Clad in an airtight black pants ensemble that only a snake or a
superhero could love, Anna Kournikova, the 16-year-old Russian
tennis phenom, reclines in a stretch limousine and brushes her
blonde hair from head to waist. She flashes a precocious smile
and asks you to hold her nail polish while she digs into her
purse for a piece of bubble gum.
Kournikova, the teen sexpot with a romantic link to a
28-year-old hockey star, appears to be flirting with you. And
despite the fact that you are a happily married man who's twice
Kournikova's age--and that her mother, Alla, who's sitting next
to her, could have been your high school doubles partner--you
appear to be flirting back. What better time to ask about the
attention she has received for her appearance, which has lured
legions of ogling males to her matches and inspired scores of
Web sites on the Internet? Although Kournikova reached the
Wimbledon semifinals last year, is ranked 25th in the world and
is regarded as a potential superstar, she's known primarily for
her pretty face, curvaceous body and frequently revealing
clothes. "It's human nature for people to notice," she says. "If
I had plastic surgery to make me look worse, maybe that would
help. People ask me, 'Why do you have to look good on the court?
Why not just play?' But to me, whenever I'm on the court, it's
like theater, and I have to express myself. Why should I have to
look ugly just because I'm an athlete?"
Not since the retirement of Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini in
October 1996 has a tennis player been such a sex symbol. But
what sets Kournikova apart from Sabatini, whose looks prompted
the Great American Doll Company to launch a line of dolls in her
likeness, is the enthusiasm with which she has embraced the
role. Sitting back in the limo, Kournikova gleefully recounts
the reception she received at the Australian Open in January:
"One guy held up a sign that said, 'Anna, call me at so-and-so
number. Both me and my phone will be turned on.'" It's hard to
tell which persona Kournikova relishes more, that of provocateur
or that of princess.
"Anna knows everything, and what she doesn't know, she thinks
she knows," says Nick Bollettieri, who accepted Kournikova at
his tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., when she was 10 and still
advises her. "From the moment she arrived here, she knew who she
was and wanted everybody else to know who she was."
March 30, 1998
At the academy Kournikova befriended a 13-year-old German boy
named Tommy Haas. "She knew early on she was good-looking and
good on the court," recalls Haas, who turns 20 next week and is
a rising star on the men's tour. "She was mostly stuck-up and
treated people not so well. She knew she could get away with it."
There's attitude, and there's Anna-tude, and the latter knows no
bounds. Of meeting the Spice Girls in Australia, Kournikova
shrugs and says, "It was a big deal for everyone but not for
me." When asked about the pronunciation of her name--Chris Evert
and other TV tennis analysts refer to her as AHN-ya--Kournikova
says dismissively, "No, it's AH-na. That's just people trying to
be cool and pretend they know Russian. As if!"
Kournikova can be whimsical and girlish, quoting lines from the
movie Clueless and reveling in the excitement that surrounds
her, but it's advisable not to treat her like a beer-commercial
babe. When one of the many whiplash candidates who passes
Kournikova at a crowded Southern California concert venue offers
a panting hello, she answers, "Goodbye." Later she says
playfully, "It's like a menu: They can look, but they can't
One suitor for whom that doesn't apply is her compatriot Sergei
Fedorov, the Detroit Red Wings' star center, who recently signed
a $38 million contract. He has accompanied Kournikova in public
on numerous occasions, sometimes carrying her tennis gear and,
some bystanders say, catering to her every whim. Kournikova does
nothing to thwart the impression that she's in control. Asked by
one young male in a Red Wings hat, "Are you his girlfriend?"
Kournikova glares and answers, "He wishes."
Kournikova views herself as less prima donna than pre-Madonna.
She's a great fan of the pop chameleon, whose first album was
released around the time of Kournikova's second birthday. "I
admire Madonna as an artist," Kournikova says. "It's
unbelievable how she's always changing and stays in the
spotlight. She's not a hit for one day. She will be around for a
It's early March, two days before Kournikova's first match in
the Evert Cup tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., and Anna and
Alla are dressed identically, in tight Adidas workout gear. They
giggle as they recount having been recognized by an airline
employee in Miami the previous day and upgraded to first class
for the flight to L.A. Anna is asked if her mother accompanies
her everywhere, and she smiles at Alla and nods. Then she turns
away from her mother, whose English is spotty, and says, "But
it's not what you think. I do what I want."
Kournikova is one of a quintet of talented teenagers that has
energized the women's tour. The others are No. 1-ranked Martina
Hingis; No. 11 Venus Williams and her sister, Serena, No. 40;
and No. 46 Mirjana Lucic. "I think Anna can hang with any of
them," says Bollettieri. "Anna is a shotmaker. She has the
ability to create situations on the court that very few people
can create. And at the net she's brilliant. She hits volleys
from all angles. The only person I could compare her to is John
Says Billie Jean King, "The question with Anna is, How badly
does she want it? Does she want to make the most money, like
Sabatini did, or does she want to be Number 1?" Like Sabatini,
Kournikova is a hot endorsement property; she has lucrative
deals with Adidas, Yonex and Rolex, among other companies.
"Anna can become a superstar of unbelievable magnitude," says
Charlie Pasarell, the top-ranked male player in the U.S. in
1967, who's director of the Indian Wells tournament. "You can
tell she's special just by looking at her. She walks like a
Obviously people are looking at more than the 5'8", 123-pound
Kournikova's walk. During her run at Wimbledon last year, which
included a victory over French Open champion Iva Majoli, British
tabloids had a field day with her. "They ran all those photos of
my butt," she says. "But, hey, it wasn't fat. My pictures were
In Sydney, at a warmup tournament for the Australian Open, a
fistfight broke out between spectators attempting to grab
Kournikova's sweaty towel after a practice session. Then, at the
Open, two fervent male fans paid homage to their heroine by
putting on blonde wigs and dresses. Ten others held a banner
that read ANNA, WILL YOU MARRY ME? Says Kournikova, "The only
question I had was, Which one? Should I marry all of them?"
