Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Blogs [Print without images]

Monday, September 29, 2008
REPORTING FROM ... KOURNIKOVA AMONG "CHAMPIONS"


"Anna, I think the dude up there just proposed."

It's raining here in Charlotte; raining hard. Goran Ivanisevic, the crazy Croat who won Wimbledon in 2001 after countless previous failures, knows only so well how precipitation can wreak havoc on a tennis tournament, but he sees a silver lining in the move indoors Friday at the Citadel Group Championships at The Palisades. "Dude, think about it," he mutters to Jim Courier in his action movie bad guy voice. "We play indoors today, there's clay and hard courts and even grass out at the club, so we can play on all surfaces. Now that's your Tour of Champions!" Courier performs double duty with the Outback Champions Series, playing in the eight-man round-robin competitions (he beats Ivanisevic Saturday night, then wins the tournament Sunday over Todd Martin) while operating behind-the-scenes as the Series' co-founder and promoter with Jon Venison. The two friends started the circuit in 2005 to provide a place for top players over 30 to still mix it up on the courts while entertaining crowds more interested in watching dudes with the name power of Ivanisevic as opposed to say, Ivo Karlovic (the current top Croat on the ATP circuit). Indeed, the eight Outback Champions Series tournaments feature strong competition and intriguing match-ups. "Believe me," says Wayne Ferreira, a South African player now based in San Francisco, "these are much better matches than what you used to get on the old hit-and-giggle tours where everyone had to play like crap in order to make Jimmy Connors look good."

Indeed, but Courier's no dummy. He knows when the competition can use a little extra fireworks to make it a must-see show, so when he failed to secure one of his circuit's top two drawing cards (John McEnroe and last year's winner Pete Sampras) for Charlotte, he tapped Anna Kournikova for a couple of mixed doubles exhibitions on Saturday. Bingo: both day and night sessions are sold out. Kournikova arrives early a.m. from her Miami home, hits the hotel for a cat nap, then strolls onto the still wet grounds at The Palisades, eyes glued to a Blackberry as a line of admirers waits at the entrance to center court. Kournikova will team with local hero and 1986 US Open quarterfinalist Tim Wilkison, a.k.a. Dr. Dirt for his tendency to dive for volleys, against Jimmy Arias and Chanda Rubin. Before the match, Arias loosens his limbs and wags his tongue. "I heard a good one the other day," the former top-five player (but never ranked No. 1) proclaims. "Juan Martin Del Potro has won four ATP titles this year as a teenager, and someone found out that 11 of the 12 other players who did the same before age 20 eventually reached the World No. 1 ranking. So don't say I'm a filler for this match, baby, I'm unique!" Arias knows full well that it's Anna's World today and he's just playing in it. "SexyBack" cranks out on the speakers as the teams stroll out onto the court for the match. Afterwards, Kournikova does her thing, posing for pictures with geeks, signing Maxim magazine covers for overweight bald guys and autographing t-shirts for the local junior boys' contingent. Next stop?

"Guam, with the USO, to visit troops' families," she explains, focusing intently on the discussion despite the bulbs flashing in her face. "I'm real excited. I leave Monday from Miami. We fly Dallas to Tokyo to Guam." Her assignment? "Not sure, really. I'll be giving out K-Swiss T-shirts, meeting family members and, since it's not far from Halloween, probably handing out candy to the kids." I suspect the USO isn't bringing her in to lift the morale of the kids, but I leave that one alone. Outback Champion Series matches provide a nice blend of competition and entertainment, with players conducting TV interviews between sets and bantering with the crowd between points while also trying to win matches. There's ranking points, prize money and titles at stake, but more importantly pride; no one wants to be the old guy who can't crank his forehand anymore.

Next month, the Series travels to Dallas, where Boris Becker will play his first-ever Champions event. "I'm fired up to get a crack at playing Becker," Courier the Player says. Becker's just-announced appearance should pack 'em in, but Courier the Promoter hedged his bet weeks earlier: He signed Kournikova to a two-event deal.