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TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

Kournikova Shows Her Ugly Side

June 25, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

WIMBLEDON, England — The real world came to Wimbledon on Monday, unedited, unvarnished and unrelenting. It was a public-relations nightmare for Anna Kournikova. This time, it was the BBC, not MTV. There was no second take, no way to put the words in a cute promotional package.

The august network took the unusual step of airing Kournikova's entire postmatch interview with Gary Richardson after her first-round loss to Tatiana Panova of Russia. Panova had defeated Kournikova, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.

In her earlier mandatory postmatch news conference with mostly print journalists, Kournikova had been smiling and obliging, talking about lessons learned and becoming her own person.

"I don't have a career off-court," she'd said. "There's no two Annas, there's one Anna."

Well ...

One Anna, two faces?

The affable Kournikova turned into an affronted Kournikova in the contentious interview with Richardson. She stood up at one point and appeared close to walking out.

You might suspect the interviewer angered her by asking about Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Enrique Iglesias or Penthouse magazine.

He didn't.

His line of questions was not much different from the previous ones in the earlier conference. Kournikova, however, seemed irritated from the start, snapping at him, "I don't think you know my confidence is low or not.... I don't think you should phrase the question that way."

Richardson was put on the defensive but kept trying to move forward, albeit nervously. He had asked, at one point, if she'd ever thought about dropping down to satellite events, the way Andre Agassi did several years ago to get some victories and rebuild her confidence.

"Can we just try this again?" she asked later. "I mean, am I talking about this match or about the other things?"

Someone in the background, a WTA public relations official, was heard suggesting that the focus remain on the match that day. She has not won a match in a Grand Slam event this year.

Somehow, the interview continued and it was arguably more dramatic than her match. Was she going to call him the weakest link, or what?

Agony mercifully completed, the BBC cut back to the studio to three appalled former players, host Sue Barker and analysts John Lloyd and Pam Shriver. The words "pathetic," "horrible" and "inexcusable" were used regarding Kournikova.

Lloyd suggested, "Come on, she's got to grow up."

Shriver pointed out that Kournikova is often like that off camera.

"But, to be honest, if you ask people behind the scenes, in the locker room, that was the real Anna Kournikova," she said. With this being a relatively straightforward opening day--and apparently no breaking David Beckham news--this was a present gift-wrapped for the tabloids.

After Agassi had ruined one potentially good story, debunking a dubious report that he and wife Steffi Graf were to become parents for the second time, several tabloid reporters made their way to the broadcast building in search of video footage and sound bites, and photos of the video being replayed for assembled reporters.

Lloyd was the ideal person to address the issue. Long before the Internet age, he was hounded by the British press because of his stature as a leading player here and his marriage to Chris Evert. Lloyd recalled the days of being followed onto airplanes by flashing cameras. He always retained his class and dignity under difficult situations.

On Monday, one tabloid reporter instructed him to pass along his thoughts in the strongest way possible. Nobody needed any urging on this issue. Richardson declined comment, although he thanked Lloyd for the support. Apparently there was no reservoir of good will to save Kournikova on the airwaves.

"I think she was thinking maybe it would be like a movie and say, 'Cut,' " Lloyd said. "And she knew it was live."

The BBC approach was refreshing, frankly, in this day of fake openness. This time, the cameras told the whole story, not the edited, prepackaged one. There was no fawning attempt to ingratiate--"Anna, you're great"--that seems to be the TV norm.

Lloyd suggested that she might have been given a break if she had been inexperienced in the ways of TV, or if this had been her first time at Wimbledon.

"She's had more TV cameras in her face than I've had hot dinners," he said. "And she should be able to handle that."

Kournikova's struggles are a legitimate story. She reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in her debut, in 1997. Once, she was listed in the same peer group as Venus Williams and Martina Hingis, and nearly beat Williams in Miami in 1998.

Of late, the 21-year-old has taken positive steps to move forward, hiring respected coach Harold Solomon and lessening the influence of her parents.

Monday was a decided setback, in every sense. Panova is hardly a grass-court threat, having lost to 45-year-old Martina Navratilova last week in Eastbourne.

Even John McEnroe weighed in.

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