Thursday, December 27, 2012

... and then there's Anna Kournikova

I'm continuing my series of translations of parts of Anders Haahr Rasmussen's wonderful book Én Bold ad Gangen". This is page 79 ff.

One would think that happiness would be granted to those athletes with classical feminine curves and beauty. But it's not that simple. Anna Kournikova learned that the hard way.

The young Russian was world famous at the end of the 1990s not just for her tennis, but also for being unusually good looking. She was crowned the world's sexiest woman, sponsors stood in line with lucrative contracts, and young men, struck by "Annamania" flocked to tennis courts around the world for a glimpse of the young Russian.

The person in question didn't hold herself back either. Kournikova posed lightly clothed for men's magazines, advertised a sports bra with the slogan "only the ball should bounce", was in films and music videos, sunned herself in the attention and hauled in the money.

The grapes were sour. Colleagues, commentators and not a few tennis fans didn't care much for her. What was that all about? She really wasn't that good. People agreed, her ability on the tennis court didn't warrant all the attention. And they were right in a way: Kournikova got more attention than players who were higher up in the rankings and won more matches.

Call it unjust outrage or justified feminist criticism, the consequence was the same: the more popular she became off the court, the more seeds of doubt were sown about her tennis talent. Eventually, so many seeds were sown that they took root and grew to a narrative, which transformed into The Truth.

So when Kournikova is discussed today, it's as an example of how far you can get without any actual ability. Newspapers describe her as a player "with beauty but doubtful tennis ability". It became legitimate to say that "God gave her a natural talent -- and it's not her serve". Kournikova might not even deserve to be called an athlete compared to her fellow Russian Maria Sharapova, who, in contrast to Kournikova "has shown several times she actually is a tennis player".

But it's not really difficult to argue that Anna Kournikova was actually a tennis player. She was crowned world number one junior at the age of 14, and as a 15 year-old shocked most of the tennis world by beating several established stars en route to the semi finals at Wimbledon.

"She never won a tournament," is repeated by people who thus demonstrate their limited knowledge both of how ability in tennis is measured and Kournikova's doubles career, which snared her two Grand Slam titles and the official status as the world's number one doubles player.

As a 19 year-old she reached number eight in the world rankings, joining such luminaries as Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Steffi Graf. Kournikova played against them and beat them all, before returning foot and back injuries put a stop to her career.

The reduction of Kournikova's tennis career to a pin-up model's less than serious hobby is not only unfounded, it's also rather remarkable. It's a fact that "lovely", tall, thin people are usually considered to be more intelligent, competent and socially adept than not so lovely, short, stocky people.They earn more money and are held in higher regard by their colleagues.

Kournikova learned another truth: It's good to be attractive, as long as you're not too attractive. Use your attractiveness carefully and not too aggressively, not too willingly. Being very attractive can easily backfire. It's not a problem that Caroline Wozniacki is in the Scoop Models stable, and has modelled for Adidas, Elle and Vogue. Modelling work is fine, but in careful doses. Being a sex symbol and a career woman is a careful balancing act. The path is narrow, and must be trod carefully.

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