Minutes after the last shot of the second annual MS Tennis Classic Thursday night at the University of Denver’s Magness Arena, ambidextrous doubles specialist Luke Jensen was asked about playing in the thin, mile-high air.
Anna Kournikova warms up prior to the MS Tennis Classic at Magness Arena on Thursday. His response tells you all you need to know about Anna Kournikova’s first visit to Colorado.
“Anna came in the day before and didn’t really have time to adjust to the altitude,” Jensen said, “so it was tough.”
Why is his answer so telling? Because he wasn’t asked about Kournikova.
Yet Jensen felt a need to offer an excuse for her listless, sloppy play in losing 6-2, 6-2 to Monica Seles in the feature event of the three-match exhibition.
And he wasn’t alone.
Seles, too, tried to explain why the match lasted less than an hour.
“Her game is to go for a lot of shots,” Seles said. “So if she’s off, even a little bit, it can look bad because a match is won and lost by only a few points here and there.”
Kournikova, though, was off by more than a little bit.
The Russian superstar, whose off-court earnings exceed $10 million per year, showed the crowd of 4,300 why her game is a long way from matching her fame. She repeatedly hurt herself with double faults, unforced errors and an inability to put Seles on the defensive.
Yes, there were flashes of brilliance – and not just from the cameras in the crowd. Kournikova drilled a few backhand, cross-court winners and smacked a few forehands that caught Seles flat-footed. She even served a couple of aces.
But Kournikova’s play was erratic. Too often, she shot from the hip, trying to hit winners that weren’t there. Even worse, she appeared to not care where the ball landed, leaving the crowd, which paid $50 to $150 per ticket, to wonder if her struggles had more to do with attitude than altitude.
“It would be tough to play a tournament here,” Seles said. “The balls really fly through the air, and it’s difficult to control your shots.”
Neither the ATP Tour nor the WTA Tour has plans to put a tournament in Denver. So the MS Tennis Classic is the only show in town.
And it was Jensen and his brother, Murphy, who saved the show.
The event began with a world-class juniors match in which Russian teenager Maria Sharapova edged American Bethanie Mattek 5-4 in a nine-game set. Then came Seles’ pummeling of Kournikova.
But it was the mixed doubles finale – Seles and Murphy Jensen beat Kournikova and Luke Jensen 8-6 in a pro set – that drew the largest cheers. The Jensens mixed nifty shot-making with comic relief to provide the most entertaining moments of the night.
“You guys are like the Harlem Globetrotters of tennis,” said an autograph seeker.
“You mean the Washington Generals,” Luke Jensen quipped. “This is all about playing tennis, raising money for a good cause and having fun.”
Promoters estimated the event would raise nearly $400,000 for the Colorado Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Rocky Mountain MS Center. They were the event’s big winners.
The only loser was Kournikova, who hasn’t won a women’s tour tournament but hopes to prove in 2002 that she’s more than just a pretty face.
Wednesday, she said she has recovered from a stress fracture in her left foot, an injury that kept her off the courts for seven months this year and dropped her ranking from No. 8 to No. 73. She said she is using this offseason to get in tournament shape and climb back into the top 10.
But Kournikova had nothing to say Thursday night, refusing to talk to reporters after the event. She offered no excuses, no apologies, no explanations for playing so poorly against Seles, the women’s 10th-ranked player who hadn’t hit a ball in six weeks and won’t start gearing up for January’s Australian Open until next week.
That was left to Jensen.
“If you’re a power hitter, you’ve got to be smart and consistent when you’re playing at altitude,” Jensen said. “It was easier for Monica, because she has played here before.”