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.
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?"