IT'S 1998 and I'm trying to interview Anna Kournikova. It's a bit like attempting to secure an audience with a world leader, which, Kournikova's handlers would have you believe, she is. Billed as "the most downloaded female on the planet," Kournikova is flanked by a battalion of handlers, agents, managers and other assorted obstructionists.
This is an article from the July 14, 2008 issue
There are months of delays and unreturned calls. When favored with the courtesy of a response, the communication is annoying in the extreme. Can you send your questions in advance? Can you embed references to the products of Anna's various sponsors in whatever you write? That would really help speed the process! Finally, after more than a year, I am granted a 10-minute session at a hotel in New Jersey where Kournikova is being paid a prince(cess)ly fee to play in a weekend tennis exhibition. Monitored by yet another handler, Kournikova spends the excruciating session chomping on pink gum, staring at her nails, and performing a nimble feat of dialogue by giving yes/no answers to questions that begin with the word "how."
It's 2008 and I'm trying to interview Anna Kournikova. Half an hour before the appointed meeting time, my cellphone chirps. Chastened by experience, I steel myself for a call apologizing for a last-minute change of plans. But, no, it's Anna—on an unblocked number—confirming that she's running on schedule and if I'm having trouble finding a parking space at the Starbucks where we're scheduled to meet, I can always park at the adjacent Whole Foods. She arrives alone, pulling up in a tasteful but hardly ostentatious ride. She makes eye contact. She chews no gum. Ninety minutes into what is more a conversation than an interview, she is still going strong. No, I'm forced to admit, I have not read the book Eat, Pray, Love. "You really should," she says. "It's spiritual, but well-written at the same time."
She's 27 now, and while she pretty much looks the same as remembered, Anna Kournikova bears only the vaguest resemblance to the one-woman international conglomerate that damn near hijacked women's tennis a decade ago. While she's unwilling to concede that she's retired, she hasn't played a WTA Tour match in more than five years. The regal prom queen who once memorably remarked to a suitor, "You can't afford me," is now recommending literature. The tennis mercenary who allegedly made $50 million in off-court income before the age of 18 is now an ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America—which sounds like so much p.r. until you learn that in April she went to gritty Tijuana, Mexico, to help open a youth facility.
When it's pointed out how little the Kournikova of today conforms to the image she created years ago, she nods her head so forcefully her Gucci sunglasses nearly fly off her face. "Of course, I'm a different person! People say, 'I can't believe how much you've changed!' What did they expect? People grow, evolve. It would be sad if I didn't change!"
Kournikova is now a RIPO—Russian in Passport Only. She holds a green card and lives full time in Miami Beach, the port she entered in 1992, when she was a 10-year-old prodigy armed with talent and attitude in equal measure. "When Anna won a point, it wasn't an achievement," recalls Nick Bollettieri, her first American coach. "That was how it was supposed to go. I mean, she was Anna Kournikova." At age 14 she won the Orange Bowl, the top international junior event. At 17, in her breakthrough season of '98, she scored victories over Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and Steffi Graf, advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. and French Opens, and cracked the Top 20 for the first time. With that, Anna Inc. was open for business.
THE KOURNIKOVA phenomenon was a classic case of harmonic convergence. Women's sports—tennis in particular—were growing in popularity, eyed as a promising frontier by sports marketers. The Internet enabled fans from Minsk to Minneapolis to access Kournikova in a way they never could, say, Chris Evert. As the global economy kicked into high gear, you could scarcely find a more ideal exponent for it than an exotic Russian who spoke flawless English and performed all over the world.
Kournikova embraced it all. The daughter of communism (she was born in Moscow in 1981) took commercialism to new extremes. She endorsed products from watches to brokerage firms to sports bras, virtually every campaign built around her looks rather than her athletic prowess. When she wasn't pushing products, she was striking come-hither poses for magazines. (Full disclosure: In 2000, Kournikova, then 18, graced the cover of a certain weekly sports magazine, wearing little besides a peach shirt and a Mona Lisa smile.) The pundits could debate whether this was a feminist setback or a feminist triumph—"What is she supposed to say, 'No, I don't want your money?' That's like winning the lottery and then saying, 'No, I don't really deserve it,'" no less than Martina Navratilova once said of Kournikova. Meanwhile, Kournikova was making bundles of cash for her sponsors, her tour, her agents and, not least, herself. Nathalie Tauziat, a higher-ranked but less publicized WTA player at the time, called Kournikova, "a blonde windfall."
