reached a final this year, despite showing improved play and focus over the past few months.

She's a pedestrian 35-19 in singles this season, but has managed to secure five semifinal berths -- three of which came in the U.S. (Scottsdale, Stanford and San Diego). The picture of health that is Kournikova posted a 35-19 mark for the entire 1999 campaign, meaning she graced us with her presence in only 19 events all year. And Kourni is a dismal -- perhaps expected -- 1-9 against Hingis, Davenport, Venus, Serena and Seles this season.

The Moscow native/Miami resident, however, was ranked No. 1 in the world in women's doubles at the end 1999. And her best-ever singles ranking placed her 10th in the summer of 1998.

Tennis aside, titles or not titles, Kournikova is the sport's top marketing weapon. The living fashion statement might not have any trophies to call her own, but she can sit back and count the money thanks to lucrative deals with the likes of Rolex, Yonex, Schwab and adidas. The superstar has said that if she wasn't a professional tennis player she would like to be an actress. That desire to become a Thespian could occur sooner than later should she fail to develop any weapons in the near future.

Her worldwide popularity was confirmed earlier this summer when Kournikova was presented with the "Most Searched Athlete in the World" award, after research conducted by Lycos. The legendary Michael Jordan finished second behind Anna Mania, with the rest of the list being rounded out by Brandi Chastain, Vince Carter, Muhammad Ali, Allen Iverson, Katarina Witt, Martina Hingis, Jackie Robinson and skateboarder Tony Hawk.

While we're on the topic of sports icons, it's only fair to mention that Kournikova has been dating a fellow athlete for some time. Her on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with hockey star -- and fellow Russian -- Sergei Fedorov has been well publicized. Kourni has also been linked to another Russian hockey czar...Pavel Bure.

Back to the tennis, I think Kournikova's probably as good as she's gonna get. But on a lighter side, her 2001 calendar -- a 16- month celebration of glamour and physical ability -- is now available.

Kournikova's enormous popularity transcends itself across cultures the world over, but just don't expect the hot racquet babe to capture a major tournament any time soon.


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