By SCOTT EDMONDS, Canadian Press
WINNIPEG (CP) – One remains near the top of her game, the other still struggling to rise through the ranks, but two of tennis’ top female stars say it’s a pleasure to play exhibition games that raise the profile of their sport. “To make people aware of tennis everywhere, that’s cool,” said Anna Kournikova, currently ranked 35th in the world.
“It’s great to come to an area like Winnipeg where really they don’t see much women’s tennis and do something for the kids and hopefully inspire them to pick up the sport,” said Monica Seles, the seventh ranked player.
“They usually get to see us on TV and it’s so different (live). You realize how much harder the ball is being hit.”
Kournikova defeated Seles 6-4, 7-5 in an exhibition match Sunday at the Winnipeg Arena.
Exhibition tennis isn’t quite the dog-eat-dog world of the money game so Kournikova’s victory was only fair. The night before, Seles defeated her rival 7-6, 6-4 before a larger crowd of 9,244 in St. Paul, Minn.
The Winnipeg event generated plenty of hype during the last three months, although advance ticket sales were just over the break-even point of around 4,000, although another 1,000 or more showed up Sunday.
One Winnipeg newspaper even ran a Kournikova look-alike contest, which was won by a local bartender who did have a striking resemblance to the current glamour queen of pro tennis.
It wasn’t exactly a champagne and strawberries crowd at the Winnipeg Arena Sunday, more hot dogs and beer.
But then the Winnipeg Arena, home of the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, is a far cry from Wimbledon.
“I don’t think I’ve sat through a whole match (on TV) and I thought if I saw it live I’d have a greater appreciation of it,” said Sean Gray, 23, who paid $110 for two tickets.
“When’s the next opportunity I’m going to get to see that calibre?”
He said he’s pretty bad at the game but might even give tennis another try himself next summer.
The temporary tennis court was supplied by Toronto-based Tennex Systems Inc. It was a centimetre-thick rubber court that was laid over plywood which covered the ice surface in the arena.
The event promoter said it’s the first professional tennis match in the city since Boris Becker played Kevin Curren in 1987.
At a brief news conference before they played, Kournikova dodged any questions about her personal life.
“I’m here to play,” she said.
“Maybe I can get a boyfriend here,” she added with a smile.
Kournikova, a former junior champ, suggested her No. 35 ranking isn’t bad, “considering I started the year at 99 after being off for eight months.”
“There’s still four weeks to go but hopefully, I’ll stay healthy.”Break
Unlike Kournikova, Seles soon dominated the women’s tennis world when she made the jump from junior ranks, until she was stabbed in the back by a crazed fan of Steffi Graf while playing in Germany in 1993. She returned to the game in 1995.
This year, the 29-year-old has two tournament titles and an overall record of 46-13 compared with Kournikova’s 28-24. Seles’ best season since her return was 2000, when she finished ranked 4th in the world.
The warm-up acts Sunday included a match between Canadian pros Vanessa Webb and Sonya Jeyaseelan, who then paired with Seles and Kournikova in a doubles match.
The opportunities for exhibition games are few and far between. Some, such as the Williams sisters who currently dominate women’s tennis, refuse to play them.
For those willing, top players are barred from exhibitions during the 35 weeks of the year there are either Grand Slam, Tier one or Tier two tournaments. There are also restrictions on exhibitions in cities that host big-name events.
Both women live in Florida and said their knowledge of Winnipeg consisted of the Winnipeg Jets – now the Phoenix Coyotes – and Winnie the Pooh.
Kournikova, 21, a Moscow native, also said she had hoped to see some snow on her visit north. “This year I didn’t get to see snow yet and I was hoping to see it here but I guess I won’t.”
Winnipeg is unseasonably warm and there isn’t enough white stuff in town to make a decent snowball.