Moscow native Anna Kournikova brought professional tennis back to Minnesota this winter.
From Russia with Love
Anna Kournikova brings tennis-plus to Minnesota.
By Wally Langfellow
Winter 2003

It's been 10 years since Minnesota has seen tennis like we saw this winter (Target Center played host to a US Davis Cup event in 1992). Actually, come to think of it, Minnesota has never seen tennis like this before Anna-style that is.

Anna Kournikova, the world's most popular athlete (based on the fact that her web-site takes more hits than Rocky Balboa), brought more than professional women's tennis to the land of 10,000 frozen lakes. She brought star appeal. Witness the fact that organizers whisked her around the Twin Cities on a December day to meet and greet at the Mall of America hours before her match with Monica Seles. A 21-year-old with millions in the bank, days before Christmas at the world's largest mall, it sounds like a merchant's dream. "We didn't get to shop," says Anna. "With the schedule they had for us.There was no time for shopping."

So the USTA, on a mission to bring tennis to every boy and girl, especially to a place that doesn't have a regular tournament, brings you Anna. At the time, the 35th ranked player in the world (up from 99th, she points out). But the fact of the matter is that the strategy worked. With tickets ranging from $35 to $206, Anna put over nine-thousand fans in the stands at the Xcel Energy Center to watch a made-for-Anna-event that basically meant nothing. Would Serena or Venus Williams draw that many fans at that price in Minnesota in the dead of Winter? Maybe. But then you'd have to wonder if one of them would come up with a mysterious illness, or you'd have to deal with Richard Williams deciding whose turn it was to win.

Here is Anna. Model-like looks, and not afraid to flaunt it,waiting until match time to strip off her warm-ups and unveil her form-fitting tennis garb. She takes time to braid her long hair, a blonde tumble of gold that has become the beacon attracting look-alike players to the sport. This is tennis 2002-03 style, brought to you by Anna.

Surprising to many, Anna puts up a pretty good battle against Seles (#7 in the world rankings) and actually let a couple set points slip away in the first set before losing the match. She was feisty with the line-judges and umpire throughout the night. A case of the star trying to use stardom to her advantage? Maybe. But as much as she is criticized for being all sizzle and no steak, Anna proved to be very competitive. "We are athletes and every time I step on the court, I come to compete and you want to achieve some kind of result," she said after the match. "I definitely wanted to win tonight; I try to give my best."

"She works so hard," says Seles. "She's dedicated her life to this, more than a large percentage of players out there." Anna Kournikova, tennis ambassador? She likes it, and she plays the role well. As a matter of fact Anna spent much of this night cheering on competitors that played before her, before taking the stage herself.

What about this fascination of America with her "tennis" ability? Seles says don't blame Anna, "She's a gorgeous girl. What can she do about that, should she hide her face?" But Anna seems to like the spotlight and likes the idea of potential future-Anna's getting their inspiration from her. "It's cool and it's very strange. The girls that are growing up right now, maybe they're looking up to me...I'm just happy that they are playing tennis and that they enjoy the sport. The more kids we get involved, the greater it is," says Anna.

Will events like this make more regular stops in the Twin Cities? Minnesotan and former touring pro David Wheaton hopes so. "For our tennis community, this was a big deal. People don't realize what it takes to get an event like this here. Hopefully, this is the first step to getting more events, maybe even a full tournament. I think there's a big enough tennis fan base here to have a full time annual event."

Only if Anna is there.