MIDDLETON — Boston Lobsters coach Bud Schultz believes Anna Kournikova gets a bum rap.
Kournikova, who was at Ferncroft Country Club with the St. Louis Aces last night to play a World TeamTennis match against the Lobsters, had her reputation torn apart by ESPN some time ago. The network called her the most overrated athlete in sports and, in a separate poll, one of the 25 biggest sports flops of the last 25 years.
Schultz just shakes his head when he hears that stuff.
Kournikova, 29, posted a career record of 209-129 in singles and though she never won a title on the WTA Tour, she was ranked No. 8 in the world in singles when she was 19 years old. She was superior in doubles, partnering with Martina Hingis to win Grand Slam championships at the Australian Open in 1999 and 2002. The duo attained a No. 1 world ranking during that span.
"I never thought she was overrated," Schultz said before Kournikova took the court against the Lobsters last night. "If you talk to people who were on the (women's pro) tour at the time, Anna was known as one of the hardest workers out there.
"I think in this society, if you're not No. 1, then you somehow are not successful or you've even failed. That's absolutely crazy. Any player on the tour would take a Top 10 ranking at some point in their career. Anna has had a hugely successful career."
An international sensation due to her modeling career, charity work and many other ventures, Kournikova has nothing left to prove in tennis. Her career was pretty much derailed by injuries (foot fracture, back) by the time she was 21. She could've stayed home and counted the money for the rest of her life, yet here she was on the North Shore yesterday, promoting the sport, World TeamTennis and still professing her love for the competition.
"I think that (WTT) is a brilliant idea," said Kournikova, who charmed reporters and anyone else who was in the vicinity in the four minutes and 30 seconds that she was allowed to talk to the media. "I hope and wish that we would get more than 10 teams in the league.
"This is such an amazing format. For three hours, fans get to see men's singles, women's singles, mixed (doubles) and everything (that you would want to see). Everything counts. It's great to engage the fans, and I love the music. I'm totally familiar with playing exhibitions and charity matches, so I'm used to the commotion that's going on (in team tennis)."
Naturally, there is far less pressure on her now than there was when she was a top-ranked junior who started ascending the pro circuit at age 15. But she says there's still a fire in her belly.
"This is totally different (than the pro tour), but it's still very competitive," said Kournikova, who defeated players such as Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Steffi Graf and Hingis during her career. "Players still fight for each point and they want to get to the playoffs. At the end of the day, it's still about winning."
"I still try to push myself as much as I can," added Kournikova, who remains as sleek as she was at the height of her career. "It's hard against the boys (in mixed doubles) because of their power. I'm not on the pro tour anymore, so I'm not as fast or as strong as I used to be. But it's healthy competition. Just to walk on the court and to see people in the stands, it feels great."
There are still things she misses about the pro tour. That's probably never going to change.
She started playing tennis at age five in Moscow (she now calls Miami Beach home) and, for most of her career, she went head to head against the world's elite players. That's intoxicating stuff that will always stick with her.
"Playing in front of 10,000 people, it's about adrenaline and night matches at the U.S. Open, and 5-all in the third set or 7-6 (in a tiebreaker) and walking off the court," said Kournikova, who indicated that Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in New York were her favorite venues. "I miss the on-court stuff. I don't miss the off-court stuff."
Kournikova shed some light on another topic last night, laughing at the notion that she and Hingis had nicknamed themselves the "Spice Girls of tennis." She doesn't seem to mind the name at all — but she didn't come up with it, nor did Hingis.
"We were supposed to be the self-proclaimed (Spice Girls)," said Kournikova, "but I think that came from the press in Australia. It was the late 1990s and I think (the all-female music group known as The Spice Girls) were touring in Melbourne or something. (The nickname) was kind of printed up and picked up everywhere."
Kournikova has outlasted the Spice Girls and is still playing the game she grew up with on her own terms. She's become a tennis ambassador, and a good one at that.
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The Boston Lobsters, who've won three matches in the last three days, ended up beating Kournikova's St. Louis Aces, 25-13, last night.
The Lobsters' Coco Vandeweghe had a 5-4 edge in women's singles and Jan-Michael Gambill prevailed in men's singles, 5-4. Kournikova and teammate Liga Dekmeijere fell to Raquel Kops-Jones and Vandeweghe, 5-1, in women's doubles.
In men's doubles, the Lobsters' Eric Butoric and Gambill won, 5-3. Meanwhile, Butoric and Kops-Jones defeated Tripp Phillips and Kournikova in mixed doubles, 5-1.