From Russia with Love
Anna Kournikova brings tennis-plus to Minnesota.
By Wally Langfellow
|Moscow native Anna Kournikova brought professional tennis back to Minnesota this winter.
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.
Brock Lesnar: Lord of the Ring
Brock Lesnar: Flexed for Sucess
By Doug Frattallone
You know you've made it in the professional wrestling game when you're at an autograph signing and an adoring fan hands you a metal folding chair. A Sharpie in his beefy mitt, 2,500 fans looking on, Brock Lesnar scrawled his name on the dastardly foreign object, a ring weapon with which he is quite familiar.
It was a mid-October afternoon, the stage: Sam Goody Central in Mall of America. A Minnesota Gopher-gone-golden in Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment empire, was holding court. The faithful, who started lining up at 6:30 a.m., were giddy to get a glimpse, handshake and snapshot of the so-called Next Big Thing.
"Of all the wrestlers I've seen come down the pike, he's one of the best," says George Schire, a local pro mat historian. Schire would know. He's followed this particular circus for decades, comparing Lesnar to a "young Dick the Bruiser." To anyone 40 and under, the comparison may be lost, but for old-timers who appreciate the American art form that is rasslin', it's high praise.
Lesnar doesn't take himself so seriously. He knows it is just entertainment and wants his boss, Mr. McMahon, to appreciate his efforts. In other words, he likes that big paycheck and knows he has to put on a good show night in, night out or all of a sudden he's on the undercard instead of the Main Event.
"I perform under pressure," said Lesnar. "If there isn't (pressure), I put it on myself. I want to make sure that I'm doing the best that I can do."
And right now the man from Webster, South Dakota is doing the best he can. He not only made a quick jump from the WWE farm system (Ohio Valley Wrestling), but at 24 became the youngest "world" champion in WWE history. Don't ask how many "world" belts there are. Mr. McMahon and family seem to change that number on a monthly basis, depending on the ratings. That, of course, is showbiz. But Lesnar, through his hard work and being in the right place at the right time, is already a huge star.
On the Ohio Valley circuit, Lesnar says it was grueling, but great training: "We had matches four nights a week, we taped our TV [show] Wednesday night. Just a local TV taping, which kind of groomed us. It wasn't by any means WWE (caliber) television, but we got a chance to learn how to perform in front of the camera. Then we also trained four to five days a week, two to three hours every day in the ring. (It was) just lots of drilling and learning the wrestling business."
Some might argue that Lesnar was way ahead of the game during his days at the U of M, as a scowling maroon and gold marauder on his way to an NCAA national heavyweight title.
"I got a rush out of being in front of people," said Lesnar of his amateur days. "I could control some of the matches that I was in, and get a certain crowd reaction from certain things I did to my opponent. Pretty much that's exactly what we do in the wrestling business."
Lesnar, however, didn't even watch the WWE while growing up on the farm in South Dakota. He says there was too much to do. "We didn't have cable TV," said the Superstar, "so I spent most of my time (if I did have free time) hunting or riding my motorcycle or just being outside. If I wasn't working, I was lifting weights.
Not to mention the fact that the paid grapplers really didn't have anything to offer Lesnar at the time. "As an amateur wrestler," he said, "I could see through all the holds that the professional wrestlers put on each other. I knew that those things just didn't work in amateur wrestling."
So he didn't watch. He couldn't care less and now it's his life. A life on a national TV stage, week in, week out. One day it's headlining a pay-per-view against The Big Show (Paul Wight, if you're keeping score), the next it's shooting a commercial for the latest Smackdown! video game. Not that it's gone to his head.
Brock Lesnar, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, sits down with an interviewer in the basement of Mall of America. He seems bigger in person than on TV, and the interviewer hopes the entertainer doesn't swat him like a gnat. Hey, you never know.
The entertainer speaks quietly and thoughtfully, polite to the core. When talk turns to Webster, the giant blushes a bit, a guy who knows that everyone back home is proud, no matter what. "Oh yeah, I got a lot of support back there," Lesnar said. "A lot of people are just in awe still. You know, they're not sure what to think of me wrestling. I've got a lot of fans. And a lot of people that disliked me in high school that are now my best friends."
