Infotainment Factory: The 'gross' secret behind Anna Kournikova

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Tuesday, 12 February 2019

The 'gross' secret behind Anna Kournikova


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Anna Kournikova is one of the 10 most important players in the history of women’s tennis, despite never winning a WTA Tour singles tournament.

That is the opinion of New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg, who elaborated on his claim on the ‘No Challenges Remaining’ podcast with WTA Insider senior writer Courtney Nguyen.

Rothenberg also revealed the “creepy and gross” aspect to Kournikova’s explosion as a global superstar: her discovery by management giant IMG at age 10 in Russia, with her looks a major factor even at that age.

“Even before her results started, even when she was a junior, people talked about her at IMG – which is creepy and gross, and it still happens to this day; ‘Oh my God, you should see this 12-year-old, she’s beautiful’,” Rothenberg said.

“People saw her as this package, and she became that.”

Kournikova became a player who despite making the Wimbledon semi-finals on debut at 16, never won a pro singles title and banked a relatively modest $US3.5 million in career prizemoney across 12 years – yet earned $US10 million per year in endorsements at her peak. She held deals with Adidas, Omega and Berlei; the bra company’s slogan was, ‘Only the balls should bounce’. She even did a $US10 million deal with early search engine company Lycos.

Kournikova was a marketing juggernaut. She was also an unrivalled drawcard for tournaments and completely changed the way people thought about women’s tennis and mainstream celebrity, Rothenberg said.

“She in the late '90s completely, I think, changed the way the sport was looked [at] and was talked about and was interpreted and evaluated, in ways that have lasted forever,” he said.

“Anna Kournikova … was known, first and foremost, for being beautiful and sexy, and it was like at this bizarre time in the world – the dawn of the internet – and she was always in the ranks of ‘the most downloaded woman on the internet’ and had this discussion about her, people going nuts for her in this beginning of search engines, beginning of jpegs on the internet, people downloading pictures ... Jeeves got asked a lot about Anna Kournikova.

“We talked about Chrissie [Evert] being a great package for the sport, because she was this all-American, pretty girl who was also a great athlete and those two went together well. Anna was seen as being only beautiful, and people completely overlooked and minimised and diminished, I think, her tennis. Because she was not a bad player.”

Kournikova reached world No.8 in singles and No.1 in doubles, winning two Australian Opens with Martina Hingis. Yet the lack of singles title haunted her.

According to her famed coach Nick Bollettieri, she just never had a big weapon.

"The Andres, the Couriers, the Serenas, the Sharapovas - most of them had a big killer forehand. We did not get that out of Anna," he told CNN in 2015, having recalled that his first impression of her game at age 10 was, ‘Holy mackerel’.

"That lack of a weapon, that lack of a killer shot, I think that was probably the reason she didn't win a grand slam singles."

Kournikova was once named FHM Magazine’s sexiest woman alive (2002). But she also once ranked No.1 in an ESPN poll for sport’s most overrated athletes, and 18th in another ranking sport's biggest flops.

Which is madness, Rothenberg says.

“I completely baulk at anyone calling Anna Kournikova a flop or a failure, because she was the highest-paid female athlete in the world. If your job … is to make a living, she did that better than anybody else ever had,” he said.

“She didn’t do it in a way that people necessarily respect, cruelly, but she did it in a way that was successful.

“She’s still kind of considered a slur. If you call a player a Kournikova-type on the tour, it’s not a compliment. But people still try to have a little bit of Column A and Column B in there.”

Nguyen said Kournikova had changed the way potential tennis stars were scouted by agents.

“That became what agents were looking for. We want you to be good at tennis, but there’s also the secondary component of, ‘We need you to look good on a billboard, we want sponsors to be interested in you’, and that cynical side of things,” she said.

Rothenberg said Kournikova had revolutionised the optics of women’s tennis, in ways good and bad.

“Her sort of mould of being this hyper-feminine, hyper-exotic, Eastern European blonde in this bare midriff and tight outfits, and all these sorts of things – I think you can still see that archetype so clearly in women’s tennis,” he said.

“Even just in terms of the default look of what people wear on court now: there’s a lot of women with ponytails, a lot of tight-fitting dresses. If you look at tennis before Kournikova - and the Williamses were wearing tighter clothing eventually, too, but I think Kournikova did it first – she started that whole archetype of this femininity at the forefront.