But Kournikova's cult of personality exacted a price on her tennis. While the contagion known as Annamania raged and hormonally charged boys showed up en masse at women's tennis matches for the first time, an inconvenient truth persisted: Kournikova, for all her appeal, had never won a tournament. Pitted against the hype, her ability had little chance. Distraction was her destruction.
In the retelling, Kournikova was the tennis equivalent of the Fridge, a unique physical specimen rather than a creditable athlete. In truth—and this is what gives the story a slightly tragic ring—Kournikova was abundantly gifted. She played whimsical, well-rounded tennis and excelled at the net, an area of the court most contemporary players avoid as if it were quicksand. She reached as high as eighth in the singles rankings and in 1999 was the world's top doubles player. But the weight of never having won a title ultimately crushed her. "I put pressure on myself, especially as I got older," she says. "At 16, 17 you have no fear. You don't think or analyze. You just play on automatic. You can get smarter as you get older, but in sports you can be too smart, you know?"
Her fragile psyche was compounded by a fragile body. Foot, back and ankle injuries forestalled her career. By the spring of 2003 she was playing low-level challenger events in an attempt to revive her game. That May she withdrew from a match against a 16-year-old arriviste named Maria Sharapova. The following week Kournikova played in Charlottesville, Va., in front of a crowd consisting mostly of Virginia frat boys. She lost to a Brazilian ranked outside the top 300 and hasn't played a sanctioned match since.
Her impact unquestionably went beyond commerce and Internet photo galleries. Following the trail blazed at least in part by Kournikova, there are five players in the WTA's Top 10 from Russia or the former Soviet Union. "Anna," says fourth-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova, "showed there was possibility through tennis." As playing careers go, however, Kournikova's is a case of sizzle beating steak, in straight sets.
In assessing her record, Kournikova speaks with such candor and detachment that it's almost as if she's describing another person. "In a perfect world, would I have won a tournament? Yes. But I wasn't able to string those matches together. Sometimes I got unlucky, and sometimes I just lost." Regrets? "Not a thing. Except to be a little stronger physically. Come on, regrets? I grew up a little girl in the Soviet Union playing at a small sports club. Tennis gave me my life." Does she wish she'd dialed back the hype machine a bit? "It's hard. We did the best we could. But there was no blueprint." And whatever you do, don't lavish her with a shred of sympathy. "Hey, I took the money. It's simple. If you don't want the attention, don't take the money."
TENNIS HAS come to rival boxing in the frequency of comebacks, so don't be surprised if Kournikova joins the swelling ranks of the "unretired." She works out daily and this spring clocked seven-minute miles running in a charity triathlon in Miami. Though her hands are noticeably free of calluses, she plays tennis a few times a week, sometimes on the public courts not far from her waterfront home. This summer she'll compete for the St. Louis Aces in the World TeamTennis league. "Honestly, who knows?" she says. "I'm young enough to still play. But physically could I take it?"
Meanwhile, she spends her days living what she admits is a charmed existence. Her parents, Alla and Sergei, divorced in 2004, but Alla moved to Palm Beach, remarried and has a three-year-old son, whose half sister is all too happy to babysit. "I get my kid fix," she says. "Then I say, 'Here ya go, Mom. See ya.'" Kournikova is a spokesperson for K-Swiss. She reads. When the urge strikes, she hits the South Beach clubs. And there are those Boys & Girls Club fund-raisers. "Don't get the wrong idea," she says. "I basically get dressed up and beg people for money."
Testament to the durability of fame, she still has run-ins with the paparazzi. She claims it's particularly bad when she goes out with her longtime boyfriend, singer Enrique Iglesias. "Girls look at him. Guys look at me," she says. "It goes with the job, but it gets annoying when you feel violated. Just take the picture and be done." She can still watch celebrity shows and learn about herself. For the record: "I'm not married, not pregnant, didn't have a boob job, no Botox. What else?"
If it sounds as though she's figured life out, well, she hasn't. "Here's one thing I don't get," she says. "Why are people afraid of getting older? You feel wiser. You feel more mature. You feel like you know yourself better. You would trade that for softer skin? Not me!"
Look back on how Anna Kournikova became a star, at SI.com/WATN.