Anna Kournikova

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, South Carolina, April 3 (Reuters) - Anna Kournikova, poster girl of the women's tennis tour, enjoys the attention she is getting. "I think it's good. It brings attention to the game which I'm playing, tennis," the 17-year-old blonde beauty said. Near capacity crowds cheer when Kournikova takes the court here in her first appearance at the Family Circle Cup, where the Russian-born player has earned a semifinal appearance against Switzerland's Patty Schnyder.

Billed as the sex symbol of women's tennis, she does not disappoint -- in her play and in her appearance. Wearing tight short-shorts and a body-fitting top that at times exposes her mid-section, she struts about the court between points. She holds her head to her full 5-foot-8 (1.73 metres) height with her back as straight as an arrow, her long, braided, pony-tailed hair swinging from side to side across her lower back.

Between points, she walks briskly, at times making comments in Russian. She is all business, and when another point starts, she shows the tennis skills that have had her ranked as high as 10th in the world. She is currently 20th. Kournikova attacks her opponent with rifle-like ground strokes, angled sharply to the corners. Her two-handed backhand is a weapon but it is her forehand that is most dangerous. She does not just stroke the ball, she sledgehammers it. Catlike on the court, she also possesses fine drop shots and a medium-speed spin serve which she can at times kick in at higher velocities. She recorded the ninth-fastest serve on the tour last year, 111 mph (179 kph).

In the interview room, Kournikova sounds no different from any highly intelligent American teen-ager. She speaks perfect English. Asked to comment on publicity in recent weeks about being labeled as a sex symbol, Kournikova said: "I don't think it's been in the last few weeks." Indeed, her looks have drawn attention much longer than the past few weeks. Nevertheless, she took the question in stride: "I guess it comes with the job and I'm just concentrating on tennis. If it wouldn't be for tennis, I wouldn't be here."

Tennis has been her life since she was 10 years old, when her mother moved with her from Russia to Bradenton, Florida, where she enrolled in Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy. Having started tennis at age 5, she was already serious about the game. She turned pro at 14. From the start of 1997 through October 18 of last year, she lost only to players ranked among the world's top 15. To this youngster who was named one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 1998, it is still all about tennis. "I don't really focus on anything except tennis and just my game and preparing and everything. Tennis is my life," she said. "That's what I've been working for, what I was working for for 13 years. So for me to think about anything else -- of course, I do think about something else -- but my main goal is tennis. Otherwise I would be wasting 13 years of life."

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