August 24, 1999
|Anna Kournikova has got it all: stunning looks, millions of dollars, throngs of rabid guys painting her name on their chests. She might also be the most marketable female athlete in the world. But the one thing Anna wants most may be the hardest to get. Anna wants to win.
It's an oppressive July day at a WTA tennis exhibition in suburban Mahwah, New Jersey -- just one of the several hard-court tune-ups that lead up to September's U.S. Open. The mercury is bubbling its way to 100. The heat index rates a solid 110. The temperature near the surface of the court? Try sticking your face in an oven.
But for five college-aged guys in the stands, it's not the heat that's making them crazy. As they display their hand-painted chests to the sellout crowd of 7,100, it is clear what is giving them the fever: a-n-n-a-! read their collective torsos. Standing on the court, Anna Kournikova is the thirteenth-ranked female tennis player in the world. In her four years as a pro, she has never won a singles tournament, or reached the singles finals of a Grand Slam event. She is playing Amanda Coetzer, the world's ninth-ranked woman, in the relatively meaningless A&P Tennis Classic. So what, exactly, has drawn these rabid guys like moths to a sweltering flame? A lifelong love of women's tennis? The chance to witness riveting ground strokes? More likely, it's Kournikova's ass.
Rarely in the history of sports marketing has an athlete received quite this much attention based simply on looks. Ask a guy what he knows about Anna Kournikova, and he'll probably mention some or all of the following: She's the Lolita who reportedly started dating Detroit Red Wings all-star Sergei Fedorov when she was sixteen. She's the Russian babe who was named one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People. She's the vixen who responded to various British tabloid photos of her behind with, "Hey, it wasn't fat." In other words, Anna Kournikova is a famous eighteen-year-old tennis player who's famous for just about everything except playing tennis.
All of which means that if Kournikova could just win a few titles, there's no telling how frighteningly famous -- and wealthy -- she could become. She's already landed endorsement deals with Adidas, Yonex, Charles Schwab and Berlei sports bras, among others, bringing her between $5 million and $10 million a year. A recent survey of advertising directors and marketing executives named her the world's most marketable female tennis player. She even fronts her own Sony PlayStation game, Anna Kournikova's Smash Court Tennis. The Anna brand has landed.
Now all that's left? To start winning tennis tournaments -- a task for which she should be well-armed. Kournikova left her home in Russia at age nine to live and train in Florida at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy, and the all-court skills she's acquired since then are some of the strongest in tennis: powerful ground strokes, ferocious overheads, a deft touch at the net. When teamed with Martina Hingis, she won the doubles title at this year's Australian Open. On her own, at one point or another, she's beaten four of the top five players.
How serious is Kournikova about this whole tennis racket? Well, her agency, Advantage International, has launched a full-court offensive to retool her image: sex is out, sports is in (and she doesn't respond to questions about Fedorov). This interview, to wit, is the first one-on-one she has granted in over a year. Sure, trying to tone down this Russian Rocket is a bit like squirting water on Chernobyl, but you get the point: these days, Anna Kournikova is all about tennis. But no one can stop you from staring.
At a recent tournament in California there was a guy who held up a sign that said, I hate tennis, but I love anna. That says something about your appeal.
Anna: "I think any athlete would be happy if people are coming especially to see them. That's why we compete: for people to see us. But when I go out on the court I just think about the tennis. I think about what I have to do, what I've been working on, what I've been practicing, and that's all."
You had great success as a junior; you were the number-one junior in the world. But while you have some success on the pro tour, you haven't won a singles title. Is that frustrating?
Anna: "There is a time for everybody, and I tell myself that if I keep on working, my time will come and I will win that first tournament, for sure. I just have to work hard and it will happen -- now or later. Still, I love to win. Any victory is enjoyable. It's hard to beat anybody, from number one to one thousand, so you win against anybody and you know that you worked for it."
So many players today seem like one-dimensional machines: they can do one thing, but not anything else. How did you turn out differently?
Anna: "I always try to do different things. I guess it's a little bit of talent, also, having good hands. I try to create something different and I try new things. I don't like boring stuff, you know? I'm a very excitable person. I like exciting stuff. I like exciting play."
Some female tennis players have risen very fast, then burned out from the intensity of the tour. Is that something you're on guard against?
