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Kournikova's Chances No Longer So Remote

September 18, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

Conventional wisdom, 1998: Anna Kournikova not only will win a tournament, but she has to be considered a Grand Slam contender.

Conventional wisdom, 2001. Kournikova seems destined never to win a tournament, much less contend at a Grand Slam.

Conventional wisdom, 2002. Kournikova will eventually win a tournament, though Tier I aspirations are another matter, as long as Serena and Venus Williams remain interested in tennis.

So, what is it? Kournikova's progress has resembled an overvalued tech stock on the NASDAQ board. Wild optimism and high hopes are followed by a drastic plunge into the abyss. Then, finally, there's a modest upswing after investors find a few assets among the wreckage.

Her progress came under scrutiny again after another near miss in the Far East on Sunday. For the fourth time in her career--the first time since 2000--Kournikova reached the final of a WTA tournament. This one, in Shanghai, perhaps more than the others, seemed ready for the taking.

After all, her final opponent in this modest Tier IV event was not somebody named Williams, Martina Hingis or Lindsay Davenport. It was Anna Smashnova of Israel, and Kournikova had defeated Smashnova in their last two meetings, most notably at Carlsbad in the summer.

Though newspaper space went up, and magazine pages were cleared for the possible breakthrough, there was no Shanghai surprise. Smashnova played determined tennis, winning, 6-2, 6-3, and Kournikova criticized herself for not going to the net more often.

In her first final more than four years ago, against Venus Williams at Key Biscayne, Fla., Kournikova was close to a straight-sets victory before a hobbled Williams fought back, winning, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1. In those days, the Williams sisters and Kournikova were considered up-and-coming threats to then No. 1-ranked Hingis.

Since then, Venus and Serena have combined for eight Grand Slam titles and the 21-year-old Russian is still searching for her first WTA title.

The closely followed numbers are fairly stunning: 117 main-draw events without a singles championship. Not included, according to the WTA, are four ITF futures events, the 1996 Olympics and three tournaments in which Kournikova lost in qualifying.

Credibility, for better or worse, seems to be linked to a tournament victory. A win in Shanghai would have pulled Kournikova away from her status as a human punch line on cable TV and talk radio.

Which comes back to the basic question: Can she simply win a title, anywhere?

The word "never" should probably be erased from the sports vocabulary after the U.S. Open. The strongest evidence rests on the tour this year. If Martina Sucha, Fabiola Zuluaga and Svetlana Kuznetsova can all win tournaments, as they have in 2002, then Kournikova has a reasonable chance to break through before her winless total hits 200.

Future Watch

U.S. Open champion Pete Sampras and his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, appeared on the CNN show "Connie Chung Tonight" last week and Sampras indicated he would continue playing next year.

"I'm still enjoying what happened last week. I will tell you I love to compete, and I love to play," he told Chung. "It's fun again, playing the way I did last week. I plan on being back next year, having a full schedule and enjoying Wimbledon one more time. I didn't want to end it the way it ended this year.

"I plan on being back. It's what I love to do. Still thinking about it, but there's a good chance I'll be back."

Tournament officials in Basel, Switzerland, announced last week that Sampras was among those entered in that indoor event Oct. 21-27. He won the tournament in 1996.

Double Vision

That was no misprint. Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams were doubles partners Monday in the first round of the Tokyo Princess Cup in Japan. They beat Conchita Martinez and Nicole Pratt, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.

Serena had never played with anyone other than her older sister Venus in doubles competition on the WTA Tour, and although they've played sparingly, they have won a Grand Slam in doubles.

The Martina-Serena pairing doesn't look bad either, though. Between them, they have 22 Grand Slam singles titles, 18 for Navratilova and four for Williams.

According to wire reports, Venus was uninjured in a minor car accident in Florida over the weekend.

Locally

Merv Griffin's celebrity tournament will be held at the Beverly Hills Country Club on Saturday. The charity event will benefit Childhelp USA.

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