November 8, 2002
|I am standing by the side of a tennis court listening to two men talking about Anna Kournikova. This is not, I admit, that unusual. Men talk about Anna Kournikova all the time. She is the No 1 downloaded athlete on the internet. She is the default setting for sports columnists on not-much-happening days. She is (possibly) the most photographed woman on the face of the planet. So two men talking about her isn't really news, except that the men are old enough to be her grandfathers. And the tennis court is in Florida. And, oh yes, the lady in question happens to be smashing balls across a net less than 30ft away.
But this all happens later.
A FRIDAY evening in Miami Beach. She steps from a shiny red Porsche Carrera Turbo and crosses the road to a Japanese restaurant on Washington Avenue called Maiko that she frequents from time to time. "I'm Anna," she announces modestly, extending a hand. "Of course you are," I am tempted to reply, but settle for a meek "Pleased to meet you."
For two days, I had been deluding myself that interviewing Kournikova would be exactly the same as interviewing Nick Faldo. "You're a professional. Behave like a professional. Prepare in exactly the same way." But it didn't quite turn out like that. I didn't spend two hours with tears in my eyes and tweezers up my nose before meeting Faldo. I didn't waste a half-bottle of expensive scent on my armpits, or arrive for Faldo 30 minutes early wearing my best shirt and tie, and shoes you could see your reflection in.
Pathetic, isn't it? But I know Nick will forgive me. He knows how it is.
Anna, however, wasn't nearly as excited. I was hoping she would arrive in the racy outfit she once famously wore for a Women's Tennis Association awards ceremony. But men are from Mars and women are from Venus. She's wearing a black T-shirt, a set of training bottoms, an "Only the ball should bounce" Shock Absorber sports bra (though this, I concede, is mere conjecture) and has tied up her hair in a low-maintenance bun.
Clearly, for Anna, being both a woman and a true professional, an interview over dinner with a guy from The Sunday Times is no different from an interview over dinner with a girl from Reuters. We don't sing like Enrique Iglesias.
And so it proves. She bosses the opening exchanges and concedes nothing.
So, one more?
Anna: "One more what?"
One more interview.
Does it feel like that?
Anna: "No, I'm just a little tired after being in the sun all day."
Okay, well, let's start with that: 'A day in the life of Anna Kournikova'. How does it begin?
Anna: "I woke up at eight and got out of bed."
Where do you live?
Anna: "Here in Miami Beach."
Who do you live with?
Anna: "I live alone."
What's the first thing you did this morning when you got out of bed?
Anna: "I brushed my teeth."
Come on, take me step by step through the day?
Anna: "I brushed my teeth, got dressed, worked out from nine to 11 and had breakfast on my way to the tennis courts. I played for two hours, got back home, and did a phone interview for an exhibition I'm playing in Winnipeg in December. And then I came here to see you."
You are Russian?
You've never applied for citizenship here?
Anna: "No, no, no, no, no."
How many languages do you speak?
Anna: "English and Russian."
What language do you think in?
What language do you swear in?
Anna: "I try not to swear."
What thoughts are occupying your mind at the moment?
Apart from food?
Anna: "At the moment, getting back into shape, getting ready for the year. I had an injury and wasn't really training hard for four weeks. I'm just starting to work harder right now."
How do you feel about the way you are portrayed in the press?
Anna: "It's always so different. Sometimes they like me, sometimes they don't, it?s always...I understand that I cannot be perfect for everybody, and that there are some people that won't like me or will like me, but I can't control that, really. All I can control is the way I play and the way I live my life. I try not to pay much attention to all that."
You reacted quite angrily at Wimbledon to the suggestion that you're not up to it. Is it a frustration for you that people regard you more as a model and a pin-up girl than a tennis player?
Anna: "No, I mean, hey...why should I be unhappy that some people think I'm pretty? Not that I think I am."
No, you know you are, that's ridiculous.
Anna: "No, I mean it."
Oh come on.
Anna: "No. There are a million things I would change about me."
Okay, let's make a list. Just give me five?