Anna: "You need to have brakes; you have to know when to stop. Then everything is fine. You just have to manage a normal life and not try to go for too much right away. You need to be careful. And you have to have the right people around you to help you."
Right now women's tennis is more popular than the men's game -- in terms of television ratings, fan appeal -- why do you think that is?
Anna: "I think we have a lot of different personalities right now, and a lot of different generations -- Seles, Sanchez and all those players, and the young ones: Williams, Hingis, me. It's a great mix of characters on and off the court and that's why it's so appealing. And the competition is really tough. Number 30 can beat number 2 or number 1 every tournament -- and that happens."
Do you think the women's style of play is more entertaining to watch than the men's?
Anna: "Yeah. Women are women and they will always be women. Sometimes they are nervous -- you always can tell right away. Men just play; whoever hits hardest wins. But women, we try to play smart, because we know we can't overpower anybody because we don't have that much power. So we try to outplay each other, and that's why women's tennis is more creative."
Your agency is trying to manage your image -- presenting you as more of a tennis player than maybe the sex symbol you've been seen as in the past. Is that a conscious effort on your part?
Anna: "Not at all. I just think the media has tried to make it look that way, not me. It was just overexaggerated. I'm still the same person I was before. People just don't change overnight. Everything I do is natural, but the media misrepresents it, that's all."
Do you actively try to avoid reading about yourself?
Anna: "I don't try to avoid it -- but I guess I'm just not looking in the right places if I wanted to read about myself. [laughs]"
You should try reading the British tabloids -- they love you. You say the most innocuous thing and they run a full-page story on it. What's that all about?
Anna: "I don't know. The funny thing is, I really like England -- and I guess England likes me. [laughs]"
What's the part about being an athlete that you think most people don't understand?
Anna: "That you have to really live it 24 hours a day. You have to focus, eat right, sleep, work out, practice, play matches and you have all these responsibilities in terms of the fans and the media. Just everything. We work very hard -- I spend four hours on the court, one hour on conditioning, and then I have to do all these other things and sleep and eat three times a day and all of that leaves very little time for anything else."
Is it less glamorous than people think?
Anna: "For sure, yeah. Of course, there are parties and stuff, but I don't go to a lot of them. I just have to go because the sponsors are there, to say thank you for organizing this tournament -- but not to have a crazy time. I'm a normal person. I like to stay at home, watch a little TV if I can."
You signed with an agent when you were nine and left Russia for Florida. Do you ever feel like you missed out on your childhood?
Anna: "I always felt I was living older than my years because I had, not a job, but a sport to do. I had responsibilities. I had to go practice. I had to organize myself. But I really enjoyed all that stuff. I always packed my own bags. I liked the equipment and the clothes and everything. So it was a lot of fun for me. I couldn't have wished for a better childhood. Plus, I was able to come to America and drink Coca-Cola and swim in pools and chew bubble gum -- which I couldn't do in Russia -- it was just the best!"
You hear stories about kids being pushed into careers at an early age. Not the case with you?
Anna: "No, not at all. I took advantage of it. I was on the courts all day and just hitting the yellow tennis balls and playing with other kids and having a lot of fun."
Do you have any difficulty going back to Russia now and relating to people?
Anna: "No, what's funny is I still remember how hard it has been there, so I don't take things for granted. I know about hard work."
From a marketing standpoint, do you ever feel pressure to act a certain way?
Anna: "No. I think people like me for me. I have great relationships with my corporate partners. We're in long-term relationships. I'm not just using the products -- we actually work together."
You have guys at your tournaments painting your name on their chests. Is there a downside to having men follow you around the tour like love-sick puppies?
Anna: "I don't know. I guess not. At least they have something to do. [laughs] When I'm playing a tournament, there are always a lot of commercials and advertisements for it. So if I'm walking down the street, they'll always say, "Oh! There she is!" But it doesn't bother me. I get excited if I see something interesting, so I guess they get excited, too."
When, during all of this -- the travel, the practice, the fans -- do you feel like you are at your happiest?
Anna: "Well, my work brings me a lot of happiness. I am a tennis player; I have been since I was five. When I'm on the court and I'm feeling great, I'm like, Wow, this is the best, this is why I'm here. When I'm playing great and I feel good, that's when I'm happy. So I guess, in the end, it all comes back to that little yellow tennis ball."
Find out more at Anna's offical website: