by | Jul 2, 1997 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — As a journalist, I am not usually assigned to the romance beat, but I have been asked by many Detroiters about Sergei Fedorov and his suspected girlfriend, rising tennis star Anna Kournikova, who in England is called “a stunner” and in America is called “jailbait.” The nicknames come from Kournikova’s age, which is 16, and her sex appeal, which is about 25 on a scale of 10. You may recall her as the young blond waiting by Fedorov’s locker after the Stanley Cup championship, or the one wearing the tight leopard-skin miniskirt as she rode in his car during the parade.

Here in the London tabloids, there have been several articles about “The Hockey Player and the Tennis Lolita” and there were even photos of Sergei bopping around town with Kournikova. In one picture he was carrying her rackets, which, if the Red Wings equipment guy is reading this, take note, in case you ever need help with the bags.

On Tuesday, I spotted Sergei on the balcony of the players’ lounge. So I went up to say hello. He was standing with Kournikova, and when he saw me, he smiled nervously.

“Mitch, what are you doing here?”

I told him I’ve been covering this event since 1984.

“Wow. Is that so? That’s very good.”

He kept moving nervously in place. I waited. Where I come from, when we see people we know, we introduce them to whomever we’re with. Like, “Have you met my wife?” or “I want you to meet a friend of mine.” You know, common courtesy?

There was none of that here. Instead, Kournikova — whose face suggests junior high, but whose demeanor suggests a spoiled princess — eyed me briefly, spat something out in Russian and went back to looking over the balcony.

Sergei did not bother with an introduction.

Privacy, Wimbledon don’t mix

We chatted for a few minutes, about Detroit, about Vladimir Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov — Fedorov said he was watching their progress in the newspapers. We talked about tennis and how hard he thought it was.

Every now and then, Kournikova turned and snapped something in Russian that suggested the phrase — and I’m guessing here — “Will you lose this guy, please?” and Sergei gave me that nervous smile and drifted back to her side. I almost laughed. Here was a 27-year-old multimillionaire, one of the biggest stars in hockey, a guy who just won a Stanley Cup — and he’s wiggling like a sixth-grader spotted by his pals while talking to a girl.

Of course, this, too, may have to do with Kournikova’s age. She only turned 16 last month, and in America that’s still two years shy of the age of consent. If you were Sergei, you might be nervous, too.

Then again, maybe these two just want privacy. They have been spending full days together here, and reportedly have known each other for at least a year. And obviously, as native Russian sports heroes, they have a lot in common.

But if you want privacy, why rendezvous at Centre Court? Didn’t we learn anything from Andre Agassi and Barbra Streisand? At least Agassi acknowledged Babs’ existence. When I spoke to Sergei, he acted as if he weren’t even with Kournikova. Come on. I’m not that ignorant about romance. You don’t fly across an ocean because you like somebody’s forehand volley. And I don’t think Sergei’s here as an adviser. If he wanted to coach juniors, he could have gone to Windsor.

Kournikova is just as bad. When a British reporter asked whether “her boyfriend” were here, she said, “I’m single” (which wasn’t the question, but shows you what we’re dealing with). And when an American TV announcer asked her point blank about Sergei Fedorov, she stopped answering any of his questions.

Ah, love.

Teen angel with devilish reputation

Of course, there’s love and there are manners. I did not detect any of the latter on the balcony, and those who have dealt with Kournikova haven’t seen a whole lot either. They have seen tantrums. They have seen vanity. She wears expensive jewelry, high heels, and was recently spotted in a black see-through dress. She has posed seductively for a poster, wearing a two-piece, bare-midriff outfit that would make most fathers throw a towel over her. Pam Shriver recently cracked that Kournikova is threatening to “wear out” the mirror in the women’s locker room, she stares at herself so much.

“I can’t help it if other players don’t want to look good,” Kournikova retorted.

Boy, what an angel.

I’ll tell you this much: The kid can play. I watched her knock out Helena Sukova on Tuesday with a quick serve and some wicked two-fisted backhands. This is her first Wimbledon, and she has reached the quarterfinals.

Sergei was in the box, watching that match, and when Kournikova won, she looked at him and gave the “raise the roof” hand push that the Red Wings did on the victory stand. I thought that was cute. Later, I asked her where she got that move from.

“I made it up,” she said icily.


Now, it is really none of my business — or yours — what Sergei and Anna do with their love lives, although a 27-year-old courting a high school sophomore would raise eyebrows in my neighborhood. We can only hope Sergei knows the difference between a babe and a baby.

But before I retire from the romance beat, I do want to offer the young cuddlies a piece of advice. Pretending you don’t have a relationship isn’t going to work in this setting. This is Wimbledon. This is like a giant microscope.

Or to paraphrase the old poem,

“Never kiss by the garden gate,

cause love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t.”

Especially the ones with cameras.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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