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 domes. "It's human nature for people to notice," she says. "If I had plastic surgery to make me look worse, maybe mat 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."
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 afford it."
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 man 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 long time."
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."