One of Lesnar's best allies to this day is his old college coach, Minnesota's J Robinson. He calls Lesnar an anomaly, but in a "very positive way." "You don't see people like him," said Robinson. "He registers. Because he's unique. You always remember the biggest." Robinson jokes that wrestling's Next Big Thing could also be Hollywood's next big action hero, a la Arnold. When told about J's movie talk, the NBT laughs it off, saying Robinson is simply proud and happy. "I don't see myself even coming close to what Schwarzenegger has done," said Lesnar.
But that doesn't mean Lesnar would totally rule out movies: "I could see myself doing one or two of them, but I'm not going to make a career out of it. Right now, I'm more interested in wrestling."
He's interested in forging a name for himself on a stage where the biggest names seem to be in the spotlight for decades. Take Terry "Hollywood Hulk Hogan" Bollea, for example. In one of Lesnar's most memorable pro matches, Brock smacked Hogan with one of those folding chairs, and the old lion started to bleed. That was the scripted part. Lesnar then ad-libbed, wiping the Hulkster's blood on his chest. A big moment in sports entertainment, brought to you by Brock. So what did the WWE suits think of the unscripted move? "They must have thought it was great because they play it all the time," said Lesnar. "I've got great instincts, something you can't teach in this business."
Oakdale wrestling historian George Schire isn't a big fan of the business today, which is basically a monopoly controlled by McMahon. Besides an outfit in Nashville (NWA-TNA), there are no other national stages for professional wrestlers to practice their unique craft. Schire says, "It's not like the old days, where a performer could pack his tights for regional territory "B" after the storylines in territory "A" all played out. McMahon ended the territory system, and then bought out his national competition. So if Vince tires of the Next Big Thing? " He's out of a job," said Schire. "Or he's relegated to the undercard. What does he do then?"
Hopefully he listens to the advice from the old-timers in the WWE locker room. Guys like Hogan and Ric Flair (Richard Fliehr, raised in Edina), 50-something grapplers who have seen it all. Says Lesnar, "The best advice that all the guys give me is, "Save your money kid, and keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut." It sounds like something J Robinson might have said to his amateur athlete. A coach who chuckled when asked if he'd ever be part of the WWE act. Says capital J, "They'd have to talk pretty hard." Never say never, especially in Never-Never Land.
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Q&A: Darby Hendrickson
Back on Ice
by Molly Schuster
It's tough to be out of the lineup, especially when your team's doing well.
When the North Stars left Minnesota, Darby Hendrickson never thought that he would someday play for his home team again, but his dream to play professional hockey never died. He graduated from Richfield High School and went on to be an outstanding college player at the University of Minnesota. He was drafted by Toronto in 1990 and came back home in 2000 after being picked up by the expansion team Minnesota Wild. We talk to Hendrickson about his career and what it's meant to play for a hometown crowd.
MS: You've played for teams like Toronto, New York, and Vancouver. What's it like coming back and playing in Minnesota?
DH: It's been great. It was fun to see and live in other cities. Hockey is a big sport in Canada, so it was fun to experience, but you know, there's no place like home. It's been a great opportunity, and it's been a great group of guys to be with from the start. Overall, the guys have been here from the beginning, and the fans have been awesome.
Everything has been done right here. The rink is beautiful, and we sell out every game. We have strong ownership and management and very good coaches, so there's a reason why things are going in the right direction.
MS: You've had several rivalries throughout your career, at Richfield, at the U of M, and in your professional career. What is your favorite rivalry?
DH: In high school, it was probably playing Edina, because they seemed to always beat us. In college, Wisconsin was one of our big rivals. So far here, I think it's hard to tell who our rivals are because we're so new as a team, but I think the fact that the Dallas [North] Stars were a former team here always makes the excitement level very high.
MS: Do you think that it's more of a fan motivated rivalry?
DH: I think so. It's exciting for us as players, but I think it's the fans. But I feel what
they're feeling too, because I grew up here. I grew up hoping to one day play pro hockey and play [for] the North Stars. It was sad when they left, but it wasn't like the dream died because I still had the dream to play professionally. But hockey is so big in this state, that something was missing.
