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Anna makes as much business sense as anyone else

By Hugh Brown - posted Saturday, 15 July 2000

At the risk of going over familiar territory, the recent furore surrounding Anna Kournikova’s performance as either a model or a tennis player (apparently the argument is about which she does best) highlights the persistence of one of the last myths of the previous century: that of the full-time athlete.

The lovely Anna (it’s great to be on a first-name basis with her, even if it is only a long-distance cyber-relationship) came under fire from her rivals (surprise, surprise), and some media pundits, for having the audacity to derive more than half of her income from sources other than winning tennis matches. To rub salt into the wound, it was revealed that the highest-earning player in women’s tennis makes more money than the girls who consistently beat her in grand-slam tournaments.

Of course, we have all known for a very long time that professional sportspeople earn significant dollars from away-from-the match activities like endorsing equipment, promoting dietary products and opening sporting facilities. Heck, some football players have even earned a bit from modelling and appearing in clothing commercials. Some players get paid just to turn up at a tournament regardless of whether they win or not.


It seems that Anna’s crime was to be paid more to turn up and get beaten than her opponents were being paid to turn up and beat her. She’d never won a Grand Slam singles title, they claimed, and was being paid so much because some fans liked to look at her even when she wasn’t playing tennis. In fact, some even suggested that her world ranking meant she was not even very good at tennis and she should quit and do something else – like become a model!

A quick check of a few tennis websites brings up some interesting facts:

  1. There are more web pages dedicated to Anna that any other player I looked for.
  2. Anna has beaten most of the top players, including Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Conchita Martinez, and Amanda Coetzer, more than once.
  3. She has done better at doubles tennis (5 WTA titles including the Australian Open) than singles (none); and
  4. She has a higher singles ranking (12) than either of the Woodies have ever had (19, and no-one doubts their ability as tennis players).

This says that she’s NOT a bad tennis player. She certainly has nothing to hang her head in shame about. She turned 19 in June and probably has a long time to improve her record. She has already won more Grand Slam titles than I have.

Perhaps her performance in major tournaments would improve if she was allowed to concentrate on the tennis instead of having the distraction of the world’s media taking photographs of her every pose, deliberate or not. The recent Anna special edition of Ralph magazine demonstrates how appropriate the magazine’s title is for the taste used in compiling it. It appears that the paparazzi have reneged on the promise they made following the death of Di. It is reasonable to assume that Anna wasn’t paid for those photographs.

Wayne Bennett remarked that the hardest part of coaching a winning team is getting the players’ minds focussed on game day. Mark Taylor’s personal form slump was, at one stage, blamed on the extra burden of captaincy, and fears were voiced that the same might happen to Steve Waugh. Interviews with sportspeople continually reveal their stated intention to focus on their task ahead and Kieren Perkins can testify to the mental as well as physical drain caused by international competition.


It must be extremely difficult for any elite athlete to compete under the glare of international expectation, and Anna may well be paying the price for accepting so many opportunities to be distracted. The difference between winning and losing at that level is often millimetres. The mental toughness needed to bounce back from a tough break is almost certainly missing if the athlete has off-the-court things to think about.

At the same time, it must be great to have another talent to draw on when the winners don’t come often enough. Sporting history is littered with athletes who had more than their sporting prowess to offer. In the ‘90s, the football codes were all basing recruitment offers on providing talented young players with a future after their bodies forced them to retire. Some former players turned to the media, some to selling sporting equipment, many to hospitality. Who could forget Mark Jackson's horrifying foray into a recording career.

Recently, the media have taken to recruiting current players – perhaps a kind of audition for a post-playing-career career. Some show obvious discomfort with that role, others take to it with obvious ease, and it is this ability that Anna has in abundance. The media loves her, whether she wins or not. More importantly, the fans are prepared to part with their brass to read about her and look at her, which is, ultimately, why the media loves her.

The days of high-level sport for its own sake are long gone, no matter what SOCOG and Westpac would have you believe. The last of the great days of unfettered elite competition were poisoned with Fine Cotton and died with the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sheffield Shield. Everything athletes wear, drink and say is affected by the boardroom deals of the corporate world. Without these arrangements, things could not exist as we know them.

What Anna represents is a business maximising its assets. If there is a source of revenue that can be put to good use, then make hay while the sun shines. She may not make as much from winning tennis matches as some other players, but earning money from sport is not necessarily about winning matches any more. She pulls the crowds and keeps the sponsors and media happy without having to win matches. If that’s what the promoters want to call tennis, that’s their business decision. If she’s got what it takes to design and sell bras, that should not diminish her public standing.

The fans will only feel betrayed and stop parting with their brass if they feel they’re not getting what they paid for. Watching Pete Sampras narrowly beat Pat Rafter may be great tennis, but having Anna Kournikova flogged by Martina Hingis is good business – just don’t let anyone confuse the two.

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About the Author

Hugh Brown is a PhD candidate in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT and teaches communication at the University of Queensland and QUT. He was editor of On Line Opinion from June 2000 until August 2004 and has a degree in journalism from the University of Queensland, for which he was awarded a University Medal. Before joining On Line Opinion he was editor of the now-defunct Tr@cks e-zine, based in Brisbane, and inaugural student editor of The Queensland Independent. He has also freelanced for a variety of publications.

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