Even a practice session on a weekday afternoon in Indian Wells,
in the sleepy Southern California desert, draws a heavy surge of
testosterone. Kournikova plays to her admirers without
acknowledging them, at one point turning her back to the crowd
and shaking her fat-free butt at her coach, Pavel Slozil. Alla,
35, gets her share of attention, too. A ball boy gasps, "Anna's
your daughter? I thought she was your friend."
If Anna is a princess, Alla is a queen. "Mama is the head coach
and always will be," says Bollettieri. "You can't fight Mama,
because she and Anna are very close."
Slozil says that Alla, like many tennis moms, "is a little bit
crazy, and you have to be. Otherwise you're just average. But
she's positive crazy, not like Mary Pierce's father. It's not
easy being in her position. She and Anna are like sister to
sister, but sometimes Alla must be the mother, and sometimes the
The father, Sergei, a former Greco-Roman wrestler who works in
the Russian physical culture ministry, stayed behind in Moscow
when his wife and their only child moved to Florida in 1992. The
Kournikovas reunite when Anna has downtime or when Sergei
travels to a tournament, which he does five or six times a year.
"It is hard, but I'm not one of those people who cries about
it," Alla says. "She's my child, and I want to be there for her.
What else would I be doing?"
When Anna was five, she joined a youth club that congregated at
Moscow's Sokolniki Park. In addition to playing tennis, Anna
spent her days jogging, hiking, taking amusement park rides and
eating ice cream. "We were regular, average people," she says.
By the time Anna was eight, Alla and Sergei had realized that
they had a prodigy. Within two years they had signed Anna up
with IMG, and mother and daughter had shipped out for
Bollettieri's. Two years later Anna, who ended 1995 as the ITF
junior world champion, would play in her first pro tournament.
"In Russia there is no word for boyfriend," Kournikova says.
"You're either married or you're friends. Maybe people want to
see Sergei as my boyfriend, but he's just a good friend of
mine--a very good friend. Our families are close. We came from
the same background, and we have a lot in common."
True, the families seem friendly, and Alla says of Anna and
Sergei, "They're friends. It's normal." But press Anna for
details of the friendship, and she gets squeamish. She says that
she and Fedorov met on a Moscow tennis court, but she won't
specify when, saying only, "It was years ago."
Haas says that "nothing ever happened" between Kournikova and
him at Bollettieri's "partly because she already had a
boyfriend--Fedorov. I think she was 14."
Says Kournikova, "It doesn't matter how old you are. Why should
other people tell me who I should be friends with or what I
should do? They're not perfect themselves, and it's none of
their business. Some things are personal. You wouldn't say what
you did with your wife, either."
But much of Kournikova's personal life has been lived in public.
Last June, shortly after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup on
Kournikova's 16th birthday, she rode in a car with Fedorov in a
victory parade in Detroit. A few weeks later, during Wimbledon,
they were seen together at the All England Club and around
London. Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote of
encountering Fedorov and Kournikova together and saying hello to
Fedorov, who greeted him with what seemed to be a nervous smile.
According to Albom, Fedorov didn't introduce him to Kournikova
and was "wiggling like a sixth-grader spotted by his pals while
talking to a girl."
At last summer's U.S. Open, Fedorov, who declined to be
interviewed for this story, attended Kournikova's matches. This
led the New York Post to quote someone in the Queens district
attorney's office as saying, "Mr. Fedorov had better watch his
step. Or more to the point, he had better watch his hands."
Kournikova rolls her eyes as the quote is recounted to her.
"Where did that attorney come from?" she asks. "Who is he to
care? When I go to New York this year, I'll be 17, and I've been
told that's the legal age there. So I can do whatever I want. At
this year's Open, I'll have five boyfriends."
Kournikova's maturity, or lack of it, is an issue with some
players. "She's the type of girl who one day says hi and the
next day walks right by you, so I just stopped saying hi," says
Lindsay Davenport, the No. 2-ranked woman player. "She loves to
create attention. She's always looking around to make sure the
spotlight's on her."
"Forget what the players say," Kournikova says. "Ask the fans. I
think it's normal for people to be jealous. But I've never been
jealous of anybody. I've never said, 'I wish I was her.'
Honestly, I wish I was me."
Hingis begs to differ. "She's very pretty," Hingis says, "but
I'm sure she would like to change places with me if she could
and have four Grand Slam titles." The Hingis-Kournikova rivalry
has been hyped since both were juniors, but Kournikova is 0 for
3 against the world No. 1. "Everybody else is making it up to be
a rivalry," Hingis says, "but so far, it hasn't been."
The last time you talk to Kournikova, she is positively giddy, a
testament to sunshine, California rolls and the silliness that
comes from a surplus of frenetic teenage energy. She doesn't
want to end her interview without a final word on her
relationship with Fedorov. Sitting in the passenger seat of a
rented convertible, she makes a request. "I have a lot of
boyfriends," she says. "I want you to write that. Every country
I visit, I have a different boyfriend. And I kiss them all."
She blows a kiss into the wind as the convertible races across
the desert. Wherever she's headed, she's damn sure enjoying the
"Why should I have to look ugly," Kournikova asks, "just
because I'm an athlete?"
"I've never been jealous of anybody," Kournikova says. "I've
never said, 'I wish I was her.'"