Anna: "No, because then people will pay attention to that. And I don't want to bring attention to these things, but trust me, if I had a magic wand, there are some things I would change. But that interview was...people don't understand. I had just played a not-good match, a three-set loss, and five minutes later these questions come out of nowhere at a time when I wasn't even thinking straight. And even reporters have to try and...I mean, they are never going to understand, but they should try to have some...not sympathy but some kind of human..."
Anna: "Yeah. Five minutes after you lose the first round of Wimbledon, it's just..."
How hurtful is the perception that you are all style and no substance?
Anna: "Hey, there is nothing I can do to change people's minds. If they want to see me that way, they will. Sometimes, when I do great, it's, 'Oh, after all she can play'. Or 'Finally she shows more than her looks'. I mean, please! I really don't pay much attention to that. I have a million other things to worry about."
I can't believe it doesn't hurt you.
Anna: "You know what? I'm used to it. I've been in the spotlight since I was 10 years old. If I was to listen to every single thing, I would go crazy."
When you missed Wimbledon in 2001, one of the English tabloids published a photo of you every day despite the fact that you weren?t there.
Anna: "Was that my doing? I can't help that."
No, but I'm just wondering about this obsession and how you feel about it. I mean, you can't deny you're good-looking.
Anna: "No, I don't deny it."
When did you first appreciate the value of that in your sport?
Anna: "I still don't appreciate it. I see girls every day and think, 'Oh my God, she's so beautiful'."
So what have you got? What is it about you?
Anna: "I don?t know, you should ask that of other people, I really don't know. I'm being me, natural, real, and if some people choose to think that it's fake, then it's too bad for them. Nothing is orchestrated. Everybody says, 'Oh, she plans her image'. Or 'She does this to get attention'. PULL-LEES! I don't need attention. I wear this dress because I like it. If I wanted attention, I would do something way more..."
But you enjoy the attention? You enjoy the celebrity?
Anna: "I've never been without it."
Of course you've been without it. You weren't doing cover shots for magazines when you were 12 years old.
Anna: "I was in The New York Times when I was 10 years old."
Anna: "Yes, so that?s the point."
What's it like being a sexual icon? You've become that now.
Anna: "Oh great! I'm a person, you know. If some people see me like that..."
How do you feel about it?
Anna: "It's very flattering, don't get me wrong."
Anna: "Yeah, but it's not the most important thing to me personally."
You don't find it difficult at times?
Anna: "Not really, people concentrate on that too much."
When I mentioned to my friends that I was interviewing you this week, they were very impressed.
Anna: "Yeah [laughs]. But you're not."
Oh I am. I'm just doing my best to disguise it. I'm just trying to get beyond all that, to get to the real Anna.
Anna: "This is me, eating like crazy."
What if I offered you a deal: you could be half as wealthy, half as good-looking and half as famous, but be twice as successful?
Anna: "I am successful."
But twice as successful?
Anna: "I am successful! You know what? I'm going to be working hard and I'm going to get what I deserve."
I've hit a nerve, haven't I?
Anna: "What do you mean?"
The suggestion that you can't play? Nothing irritates you more?
Anna: "Hey, I came from nowhere. I HAD NOTHING. And to get to where I am today, that's not bad. It's not like we were starving [back in the Soviet Union] but we didn't have much, not compared to now. They [Anna's parents] never thought I would make money or play professional. It just seemed a nice sport to do for a girl. Swimming had too much chlorine. Gymnastics was too tough. They tried me at figure-skating, but I fell twice."
About the first big break at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow:
Anna: "There was a group of guys from Spartak playing in the qualifying and I was there just hanging out, just watching, when one of them said, 'Let's hit a couple of balls'. So we started playing, and this guy called Poppy Vinti, a representative from Ellesse, a sporting clothes company, saw me playing and asked me on the spot to sign a contract. We couldn't really tell anybody. It was still the Soviet Union."
About the days at Nick Bolletierri's Tennis Academy in Florida in the early 90's:
Anna: "I was so skinny back then it was a joke. I was like a skeleton until the age of 15."
