Much has been written on these pages over the past few days about the comments by Marcelo Rios regarding the current state of women’s tennis. Rios, the former No. 1-ranked men’s player in the world, put himself in the firing line by saying at last week’s Australian Open that women’s early-round matches were so uncompetitive and one-sided that they were a “joke.”

Much like Pat Cash and Richard Krajicek before him, Rios did not exactly endear himself to the cream of today’s women’s tennis crop with his observations. Players like Martina Hingis and Venus Williams were quick to knock the petulant Chilean, taking offense to his remarks and springing to the defense of the women’s game.

But while some of the top players in the game were spewing anti-Rios rhetoric, perhaps the most popular player in tennis today says people should lighten up and cut her buddy some slack.

“Well, first of all (Rios) is a good friend of mine,” said Russian tennis starlet Anna Kournikova, shortly after demolishing Spaniard Cristina Torrens-Valero 6-3, 6-0 in 48 minutes Tuesday afternoon at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo — just the type of match Rios was referring to.

“I just think I played really well (Tuesday) and she just probably felt like there wasn’t anything she could do after the first set. It was not like she didn’t try or anything. When the top players — like Martina (Hingis), Jennifer (Capriati) or Lindsay (Davenport) — are playing well, it’s tough to beat them in the first couple of rounds. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no depth.”

Kournikova, the glamour queen of tennis whose ranking has plummeted from a high of No. 8 after a lengthy injury layoff, even goes so far as to agree with Rios — sort of.

“Of course, in Grand Slams sometimes you do have easy matches in the beginning, but that doesn’t mean there’s no depth. Like right now, No. 100 (99 actually) like me, I could probably beat somebody who is ranked higher.”

Kournikova then leaps to Rios’ defense again.

“I will also say that people misunderstand him a lot, especially you guys (the press). You know, I don’t think that he meant it in a bad way or anything.”

But Anna, he said women’s tennis today was a joke!

“That’s just Marcelo, he’s having fun,” a smiling Kournikova gushes. “He’s relaxed, he’s cool. I don’t really think he meant it in a bad way.”

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