Anna Without the Hype

Tuesday, July 26, 2005 /by

Okay, when I got my copy of the DVD entitled Anna's Army, I thought, “Great, just what the world needs—another exploitative video vaguely about Anna Kournikova . . .”

But I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised by the content and quality of Phil Johnston’s documentary on the making of the current generation of Russian woman stars. That the documentary is grainy and gritty only strengthens the sense that you’re getting something rare by today’s media standards—a dignified exploration of a subject far more interesting than the cosmetic trappings in which it comes. How many times have you read or heard “Anna Kournikova” and sat up, thinking, “Wow, this is going to be really informative.”

Johnson is a former sports editor for the Moscow Times and a former political correspondent for UPI. While covering players like Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Andrei Chesnokov, he kept hearing rumors of hugely gifted Russian girls who were 6, 8, 10 years old, but he left Moscow for law school before any of those girls launched pro careers. Then, when they began to show up on the WTA radar, he decided to cash his chips, call in his favors, and make Anna’s Army. The result shows Johnston’s depth of knowledge; who knew that Leo Tolstoy was the first president of the Moscow Tennis Club? More important, who knew that so many of the great woman players emerged from an extremely tight-knit tennis circle that included, among others, Marat Safin’s mother?

Anna’s Army does justice to the whole story. The most astonishing thing about the project, Johnston tells me, was realizing the critical role Boris Yeltsin and Anna Kournikova played in making tennis matter in Russia. “It’s amazing that they were capable of generating so much interest in tennis in a nation that’s covered in snow so much of the year,” he says. “Today, there are kids in cities like [far-flung'> Krasnoyarsk who are beating kids who go to the Orange Bowl, even though they don’t have the money to get out of their small towns.”

Bonus: Fans of Sports Illustrated’s (and TENNIS') Jon Wertheim will get a kick out of a few interview sequences in which Jon, in addition to bringing his customarily sharp insight to the table, looks eerily like some guy serving 15 consecutive life sentences being interviewed in a prison courtyard.

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