Kournikova faces Seles in tennis exhibition

It’s Christmastime in Minnesota. The kids get to visit Santa, but on Saturday night, males aged 15 to 50 will get a visit from Anna.

Yep, it’s true; Anna’s comin’ to town.

But guys, don’t even think about sitting on Anna’s lap for your Christmas wish. She’s got attitude aplenty. Need proof? How about the reported rebuff from a teenage Anna to pestering teenage boys on the grounds of Wimbledon a few years ago: “Forget it boys, you can’t afford me.”

Anna Kournikova, the 21-year-old Russian supermodel — who somehow finds time to squeeze in tennis matches between photo shoots — will take on someone named Monica Seles at 8 p.m. Saturday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Monica, by the way, has won nine Grand Slam titles in her career, but who’s counting? Certainly not Anna, who has never won a singles title of any kind as a pro.

But who cares? Style counts for everything nowadays, right? I did an Internet search the other day for Anna Kournikova — to read the articles, of course. Evidently, I had just tallied another hit for the most hit-on athlete on the Web. Put it this way: There were a lot of sites with provocative sights.

To cite just a few: the Anna workout video, the calendar, the magazine covers, the Enrique Iglesias (current boyfriend) music video. It’s the stuff that propels her into being the most popular and well-endorsed female athlete on the planet.

Tennis suffers

But she’s not the best tennis player. Reaching a player’s potential in the world of professional tennis takes a single-mindedness that most people can’t even fathom. Juggling tennis and celebrity is next to impossible — even Andre Agassi toned down his off-court bling-bling to make a run at the top. The rub occurs when the dollars (all right, millions of them) are rolling in and the choice is between a Cosmo cover and another bucket of practice serves. Which would you choose?

Anna’s choosing both. A tremendous athlete (in case you didn’t notice), Anna has the pedigree, an aggressive all-court game, and even some solid stats: world junior champ, a top pro ranking of No. 8 in singles and No. 1 in doubles, Wimbledon semifinalist in singles. Those credentials help offset the “never-won-a-tournament” moniker that shadows her. Even better results would be a cinch with more on-court action and less off-court distraction.

Seles changes path

Maybe she can take a lesson from Saturday’s opponent. Monica was flinging flowers to the faithful as she entered Stade Roland Garros in Paris in the early 1990s. And why not? She had witnessed first-hand the blossoming maven of marketability — (Image is Everything) Agassi — at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Monica emigrated there from Yugoslavia with her family when she was only 12. Monica’s fling with flaunting was short-lived — she has way too much substance to focus on style.

I watched this little girl smash and grunt (loud!) her way through literally millions of tennis balls fed to her by a ball machine day after day, year after year, under the watchful eyes of her dad, brother, and Bollettieri at the Tennis Academy. And as if that weren’t enough, she would hit them over a strategically placed shopping cart to work on her shot depth. Her work ethic was exceptional, her concentration phenomenal.

Academy legend has it that she sneaked out to hit against a backboard in the dark of night after she was ordered to rest from an injury. When I was at the know-nothing age of 17, I made my greatest prediction, albeit an obvious one: “She’ll be No. 1 in the world someday.” And she was, for three years.

And she could have been there for many more years. At the top of the tennis world in 1993, some wacko jumped out of the stands during one of Monica’s matches in Hamburg, Germany, and stabbed her in the back with a knife.

The reason? He was a Steffi Graf fan and wanted to see Steffi her regain the top spot.

The back stabber got his wish. While not seriously injured, Monica was emotionally scarred from the attack. And who wouldn’t be? It’s tough enough taking on your opponent, let alone a deranged fan hurdling the court barrier to stick you with a knife.

She didn’t play for two years in the prime of her career, dealing with depression, a not-guilty verdict for her attacker, and the stomach cancer that would eventually take her beloved father’s life — the same artist father who drew cartoons on tennis balls to make the game fun. (Tennis parents: take note.)

Monica fights back

It should come as little surprise that when she did return to the tour in 1995, she won her first tournament handily and then proceeded all the way to the final of the U.S. Open before falling to — you guessed it, Steffi. Give up? Slink away? Forget it. Monica won the next Grand Slam event she played, the Australian Open in 1996.

Monica doesn’t sprinkle sugar on her Wheaties; she garnishes it with rusty tacks. There certainly have been better athletes than Monica, but show me a better competitor. I have never seen her give anything less than her best on every point of every match. That’s substance.

Now 29 years old, an American citizen, and ranked seventh in the world, Monica still approaches her craft with the same determination. On Saturday night, as she always has, Monica will stand up on the baseline and whack two-handed drives from corner to corner. She’ll play fearlessly on the important points. Heck, she’ll even go for more.

Lessons all around to be learned by the darling diva. Better watch out, Anna, Monica’s comin’ to town, too!