“She was seen in women’s tennis as being corrective to the sort of lavender menace, this cloud of, ‘They’re all lesbians’, [to] ‘No, no – look at Anna Kournikova, she could not possibly be more heterosexual if she tried’. She’s dating all these Russian hockey players and having this mysterious love life that was just tabloid fodder and being titillating in all these ways that are getting 14-year-old boys to chase her around the grounds at Wimbledon.”

Rothenberg branded Kournikova’s impact as “seismic”, a pop-culture appeal reflected somewhat in the ongoing career of Canadian glamour girl Eugenie Bouchard, currently ranked world No.80. Even more so than Bouchard, Kournikova sometimes copped the ire of rivals – notably Nathalie Tauziat and Conchita Martinez - for her popularity and commercial success.

In 2000, a 19-year-old Kournikova was handed a centre court match at Wimbledon when she was not even seeded (she beat world No.10 Sandrine Testud in three sets).

“That, again, is where important doesn’t stick to good. I think you have to understand the Kournikova archetype at the very least to really get a clear picture of women’s tennis and why it is what it is, and why it’s seen how it’s seen,” Rothenberg said.

“Sex and tennis had been together for a long time, but Kournikova did it in a way that was attention-grabbing and attention-dominating in the sport like none other.

“She got a huge amount of resentment from a lot of her peers, women who had better results than her, better rankings than her and didn’t get anywhere near the attention. And on the occasion they did get brought into a press conference, they would just get asked about Anna Kournikova and they’d resent her even more for that.”

Rothenberg said he has even been told by someone that when they went to the tennis, they expected all the female players to be pretty.

“It’s off-putting to hear that, but I understand where that comes from. And that comes from this sort of Kournikova model that tennis leaned into real hard,” he said.

“With some conflict; there were people who obviously resisted Kournikova and her presence, but the impact she had on the business side of it was undeniable and I think that she – along with the Williamses – made women’s tennis the sort of sensation at the turn of the millennium that it was. Her role in that can’t be overstated.

“I get people baulking at it – it’s uncomfortable, I think, to realise her importance.”

Nguyen’s tennis journalism is keenly focused in the sport itself: forehands, backhands, tactics, wins and losses. Yet she said that players couldn’t be upset about the commercial benefits that players who focused on glamour brought to the sport.

“If their presence in the sport means that tournaments are able to put butts in seats, which means that they can remain viable, which means that they can make sure that the cheque that they pay you clears … I understand being mad, but really, I don’t know about being mad,” she said.

“She gets a lot of stick in a very unfair way, in my opinion, because I think that if you were at some point a top 10 player, you did pretty good. [Plus] she was a great doubles player.

“It [sex appeal] is just always going to be part of the sport. With Kournikova, she just kind of came around at a time and was kind of that perfect person to take it to a different level. In all fairness, Anna wanted to take it to that level. She was never being asked to do something she didn’t want to do.”

Rothenberg added: “She was calling her own shots, to a large degree. She was not a puppet.”

Kournikova’s ongoing lack of singles success saw her become a punchline. At one point, The Letterman Show ran Anna Kournikova “Play of the Day” jokes, showing the star adjusting her ponytail, drinking water or hitting a poor shot. She also became a villain by fans who railed against the discrepancy between her popularity and playing success.

She retired from singles shockingly early: her final WTA singles match was played at age 21, in April 2003. She had already left an unforgettable mark.

“She inspired passions from both directions like nobody else in the sport – in a very short career, too, she retired real young,” Rothenberg said.

“In terms of time spent on court and time spent late in draws, her impact was incredibly outsized. I think she was just a very important person.”

In the end, the combination of being a good-not-great player and a megastar proved too much for Kournikova, who ended her career with a 209-129 singles record (plus 16 doubles titles). While she banked a Hollywood film credit in the Jim Carrey-Renee Zellweger comedy Me, Myself and Irene, that elusive WTA singles title never came and neither did widespread respect.

"It turned into a marketing monster that ended up eating itself. It felt like it was too much too quick. And it just wasn't sustainable," sports PR and marketing expert David Skilling told CNN in 2015.

Yet at age 37, her estimated personal wealth is $US50 million, and she shares gorgeous one-year-old twins (Nicholas and Lucy) with pop superstar Enrique Iglesias.