MS: Did you have a favorite player growing up?
DH: I think Neal Broten is a lot of kids' favorite. He was a great player. He won in college, he won a gold medal in the olympics, and he eventually won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey, so he set a high bar.
MS: Did you ever play against him?
DH: Yeah, I did. I took a face-off against him when I was in Toronto. It was fun for me to play against a guy I looked up to. And whether or not he knew who I was, I knew who he was.
MS: You've had some injuries of late, most recently your arm and last year your season-ending eye injury. How do you stay prepared, both mentally and physically, to come back to the game?
DH: It's tough to be out of the lineup, especially when your team's doing well. You want to be part of the action. But I guess, if anything, there's maybe a skill that I'm learning. I think when you're injured, you're never comfortable being out. You have to be patient. Experience helps to maintain a focus. I think the biggest thing is just being positive. You've gotta pull for the guys.
MS: How have those injuries affected the way you play now?
DH: The eye feels great, the wrist is good too. With the eye, I had the whole summer to recoup. It was scary and it took a long time [to heal]. Unfortunately, you have to sit out a long time, but you come back feeling healthy. I think when you're injured you're at the rink longer and more [often] to work your way back. Being on the ice-there's nothing better!
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Marian Gaborik has all the tools: The speed, the shot, and the moxie to be hockey's next big thing.
by Bruce Leonard
(Wild Post Season Special Addition)
It's a cold, gray wintry afternoon in Trencin, Slovakia and young Marian Gaborik is antsy. Antsy in the frenetic, impatient way 3-year-olds get when they want something bad, real bad.
His mom has promised him that tomorrow she will take him on his first skating lesson, but the anticipation is getting to be too much. He's sure he'll never make it until tomorrow. "I wanted to learn how to skate so badly," recalls Gaborik smiling at the memory. "My brother was playing hockey and I wanted to play too. When that first moment of being on skates finally came, it was special and it felt so natural to be on the ice."
GABORIK THE GREAT
Seventeen years after those first lessons from mom, Gaborik has gone from impatient tyke to NHL headliner whose game has made him the talk of the league. The Hockey News put him on the cover of their preseason issue proclaiming him one of the reasons to get excited about the 2002-2003 season. ESPN ranked him the 4th best forward in the game. Kings coach Andy Murray went even further, calling Gaborik one of the five best players period. The 20- year-old's reaction to all the buzz? "Of course it feels good to hear people say you're among the best players right now, but you can be there one day and not the next. You have to keep working hard to remain there. Otherwise it can be a different story."
At present, this story shows no signs of needing a rewrite. The Wild's third year right wing is on pace to double his 30-goal, 67-point 2002 season. He's among the league leaders in goals, and he tops the Wild in scoring, power play points, and shots on goal. Moreover, he's already elevating the play of those around him, the hallmark of any great player from Gordie Howe to Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux. "With Marian right now, you're seeing a confidence level that's higher than it's ever been," says Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough. "He feels he can affect games and that's the maturity of a good player."
Gaborik's not only affecting games, he's flat out taking them over. How, you ask? Let us count the ways. October 26th against Phoenix, he produces a two-goal, four-assist undressing of the Coyotes in a 6-1 Wild victory, becoming the youngest person ever to record a six-point game. It was a performance that earned him NHL Player of the Week honors and the raves of Phoenix head coach Bobby Francis. "He has all the skills to be something special. You give him an inch and he just blows by you."
November 2nd against Vancouver, Gaborik delivered a goal you had to see twice to believe. With his back to the net, he took a pass from Pascal Dupuis and in one fluid motion, spun and whipped a backhand shot that stunned Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier and dropped jaws all around the Xcel Energy Center. Cloutier said he never saw the shot coming calling Gaborik's talent "scary."
