Where Are They Now? Now 27, Anna Kournikova is all grown up
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.
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.