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Anna among backbenchers

London: The full extent of Anna Kournikova’s fall from grace is set to be underlined next week when the Russian steps down to compete in the lower echelons of the sport for the first time in seven years.

After four first-round defeats in the five top-flight tournaments she has played this year, the most photographed woman in sport plans to get back to basics, tennis organisers said Wednesday.

Kournikova has entered the $75,000 ITF Women’s Circuit Tournament in Dothan, Alabama starting next Monday — the Russian’s first entry at a lower-tier event since 1996.

The desperate move shadows the steps taken by Andre Agassi, who returned to the men’s Challenger circuit in 1998 with his game in tatters and ranked 141st in the world.

A year later he achieved the ultimate in tennis — winning the French Open. Since then he has won four more Grand Slams to bring his haul to eight and shows no sign of letting up.

The only stumbling block which could prevent Kournikova taking her place in the 32-strong women’s ‘Challenger event’ — traditionally the stage where would-be professionals learn their trade — is if she fails to recover in time from a thigh injury which forced her to quit last week’s Family Circle Cup.

Kournikova has two Women’s Circuit titles to her name, the $50,000 Midland, Texas, crown and the $25,000 Rockford, Illinois, titles — won seven years ago.

A return to the ITF Women’s Circuit would be seen as a bid to regain confidence and get her game back on track after a miserable few years, as well as something of a climb down for a woman who reached the semi-finals in first year in the main draw of Wimbledon in 1997.

But her ranking, and confidence, have been on the slide since she tipped in at world No. 8 back in May 2001.

Now ranked a lowly 67th, the US-based Russian knows drastic steps are required if she is to ever fulfil her early promise.

Earlier this year, Kournikova suffered the heaviest Grand Slam defeat of her roller-coaster career when she was thrashed 0-6, 1-6 by Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne in the second round of the Australian Open.

The Russian player was red-faced and clearly upset by the one-sided humiliation and rushed from the Melbourne hard court immediately after the 48-minute ordeal. It took her more than an hour to brave reporters, make-up reapplied and wearing a black tracksuit top and black cap.

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