Coach's Corner

Anna wants to become a top-flight tennis star? Kan o' kourn. Just become a Williams sister.

You don't, I hope, overthink the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You're willing to accept, at face value, talking wolves in grandma's pajamas and a family of bears who sleep in beds, cook breakfast and in addition, as if that's not special enough, speak conversant English with a little girl who likes oatmeal. I'm pretty certain Hindu kids in Bombay and Russian kids in Moscow know these stories too, and when the kids grow up they don't start harping on some of the incongruities of these tales: They just are.

Now, my children, I'm going to recite a modern-day fairy tale, already almost as well known as Cinderella. It goes like this: Once upon a time a poor black man (his name is Richard) and his wife (her name is Oracene) got married and settled down in South Central L.A. One day Richard is idly watching tennis on TV when prize money figures are displayed. He turns to Oracene and says, "Honey, let's have two kids. They'll be daughters, and I'll raise them to be tennis superstars and millionaires. Life will be good." Oracene, a little more practical than her husband, says, "Richard, you've never owned a tennis racquet. I know dammed well you've never played tennis. Let's get a puppy instead." But Richard says, "Not to worry baby, I'll read Tennis magazine and get Vic Braden's book. They'll take some lessons from the guy down at the park. How hard can it be? You hit a big green ball into a big green square."

And then, upon reflection he says, "Forget the lessons from the guy in the park. I'll coach them myself. Trust me Oracene," he whispers gently, "in 20 years everyone in America will know our girls' names." And do you know what boys and girls? Twenty years later everyone does.

This is the legend of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Many times I've thought about the unlikely lunacy -- as improbable as talking bears and cross-dressing wolves -- of this oft repeated tale. It's insane. It's impossible. There was no Cinderella! My budget for in-depth investigative journalism has evaporated so I am left it to the real media to debunk this ludicrous tale made up by the Mad Monk Richard, but guess what, no one ever has. I guess it must be so.

Let's (for a second) not take the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world for granted and consider their story. Now tell me, can you one-up that one? Not a chance. As is so often the case, this column went caddiewampus from the first word. I was thinking -- yes indeed -- about women's tennis, but I was pondering a name I've never written before, Anna Kournikova. Venus and Serena just got in the way. Sorry.

Kournikova is 21 now, and there's two ways you can look at that sweet age: either she's approaching middle age for today's generation of female tennis players and time is running out, or consider that history shows Evert and Navratilova were still dominant players deep into their 30s, so Anna can concentrate on her modeling and commercials for a few more years before she gets serious about tennis.

It's a shame Kournikova's singles career has been so decidedly mediocre. A super-attractive-non-lesbo-non-porker-female-jock- with-a-sense-of-humor-who-likes-being-a-girl would be a story and a ratings machine that would parallel Tiger ... if she could only play. Her story begs two questions: Does her genetics and all they entail -- lucrative endorsements, international fame, and great wealth for doing nothing except looking good -- inhibit and suffocate the talent of a potential champion? Or is what we see all there really is, a sweet-looking but otherwise run-of-the-collective Russian tennis player?

If you've ever had the opportunity to watch pros in the solitary sports like golf and tennis at practice, you've seen they all have fantastic games. You can't tell a Hingis from a Pizzichini watching them hit cross-court backhands on a practice court. Same with golf pros, from the lesser tours to the PGA, all those 8-irons are picture-perfect. They're pros, dummy! They're good. The difference between No. 5 and No. 95 has little to do with groundstroke mechanics and everything to do with intangible, unquantifiable things. I'm certain Anna couldn't answer those questions, so I sure can't, but my suspicion is she just isn't mentally pre-wired to be a top-flight singles player.

So the vast majority of tennis (and golf) pros will play an entire career and never win a tournament. Kournikova does have (with a little thanks to Martina Hingis) two doubles Grand Slam titles on her résumé. She seems to perform best in the unwatched, untended lower orchards of the game: the various team permutations of doubles. Maybe this is the best she can do -- is it really so bad? -- and we should all give the girl a break.

A 21-year-old athlete should still have the world in front of them. I hope this is true for Anna Kournikova. The storyline: Gorgeous young athlete disappears from view for a year to work on her game and fulfill that proverbial potential. She makes a respectable showing at the Australian, wins in Indian Wells, followed by titles in France, London, and New York. All she needs to make this all come to pass is have Richard Williams adopt her as his third daughter.

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