As Rothenberg says, she's been a success by nearly any normal measure and no one who lived through her era of tennis will forget the impact of 'Annamania'.

Anna Kournikova is one of the 10 most important players in the history of women’s tennis, despite never winning a WTA Tour singles tournament.

That is the opinion of New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg, who elaborated on his claim on the ‘No Challenges Remaining’ podcast with WTA Insider senior writer Courtney Nguyen.

Rothenberg also revealed the “creepy and gross” aspect to Kournikova’s explosion as a global superstar: her discovery by management giant IMG at age 10 in Russia, with her looks a major factor even at that age.

“Even before her results started, even when she was a junior, people talked about her at IMG – which is creepy and gross, and it still happens to this day; ‘Oh my God, you should see this 12-year-old, she’s beautiful’,” Rothenberg said.

“People saw her as this package, and she became that.”

Kournikova became a player who despite making the Wimbledon semi-finals on debut at 16, never won a pro singles title and banked a relatively modest $US3.5 million in career prizemoney across 12 years – yet earned $US10 million per year in endorsements at her peak. She held deals with Adidas, Omega and Berlei; the bra company’s slogan was, ‘Only the balls should bounce’. She even did a $US10 million deal with early search engine company Lycos.

Kournikova was a marketing juggernaut. She was also an unrivalled drawcard for tournaments and completely changed the way people thought about women’s tennis and mainstream celebrity, Rothenberg said.

“She in the late '90s completely, I think, changed the way the sport was looked [at] and was talked about and was interpreted and evaluated, in ways that have lasted forever,” he said.

“Anna Kournikova … was known, first and foremost, for being beautiful and sexy, and it was like at this bizarre time in the world – the dawn of the internet – and she was always in the ranks of ‘the most downloaded woman on the internet’ and had this discussion about her, people going nuts for her in this beginning of search engines, beginning of jpegs on the internet, people downloading pictures ... Jeeves got asked a lot about Anna Kournikova.

“We talked about Chrissie [Evert] being a great package for the sport, because she was this all-American, pretty girl who was also a great athlete and those two went together well. Anna was seen as being only beautiful, and people completely overlooked and minimised and diminished, I think, her tennis. Because she was not a bad player.”

Kournikova reached world No.8 in singles and No.1 in doubles, winning two Australian Opens with Martina Hingis. Yet the lack of singles title haunted her.

According to her famed coach Nick Bollettieri, she just never had a big weapon.

"The Andres, the Couriers, the Serenas, the Sharapovas - most of them had a big killer forehand. We did not get that out of Anna," he told CNN in 2015, having recalled that his first impression of her game at age 10 was, ‘Holy mackerel’.

"That lack of a weapon, that lack of a killer shot, I think that was probably the reason she didn't win a grand slam singles."

Kournikova was once named FHM Magazine’s sexiest woman alive (2002). But she also once ranked No.1 in an ESPN poll for sport’s most overrated athletes, and 18th in another ranking sport's biggest flops.

Which is madness, Rothenberg says.

“I completely baulk at anyone calling Anna Kournikova a flop or a failure, because she was the highest-paid female athlete in the world. If your job … is to make a living, she did that better than anybody else ever had,” he said.

“She didn’t do it in a way that people necessarily respect, cruelly, but she did it in a way that was successful.

“She’s still kind of considered a slur. If you call a player a Kournikova-type on the tour, it’s not a compliment. But people still try to have a little bit of Column A and Column B in there.”

Nguyen said Kournikova had changed the way potential tennis stars were scouted by agents.

“That became what agents were looking for. We want you to be good at tennis, but there’s also the secondary component of, ‘We need you to look good on a billboard, we want sponsors to be interested in you’, and that cynical side of things,” she said.

Rothenberg said Kournikova had revolutionised the optics of women’s tennis, in ways good and bad.

“Her sort of mould of being this hyper-feminine, hyper-exotic, Eastern European blonde in this bare midriff and tight outfits, and all these sorts of things – I think you can still see that archetype so clearly in women’s tennis,” he said.

“Even just in terms of the default look of what people wear on court now: there’s a lot of women with ponytails, a lot of tight-fitting dresses. If you look at tennis before Kournikova - and the Williamses were wearing tighter clothing eventually, too, but I think Kournikova did it first – she started that whole archetype of this femininity at the forefront.