November 23rd against Nashville, Gaborik showed off all his enormous skill. He got things going by sending a slap shot past Nashville goalie Mike Dunham before Dunham could even raise his glove. He followed that with a blistering one-timer on the power play, and then he blew past defenseman Karlis Skrastins before beating Dunham with a nifty backhander to become the first player in the league to record two hat tricks this season. "Gabby showed why he is one of the top players in the league with that effort," said Wild defenseman Matt Johnson. "That's what great players do. They take a game over and win it." Even Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire who would rather not heap too much praise on his right wing couldn't hold back this time saying Gaborik "looked like an elite player."
That ability to take a game over was already evident to the Wild when they made the super Slovak the first draft pick in franchise history in June 2000. Even though Gaborik would make an immediate impact scoring the first ever goal for the Wild, the team brass had no idea just how fast he would speed through the NHL's learning curve. "When we drafted him, we knew he was an incredible talent, but none of us would have predicted he would have put up the numbers he has already," says Wild Assistant general manager/player personnel Tom Thompson. "Marian just has a certain flair about him, and when you combine that with his overall talent, you've got a special kind of player, an elite player."
Make no mistake, the Wild are privately doing cartwheels about Gaborik's emergence as a big time player, but the team has gone out of its way not to load up their meal ticket with too much responsibility or unfair expectations. They continue to praise his obvious talent while putting it in the overall team concept that is this team's mantra. "Hockey is a team game and you can't have it any other way," says Risebrough. "Our best players have to play both ends of the ice, offense and defense. Marian has accepted that challenge. He wants the team to be successful and he derives a lot of satisfaction from it."
Now that he's considered among the best, Gaborik finds himself driven to prove he belongs with the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Mario Lemieux. To better handle the added attention from opponents this season, he worked tirelessly in the off-season to improve his speed, strength, and shot. The extra work has paid off making him even more dangerous. "I went back home this summer and really worked on my conditioning and my shot. I feel very confident on the ice this year, which is very important. Guys are playing me closer to the vest so space on the ice is a little smaller. I've had to be quicker and think more and not just go and skate all over the ice. I have to think quick and make things happen."
BLINK, AND YOU'LL MISS HIM
It's enormously easier to make things happen when you have the talent to do so, and Gaborik has all the tools to stay on the NHL's "A" list of talent for years to come. Chief among his attributes is his explosive speed. With his ability to step on the gas at a moments notice and make any move at top speed, a defenseman has as much chance of staying with the Wild speedster as Wiley E. Coyote has of catching the Roadrunner. "Think about how much pressure it puts on a defensive player to see number 10 flying down the ice at full throttle knowing he can shoot, knowing he can make any move, and knowing that he can just blow right by you," says Wild defenseman Brad Bombadir. "Very, very few players in this league can do that. I'm just glad he's on my side."
Gaborik's speed is also invaluable on the defensive end. Just ask Nashville. The Predators broke out on a 2-on-1 only to have Gaborik skate hard all the way back to strip the puck carrier and snuff the chance without even as much as a shot on goal. "You have no idea what that does for our team when your best player back checks like that," says Cliff Ronning, who centers Gaborik's line. "It's not just him scoring amazing goals, it's him getting back when it's 1-1. Hess still young, but he is already one of the great talents in the NHL. I find myself going back to the bench after he scores a goal or makes a great defensive play, and asking, "did he really do that?"
Gaborik's speed is one thing, but how about that blink-and-you-miss-it shot of his? The kind of shot that once unleashed has the impact of a Barry Bonds homer into McCovey Cove. "What's so tough about Gaborik's shot is how incredibly quick it comes at you," says Phoenix goalie Brian Boucher who should know, since Gaborik's best games seem to happen against the Coyotes. "He'll fire the puck, and before you even have a chance to move, it's already in the net."
Scoring is something Gaborik loves to do. Nothing, he says, beats the feeling of lighting the lamp, especially at the sold out Xcel Energy Center, when the crowd goes crazy. But a perfect world, the NHL is not. Look closely, for Gaborik does not have an "S" stitched across his jersey. He's not superman and for every string of games where he has delivered two or three goals, there have been a string of games where he's been bageled. Learning to work through the bad though, is further proof of how special and mature a player Gaborik has become. "When those tough times happen, you have to work extra hard to get through it. Believing in yourself is key. Never stop believing."
