NEW YORK – Simonya Popova is the hottest thing on the women's tennis circuit -- except for the fact that she's too good to be true.
And that minor detail has the Women's Tennis Association fuming at Sports Illustrated for running a hoax story about the gorgeous 17-year-old junior tennis beauty from Uzbekistan.
Although there are clues throughout Jon Wertheim's story -- not only is the name "Simonya" a send-up of the current movie Simone, about a fictional actress, but the last line of the story pines "if she only existed" -- WTA officials claim several people fell for the spoof, including the sports editor of a prominent daily newspaper.
"We had to tell him she's not real," WTA's spokesman Chris De Maria told The Post. He also complained that the last-line tip-off wasn't enough
"A lot of people don't finish long articles," he said.
In reality, the WTA was even more steamed by the story's underlying premise, namely that women's tennis needs a sex symbol like Popova -- who is lasciviously described as wearing "midriff-baring outfits so small they appear to come from Gap Kids."
"It says we can't wait to get a player like that because we're losing our mojo," De Maria said. "We have tons of mojo."
WTA officials have talked about writing a letter-to-the-editor to SI to ensure its readers know the story was a hoax.
"It was very deceiving," De Maria said. "There's so much stuff going on in women's tennis . . . there could've been much better use of the five pages." SI's tennis editor, Chris Hunt, denied that the story was deceiving. After all, the picture of the centerfold-perfect Popova bore the credit, "Photo illustration by James Porto."
"You can tell the photo has been assembled," Hunt said. "And we dropped another hint, calling her Simonya. I'm surprised they called it deceiving."
Then again, the story had some credibility in that three actual tennis insiders -- prominent tennis coach Nick Bolletieri, agent Max Eisenbud and tour pro Corina Morariu -- played along and were quoted praising Popova, who is said to have "pulchritude and attitude in equal measure."
SI's latest hoax recalled the magazine's most-celebrated experiment with fiction. In 1985, writer George Plimpton wrote about Sidd Finch, a bizarre, boot-wearing Met pitching prospect who could throw a ball 168 mph.
Too bad for Met fans, he didn't exist either.