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Kournikova fails to court success

Anna Kournikova
Kournikova has dropped to 37th in the world rankings  

by CNN's Simon Hooper

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Anna Kournikova's fading fortunes on the tennis court could hurt her off-the-court earnings too.

The 21-year-old Russian is one of the most recognisable and photographed stars in world sport. And sponsorship deals with Adidas, Omega watches, Yonex tennis equipment and Berlei lingerie have made her one of the wealthiest players on the women's circuit with career earnings totalling more than $40 million.

But the vital statistics of Kournikova's career tell another story.

On Monday she crashed to her fourth first round defeat in Grand Slam competition this year, losing 6-3, 6-0 to 17-year-old Indonesian Angelique Widjaja at the U.S. Open in New York.

It is the latest disappointment in a career that has spectacularly failed to live up to early promise.

Since making her debut on the women's professional tour in 1995, Kournikova has failed to win a singles title. She is currently ranked 37th in the world, having previously climbed as high as eighth.

Of the $10.6 million that dropped into her bank account last season just $334,000 was earned on court, helped by success in doubles competitions.

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Now, Adidas, which reportedly pays $2.4 million a year to be associated with the Moscow-born star, is rumoured to be unhappy with Kournikova's form. Nobody from Adidas was available for comment.

Phil Holland, news correspondent with sports business experts, believes the game could soon be up for Kournikova as a marketable asset.

"Sponsors have paid a lot of money to endorse her and the idea is that she produces something in return," he told CNN.

"Grand slams are where they want to see their stars. They don't want to be associated with over-paid stars who are earning top cash but not performing."

Kournikova has been accused of allowing her off-court commitments become a distraction. At Wimbledon in June her image suffered a further blow when she lost her temper in an interview with a BBC reporter who suggested she needed to refocus on her game.

"She's going on TV but not for the right reasons," says Holland. "The interview at Wimbledon was uncomfortable for all concerned."

At 21, it may be too soon to say that Kournikova's best tennis is behind her, but after six years on the circuit the Russian is more the fading veteran than the rising starlet.

Meanwhile there are plenty of upcoming players -- like Austria's Barbara Schett, Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova and American Ashley Harkleroad -- aspiring to usurp Kournikova as the glamour girl of women's tennis while adding victories to the equation.

Ironically, Holland believes Kournikova's financial success could limit the earnings potential of the young stars coming through behind her.

"Somebody like Justine Henin is playing good tennis but in terms of marketability she's not quite up there," he says.

"On the other hand somebody like Barbara Schett is getting a lot of attention for her looks but if her tennis is of the same standard as Kournikova's -- although it's probably better -- she's not going to get the same amount of attention.

"Nobody is going to jump into deals with tennis players simply because of their looks. It's a case of once-bitten, twice shy."

As for Kournikova's tennis career, a period away from the spotlight could be the key to getting her game back on track.

"If she wants to perform she needs to reconsider what she wants to achieve," says Holland.

"That might mean stepping down to lesser tournaments, getting back to basics and thinking about a change of coach. It worked very effectively for Andre Agassi a few years ago."


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