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