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‘Spice Girls’ fall from grace

Melbourne: True to their nickname, a sprinkle of the “Spice Girls” would enliven any event.

When Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis danced together on the tennis stage it was a promoter’s dream — youthful glamour combined with effortless skill. They scooped doubles titles the world over and set camera shutters chattering wherever they played.

Hingis was the best player in the world in the late 1990s. Kournikova’s column inches, based mostly on her good looks, were more at home on the gossip pages. Together, on a tennis court, they clicked.

Today those golden years seem a long time ago as Hingis sits in her Swiss home contemplating retirement at just 22 and Kournikova mulls her heaviest defeat at a Grand Slam event.

In 1999 the pair teamed up, winning five doubles titles in their first year together including the Australian Open . That was the year Hingis won the last of her five Grand Slam singles titles before injury and the Williams sisters ended her pre-eminence.

It seems unlikely now Kournikova will ever fulfil the potential she displayed in reaching the 1997 Wimbledon semi-finals on her debut as a 16-year-old. Despite keeping her smile for the cameras, there is sadness in her eyes these days and a weariness in her answers.

“It’s been like this ever since I was a little girl, so I’m kind of used to it and I don’t really pay attention to it,” she sighs when asked the standard question of her off-court appeal and its contrast with her on-court mediocrity.

Queries about besotted schoolboys used to draw an arched eyebrow from the blonde Russian. Once she famously quipped “You can’t afford me” when proposed to by a wag in the crowd.

At the Australian Open she offered a tired “I’m used to that attention” when teased about local schoolboys wanting her phone number.

A humiliating 6-0, 6-1 second-round loss to Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne at Melbourne Park was yet another brutal knock to her dented confidence.

Kournikova has been on the tennis rollercoaster since moving from Moscow to Florida, aged 10 to pursue her dream of fame and riches. It is a path, which has earned her millions of dollars, but denied her a childhood.

A life without tennis would offer up different challenges but perhaps allow her some privacy and peace.

A quieter life is what Hingis is currently enjoying and she conceded on Wednesday she may never play tennis again. Still suffering pain from a foot injury, Hingis is facing the prospect of life away from the limelight.

But a devotion to the sport, its participants and the hurly-burly of the women’s tour still runs through her veins. “When I wake up I always look for the results on tele-text,” she admitted. Denied the five-star lifestyle of a world-famous player, she is filling her time in other ways.

Quite how long those simple pleasures will occupy a woman who lists Gucci as her favourite designer and was the first female athlete to appear on the cover of American lifestyle magazine GQ is anyone’s guess.

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