Wise beyond his years, and at the age of twenty, the promise of a truly special NHL career is all before him. As he surveys the hockey landscape, where does Gaborik see himself going from here? "I want to be a true leader for my team, and I want to be on top of my game. I want to be someone like Peter Bondra. He was my hero growing up and still is. He is an excellent player with great speed and a goal scoring touch. I have to keep improving to be a player like that, but my goal is to be like him someday."
Someday? Many believe someday for Marian Gaborik is already here. Now that's scary.
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Good as Gold
by Jim Burke
On January 25, 2004 Lindsay Whalen became the all-time leading scorer in Gopher women's basketball history. The following is a story on Whalen that ran in the Winter 2003 issue of The Minnesota Score.
Lindsay Whalen has seen it all. In a little over 2 seasons as a college basketball player she has endured the drudgery of a losing season, enjoyed the satisfaction of a winning season and adapted to the styles of 3 different head coaches. The departure of one-
year-wonder Brenda Oldfield (now Brenda Frese) after last season only added drama to the already soap opera-like atmosphere surrounding the Gopher Women's basketball program. In the midst of her junior season, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and leader of the team that many pick to challenge for the conference title, is not satisfied. You might call her young and restless.
Whalen does not shrink from the high expectations and national attention she has helped earn for her team. " That's what we wanted to do when we came here, be recognized as one of the best teams in the Big Ten." That achieved, Whalen prepared for the season helping the USA Basketball Under-20 team to a gold medal while working to improve her own game. "I worked on my outside shot a lot. Getting to the basket and getting out in transition have been my strong points. I have also worked on my middle-range game."
And then there's the defense. Lindsay was the leading scorer (22.2 ppg) on a Gopher team that led the Big Ten in scoring last season but also led in points allowed. She knows that in order to compete for a Big Ten title and advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament, team defense as well as her own has to improve. New head coach Pam Borton brings a heavy emphasis on defense and is pleased with the way Lindsay has bought in to her system, " I think she is a work in progress but her defensive intensity has picked up 100% from when we started practice. Defense is definitely something she needs to get better at for her to play at the next level." Whalen has no problem with the new style and already sees it paying dividends. " I like it a lot. It has worked well for us. I'm starting to figure out when to really pressure the ball and go for steals and when to stay back and save some energy."
Defensive pressure leads to missed shots and turnovers which lead to rebounds and fast breaks which dovetails nicely with Lindsay Whalen's favorite part of the game," I love getting the outlet and pushing it up the floor as hard as we can. There are going to be a lot of fast breaks and that's what most fans come to see. We like to have fun in transition, it loosens our team up and we play better when we are loose." And nothing pleases Pam Borton more than a defensive stop, resulting in Lindsay running the break, "She just makes everything look so easy out there. She can create and get a basket when you need one. When Lindsay Whalen's on the floor, baskets become a lot easier to get."
After years of the best high school players in the state opting to continue their careers elsewhere, Whalen, who only rated all-state honorable mention (albeit four times) while playing for Hutchinson, appreciates the role she and her teammates have played in the Gophers recent recruiting success, " That is definitely something that the players who have stayed in Minnesota take a lot of pride in. For ten years all you heard about was the Miller's leaving, Susan King leaving and people assumed that no one stayed here. I take a lot of pride that I stayed in Minnesota and helped turn that around."
As a two-time team M.V.P. and the fastest Gopher to reach the 1,000 point plateau Lindsay Whalen's place in Gopher's history is already secured. She has an excellent opportunity to become the Gopher's all-time leading scorer but does not concern herself with her individual statistics. With five returning starters from last season's 22-win team and a deep bench, she sees this year's team presented with an opportunity to take the program to unprecedented heights, "This team has a lot of weapons. Opponents will probably be focusing on stopping me but all of our players can put up numbers." And as far as the Gophers hard-won reputation preceding them, Lindsay wouldn't have it any other way, "You can only sneak up on people for so long. It's been fun watching ranked teams on television and knowing we can compete with them. This year we are more confident and know we are going to take care of business."
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