SPICE AND SPITE
The repackaging of Anna Kournikova is big--and bitter--business
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1998 issue
She has yet to win a tournament. She has yet to crack the Top 5.
But when the U.S. Open began last week, no player was more gawked
at or gossiped about than 17-year-old Anna Kournikova. There was
her new agent, sitting in the friends' box. There was NHL star
Sergei Fedorov, watching her practice. There was Kournikova,
looking to somehow erase her image as the sport's Lolita.
"I'm here because of tennis," she said last Friday in the
players' dining room at the National Tennis Center. "I'm not a
So begins Stage 2 of the selling of Kournikova. This week the
Advantage International agency will announce the signing of the
No. 14 Kournikova to a long-term contract, officially ending her
strained relationship with IMG. Already, Advantage president Phil
de Picciotto is talking about "toning down" Kournikova and making
sure "her tennis excellence is what makes her attractive." This
is like discussing hurricane preparedness the day after a
Category 5 levels downtown.
In the past 15 months, Kournikova has posed for Rolling Stone
wearing high heels and a panty-baring miniskirt; bragged to a
Wimbledon press conference about the lack of fat on her behind;
and fostered rumors of an engagement to Fedorov--11 years her
senior--by flashing a ring on her left hand. She professes to have
no idea why anyone would raise an eyebrow at the attire she wore
for Rolling Stone. "The picture itself is not bad at all," she
Still, signing Kournikova is a coup for Advantage, which not only
grabbed a property of seemingly boundless potential as a player
and endorser but also landed a package deal: When, on Aug. 10,
she told IMG of her decision to bolt, Fedorov did likewise, and
is also now with Advantage. IMG had done well by Kournikova since
she was nine, moving her from Russia to the IMG-owned Nick
Bollettieri Tennis Academy and getting her rich deals with
Adidas, Yonex and Rolex. Meanwhile, IMG last season negotiated a
contract that paid Fedorov $28 million for 43 games. The last
time there was a defection of this magnitude, Kim Philby turned
up in Moscow.
Make no mistake, the agents at IMG, the world's largest sports
management and marketing firm, are livid. There is talk of
payback: Sources at both agencies say IMG has its hooks into
Australian star Mark Philippoussis and will grab him when his
Advantage contract expires at year's end. "He won't be the last,"
says one agent.
Why leave IMG? "It's just that they have too many players and too
many responsibilities," said Kournikova of IMG and her former
agent, Tony Godsick. "How can a person manage you when he's not
with you at a Grand Slam, not there when you beat the Number 1
player, or for your first Top 10 win? When I beat Steffi Graf, my
agent wasn't there."
Except for the Grand Slam absence, Godsick didn't deny any of
this, but he pointed out that he missed Kournikova's win over No.
1 Martina Hingis in May because Monica Seles's father died. Like
most agents Godsick has other clients, Seles and Lindsay
Davenport chief among them. No tennis player has an agent on hand
constantly, and de Picciotto says Advantage has no intention of
"having somebody sit through matches. That's not our job."
No matter, says Kournikova. "Now I stop caring if my agent is
going to be there," she says. "As long as they do a good job."
So why did she leave IMG? Maybe because Hingis, who has won four
Grand Slam titles and is an IMG client, recently landed
endorsement contracts with Clairol and Ocean Spray. Or because
Hingis became the first woman athlete to grace the cover of GQ.
Or maybe it's because at least two FORTUNE 500 companies backed
off deals with Kournikova because of her racy image. She says IMG
should have protected her from the editors who posed her, but,
says an IMG agent, "That's who she is."
Yes and no. On the court Kournikova doesn't flirt with the
cameras or play to the crowd, and she hasn't lost to a player
outside the Top 15 in 21 months. When she says, "That's why I'm
here--for the tennis," part of her is completely sincere. She
hates to lose.
Yet Advantage will have to deal with the other Kournikova, the
one who loves having the last, provocative word. "By the way,"
she said as she walked away, "if it was a real engagement ring,
it wouldn't be that small."
