Russian Teen Star Seethes at Age Rule

SYDNEY, Australia -- Hidden behind the cool, glamorous image Anna Kournikova has cultivated at 16 with her skimpy outfits, her relationship with an NHL star, and her pouty poses for the cameras, she is seething with frustration.

She desperately wants to break free of the WTA Tour age-limit rule -- the "Jennifer Capriati rule" -- she feels is unfairly holding her back.

Martina Hingis slipped past the rule, which limits the number of tournaments a player can enter until age 17, by turning pro in 1994 just before it took effect.

Hingis was 14 at the time. Kournikova was 13, ineligible to do the same. Ever since, Kournikova has watched with envy as Hingis has been allowed to develop her skills in matches, win enough points to earn seedings, and soar to No. 1. Kournikova, perhaps just as talented but unable to play as much, has climbed only to No. 30.

Given a chance to play more, she is convinced, she would at least be in the top 10 by now and getting seeded at the majors.

The frustration boiled over Wednesday at the Sydney International after she lost in the second round, 6-2, 6-7 (7-4), 6-3 to third-ranked Lindsey Davenport.

"If I had played more in the last year, I definitely would have had more experience in these kinds of matches," said Kournikova, who won't be seeded in next week's Australian Open.

The WTA's rule, she knows, was created in the wake of Capriati's arrest for marijuana possession with other teens in a seedy Florida motel. The rule was an attempt by the tour to prevent burnout on the circuit.

Kournikova believes the rule was unnecessary for her, and more damaging than helpful.

"Maybe it will help me 10 years from now," she said. "Right now, I feel I am lacking experience because I am not able to play.

"How can you be practicing for two, three months? ... You can just go crazy."

Reminded about the reason for the rule, that many young girls over the past 20 years had been hurt by playing on the tour too soon, Kournikova shot back: "Not so many ... Capriati, [Andrea] Jaeger. ... You can't judge every person the same. Nothing happened to Martina [Hingis]. Steffi Graf started when she was 14. Monica Seles started when she was 14. Gabriela Sabatini started when she was 14. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario started when she was 14. They are all separate.

"Everybody has a little different mentality. They are the ones who should decide whether or not they are ready to play."