“She was seen in women’s tennis as being corrective to the sort of lavender menace, this cloud of, ‘They’re all lesbians’, [to] ‘No, no – look at Anna Kournikova, she could not possibly be more heterosexual if she tried’. She’s dating all these Russian hockey players and having this mysterious love life that was just tabloid fodder and being titillating in all these ways that are getting 14-year-old boys to chase her around the grounds at Wimbledon.”

Rothenberg branded Kournikova’s impact as “seismic”, a pop-culture appeal reflected somewhat in the ongoing career of Canadian glamour girl Eugenie Bouchard, currently ranked world No.80. Even more so than Bouchard, Kournikova sometimes copped the ire of rivals – notably Nathalie Tauziat and Conchita Martinez - for her popularity and commercial success.

In 2000, a 19-year-old Kournikova was handed a centre court match at Wimbledon when she was not even seeded (she beat world No.10 Sandrine Testud in three sets).

“That, again, is where important doesn’t stick to good. I think you have to understand the Kournikova archetype at the very least to really get a clear picture of women’s tennis and why it is what it is, and why it’s seen how it’s seen,” Rothenberg said.

“Sex and tennis had been together for a long time, but Kournikova did it in a way that was attention-grabbing and attention-dominating in the sport like none other.

“She got a huge amount of resentment from a lot of her peers, women who had better results than her, better rankings than her and didn’t get anywhere near the attention. And on the occasion they did get brought into a press conference, they would just get asked about Anna Kournikova and they’d resent her even more for that.”

Rothenberg said he has even been told by someone that when they went to the tennis, they expected all the female players to be pretty.

“It’s off-putting to hear that, but I understand where that comes from. And that comes from this sort of Kournikova model that tennis leaned into real hard,” he said.

“With some conflict; there were people who obviously resisted Kournikova and her presence, but the impact she had on the business side of it was undeniable and I think that she – along with the Williamses – made women’s tennis the sort of sensation at the turn of the millennium that it was. Her role in that can’t be overstated.

“I get people baulking at it – it’s uncomfortable, I think, to realise her importance.”

Nguyen’s tennis journalism is keenly focused in the sport itself: forehands, backhands, tactics, wins and losses. Yet she said that players couldn’t be upset about the commercial benefits that players who focused on glamour brought to the sport.

“If their presence in the sport means that tournaments are able to put butts in seats, which means that they can remain viable, which means that they can make sure that the cheque that they pay you clears … I understand being mad, but really, I don’t know about being mad,” she said.

“She gets a lot of stick in a very unfair way, in my opinion, because I think that if you were at some point a top 10 player, you did pretty good. [Plus] she was a great doubles player.

“It [sex appeal] is just always going to be part of the sport. With Kournikova, she just kind of came around at a time and was kind of that perfect person to take it to a different level. In all fairness, Anna wanted to take it to that level. She was never being asked to do something she didn’t want to do.”

Rothenberg added: “She was calling her own shots, to a large degree. She was not a puppet.”

Kournikova’s ongoing lack of singles success saw her become a punchline. At one point, The Letterman Show ran Anna Kournikova “Play of the Day” jokes, showing the star adjusting her ponytail, drinking water or hitting a poor shot. She also became a villain by fans who railed against the discrepancy between her popularity and playing success.

She retired from singles shockingly early: her final WTA singles match was played at age 21, in April 2003. She had already left an unforgettable mark.

“She inspired passions from both directions like nobody else in the sport – in a very short career, too, she retired real young,” Rothenberg said.

“In terms of time spent on court and time spent late in draws, her impact was incredibly outsized. I think she was just a very important person.”

In the end, the combination of being a good-not-great player and a megastar proved too much for Kournikova, who ended her career with a 209-129 singles record (plus 16 doubles titles). While she banked a Hollywood film credit in the Jim Carrey-Renee Zellweger comedy Me, Myself and Irene, that elusive WTA singles title never came and neither did widespread respect.

"It turned into a marketing monster that ended up eating itself. It felt like it was too much too quick. And it just wasn't sustainable," sports PR and marketing expert David Skilling told CNN in 2015.

Yet at age 37, her estimated personal wealth is $US50 million, and she shares gorgeous one-year-old twins (Nicholas and Lucy) with pop superstar Enrique Iglesias.

As Rothenberg says, she's been a success by nearly any normal measure and no one who lived through her era of tennis will forget the impact of 'Annamania'.

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