About her first time in Wimbledon:
Anna: "I love the atmosphere at Wimbledon. I love the country. I love the electricity, the energy, the people, the Royals, the fans, the weirdness...the whole Wimbledon thing, you know, it's a little out there."
What if I had suggested to you when you were the junior No 1 that you would never win a Wimbledon or any major tournament?
Anna: "You can suggest it to me now."
What are you going to say?
Anna: "That I am going to work hard and we'll see what happens. Hey I'm 21! I'm only 21! I mean, Lindsay (Davenport) won her first grand slam when she was what ? 22? 23? Something like that. Jennifer (Capriati) won when she was older. I think I am getting better. Everybody is so different. How can you judge?"
I read somewhere recently that you take out the video of Wimbledon '97 and watch it sometimes. How does it feel when you watch it again?
Anna: "It's just a tennis match. Look, I've had so many great points in my career, so many great matches, so many great wins. I've beaten five No 1s in the last 10 years! The only No 1s I haven't beaten are Venus and Serena (Williams). I've been to the final here (Key Biscayne) once, the semis of Wimbledon, and I've won a million doubles tournaments, so for me it's just a matter of putting it all together in one tournament, that's the whole thing."
But you haven't been able to do that?
Anna: "I've been very close."
But you haven't done it?
Anna: "I've been very close."
How frustrating has that been?
Anna: "You know what? I can be as frustrated as I want, but it won't change anything, so I'm not frustrated. I know that if I keep working hard, it will happen."
It doesn't frustrate you?
It didn't frustrate you this year when you went out at Wimbledon?
Anna: "That was just a bad match. It was a difficult time for me this summer, because I was going through a lot of things, but..."
It doesn't frustrate you when people keep saying, 'She has never won a singles tournament'?
Anna: "Oh great, good luck to them."
Anna: "It's just words."
The question is how you feel about it? How frustrating it must be for you.
Anna: "Like I said, I'm working hard. I know that I?m a great tennis player, and normal people that don't shut their eyes and are not mad at me or jealous or whatever, they know that I can play. I've proven it. I love the game and I enjoy it, and that's all. I'm going to be working hard, and some day it will happen. And if not, then I guess..."
You guess what?
Anna: "It's not meant to be. But I am just being fatalistic here."
You used the word 'great' ? can you be a 'great' tennis player without ever having won a professional singles tournament?
Anna: "Look, there are a million players in team sports, and they are the best player in their sport, and they have never won the championship...but obviously to be a great tennis player you need to win."
So you're a good player then?
Anna: "If making the top 10 is not great, then I'm sorry. And making the top 10 at 16!"
Why haven't you been able to kick on? Why hasn't it come together for you in one tournament?
Anna: "Sometimes I was unlucky, sometimes I was injured, sometimes I played the No 1 player in the world, sometimes I played a bad match, sometimes I was tired. It just didn't happen, that's it!"
How many times have you asked yourself that question?
Anna: "I don't ask myself. "
Anna: "No. The older I get, the more I enjoy it. When I was young, I was just playing. Now I love it even more. I understand it more. I appreciate it more. Not what you expected, huh?"
No, not what I expected at all.
Anna: "What did you expect?"
Oh, I don't know. I suppose the woman I'd seen at Wimbledon during the summer. I thought you'd be moodier, more guarded and a lot more tired of it all. I expected a prima donna.
Anna: "You shouldn't believe what you read all the time," she laughs. "Sometimes I get the impression that people are unhappy with their own lives and it affects their writing. Why is everyone so bitter? People should lighten up, enjoy what they are doing, and thank God that they are healthy."
You love life?
Anna: "Not every day, trust me. I have bad days too, we all do, but at the end of the day I have a pretty good life. I mean, I could be working in a toll booth now, standing all day long picking 25 cents from people in cars...not that there is anything bad about that, don't get me wrong, I just appreciate what I have."
You wouldn't change anything?
Anna: "That would be greedy. But if I wanted to be greedy...maybe there are a few things."
Go on, be greedy.
Find out more at Anna's offical website: