BRITS HIT BOTTOM IN LOVE MATCH WITH KOURNIKOVA

WIMBLEDON, England — Ah, the British. So much more sophisticated than Americans. So much more refined. More mannered. More tasteful.

Except — tee-hee — when it comes to — tee-hee — sexuality — tee-hee — where the Brits are so — giggle-giggle — titillated by the idea of — ooo-la-la — a woman’s bottom — oh, my! — or bum, or cheeks, or derriere — goodness! — that they go all aflutter and behave like 9-year-old boys with a
— hee-hee-hee — dirty comic book.

The specific bottom/bum/derriere that I refer to belongs to Anna Kournikova, the Russian teen who dresses like Beverly Hills High, and acts like Beverly Hills elementary.

Never mind her prancing, flirting or tantrums, or the way she dangles hockey boyfriends — Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure — like charms from a bracelet. The Brits salivate over her. And you thought that guy in “Lolita” had the hots.

Anna’s semi-naked top half is on billboards all over London — a sports bra ad that reads “Only the ball should bounce” — while her bottom is pretty much everywhere else. Even the stodgiest British newspapers can’t resist endless photos of Kournikova in a short skirt. The Sun, one of a half-dozen Kourna-crazy tabloids, promises “a photo of Anna every day!”

Yippee.

Me? I live in America. A rear end doesn’t rattle me anymore. Among television, movies and music videos, I figure I’ve seen every size and shape. I’ve seen women’s and men’s. I believe I saw Dennis Franz’s once on “NYPD Blue,” and I wasn’t even looking for it.

So I cannot get excited by a you-know-what. But I can laugh when the Brits make you-know-whats of themselves. The story Monday, the first day of Wimbledon, was that the ball boys had been instructed not to gape at Anna’s tush while she was playing.

Right. Save that for the grown men.

Winning looks not translating into titles

Personally, I am writing about Kournikova today to get her out of the way — before someone else does. Usually, by the final round of a tournament, all that’s left of Miss K is a whiff of her perfume (I believe the latest was Eau de Fedorov).

The truth is Kournikova has never won a WTA event. Read that again. Never won a tournament. I’m not talking Grand Slams, like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. ANY tournament. She has never won. Not even one of those Nabisco things.

So why, you ask, is there such a fuss over this woman?

Bottoms up.

Even Sports Illustrated, which likes to flaunt its status as a sports authority, featured Kournikova on a recent cover, lying on a pillow with a come-hither look. Inside were snapshots of her in skintight shorts and a gold miniskirt. It was as close to kiddie porn as SI can get without using gymnasts.

The accompanying article, however, was really where SI stepped in it. (“As god-given beautiful as Kournikova is, it is her style and presence that
…take her to a new level.” …”Kournikova seems to be aware of the camera above, flirting with it, somehow sensing exactly when it is on her.”)

As Anna herself might say: Gag me.

Anna, the publicity machine for women’s tennis

The fact is, Kournikova may be a flirt, a brat, a woman who says of her male admirers: “They cannot afford me,” she may earn $10 million a year selling her looks to advertisers, but she is only a contending tennis player, not a championship one. She struggled through the first round Monday, finally upsetting a mistake-prone Sandrine Testud in three sets. Anna blew a 5-2 lead in the second set and several match points before Testud bumbled her way to the showers.

“I’m amazed Anna won the match,” John McEnroe said afterward. “To beat any other seeded players, she’ll have to rise to a level that she hasn’t been yet.”

And that’s the dilemma: What if Kournikova, who is already 19 (middle age in women’s tennis), never gets to that elite level? How does her sport deal with her?

The answer is, same as it’s doing now: Market her like a Kewpie doll, then complain that everyone is paying attention to her looks.

Hypocritical? You bet. But then, if it isn’t interested in using sex and beauty as a draw, why does women’s tennis keep those skirts micro-short? If you have to tell ball boys not to look at fully visible underwear, the problem isn’t with the ball boys, it’s with the clothes.

Here’s a simple solution: Make the women wear loose shorts and collared shirts
— just like the men. After all, aren’t the women constantly asking for the same money and prestige as their male counterparts? The guys don’t play in Speedos, do they?

It’ll never happen. You know why? Because secretly, many factions on the women’s tour love the attention Kournikova brings it. They are so desperate to cling to an increasingly disinterested American audience, they’ll push Anna center stage, even as they cluck their tongues from the wings.

So the tour gets its Lolita, the media get their young Marilyn Monroe, and the Brits get their bum shots. And don’t even ask about Anna’s love life. The newspapers all ran photos Monday of a ring on Anna’s finger that, in typical fashion, she showed off Sunday night, without revealing the source.

She laughs, we play the fools. She shakes her derriere, and the Brits go berserk. Maybe one day she’ll win something and there’ll actually be a reason she takes up so much space in the newspapers. Until then, folks who get silly over what a girl has on her finger only prove how tightly she has them wrapped around it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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