Another Rising Russian
SAFIN: YOUNG GUN ON THE ATP TOUR
His hometown of Moscow may be the epicenter of tumult and chaos,
but everything about Marat Safin suggests stability and grace,
from his disposition to his strokes to his steady climb in the
rankings. Safin, 18 and now No. 60, plays with an efficiency and
dignified power that recalls Pete Sampras, the player to whom he
finally capitulated after winning his first three U.S. Open
matches. "He has the ability to be in the Top 10 very soon," said
Safin's first-round victim, 24th-ranked Magnus Gustafsson. "He
hits his backhand as hard and consistently as anyone on tour."
At age 14 Safin moved to Valencia, Spain, to train with coach
Rafael Mensua. Safin plays Davis Cup for Russia and frequently
visits his family in Moscow, but he's a full-fledged Western
teenager. "This trip to New York, he was most excited when he
walked around Times Square and bought a laptop computer on Fifth
Avenue," said Mensua, who communicates with Safin in Spanish.
"His game needs work, especially his volley, but he plays like a
In keeping with his namesake, this revolutionary Marat knows
about wielding a dagger at an opportune moment. He punctuated his
Open win over Thomas Muster with a 130-mph ace on match point.
Asked afterward if he liked his chances of winning the
tournament, Safin laughed and said, "No. Right now I need to
improve too much." Says Mensua: "By next year it could be a
different story." --L. Jon Wertheim
Tempest in a Davis Cup
GIMELSTOB'S DAD IS SPITTIN' MAD
The latest U.S. Davis Cup contretemps nearly turned into a brawl
when incendiary comments by Andre Agassi led to a confrontation
between Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert, and the father of U.S.
player Justin Gimelstob.
"He's a sick dude," Gilbert said of Barry Gimelstob afterward.
"He's a disgusting human being."
"He's a jealous, envious guy," said Barry Gimelstob of Gilbert.
"It's high time someone stepped up to this bully."
Tension between the Agassi and Gimelstob camps had been high
because of Agassi's assertion that Justin isn't a top-tier player
(SI, Aug. 24). Last Thursday, Agassi, a Cup stalwart, ripped the
U.S. Tennis Association's placement of this month's semifinals,
against Italy, in Milwaukee. Agassi said he had told captain Tom
Gullikson that a charity commitment in Las Vegas would prevent
him from playing if the semis were not on the West Coast, and he
implied that Gullikson was little more than a puppet for the
USTA. Of this year's Cup final, Agassi said, "If it was in my
backyard, I wouldn't walk out the back door."
When Gilbert walked out of the players' locker room at the Open
on Saturday, the elder Gimelstob accused him of using Agassi to
open up the captain's job for Gilbert, a charge Gilbert calls
ridiculous. "I said, 'Why are you killing Tom Gullikson behind
his back?'" Gimelstob said later.
Things heated up, Gilbert said, when Gimelstob, who, like
Gilbert, is Jewish, spit on him and said Gilbert gave Jewish
coaches a bad name. A guard stepped in. When Gilbert walked
outside, he said, Gimelstob was there. "He was at the gate,
saying, 'Let's throw down, let's throw down,'" said Gilbert, who
declined the invitation.
BY THE NUMBERS
Amount, in dollars, earned by 17-year-old Taylor Dent in two
singles and one doubles match at the U.S. Open, his debut
tournament as a professional.
Amount, in dollars, earned by Phil Dent, Taylor's dad, in 1971,
his first year on the World Championship Tennis circuit.
Approximate amount, in dollars, a WTA player would receive for
competing in singles and doubles in all four Grand Slam
events--and losing in the first round.
Years since Jennifer Capriati won a U.S. Open match.
Times Capriati said "you know" in her press conference after
losing to Jana Novotna last week.
Titles that Goran Ivanisevic, winner of 21 tournaments in his
career, has won on American soil.