Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Kournikova Remains a Work in Progress

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Kournikova Remains a Work in Progress

Article excerpt

AMELIA ISLAND -- Eric Van Harpen needed something to calm himself down. Anna Kournikova's coach had just watched tennis' celebrity icon and expectation-burdened player commit 50 unforced errors in struggling through her opening match Tuesday at the Bausch & Lomb Championships.

The moment Kournikova finished her 7-5, 7-6 win over Anne Kremer, a stressed-out Van Harpen made a beeline for the Absolut vodka booth behind the east stadium stands and asked for a free sample. There were six bottles on display at the table.

"My nerves are shot," Van Harpen said to the lady behind the counter. "When she plays more matches like that, you can reserve this whole table for me."

Van Harpen was only half-joking. His frustration with this particular match -- along with the relief that his prized pupil won while playing far from her best tennis -- was another signal from Team Anna of how much potential they believe she has for greatness. And also how far she has to go before her game equals her immense popularity.

"I don't think there's any player who gives so many points away like Anna," said Van Harpen. "And she still wins a lot of matches. Now imagine how she could play when she wouldn't do that?"

The problem is, Kournikova has done something unprecedented in the world of tennis. On looks alone, she became a mega-star while her game was, and still remains, a work in progress. Ever since her run to the Wimbledon semifinals three years ago, the public infatuation with every facet of Kournikova's life has only intensified the focus on a tennis question that her entourage wishes would go away: When will she win her first tournament?

Bausch & Lomb officials would love for that to happen this week, especially with the event's other major gate attraction, Serena Williams, taking an early exit. But if there's anything that Team Anna is tired of discussing, other than refuting rumors about her love life and overblown confrontations with American Airlines employees, it's analyzing why she's still awaiting that first WTA singles title.

At No. 14 in the world, Kournikova is the only current Top 20 player without that distinction on her resume. She has reached two finals, losing to Martina Hingis at Hilton Head last year and to Venus Williams in 1998 at Lipton.

"I don't feel like I have to put anything behind me," said Kournikova. "I'm just out there playing, trying to improve every match. My ranking is more important than winning my first tournament."

If that sounds like a rehearsed answer, it's because it is. Van Harpen admits he advised Kournikova to say that for two reasons. One, it's a truthful statement because her coach, agent Phil de Picciotto of Octagon and her family are concentrating more on Kournikova's long-term tennis future than short-term results. …

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