I was never a fan of Anna Kournikova. She was exactly what I thought a female athlete should NOT be: too pretty, too sexy, and too skinny. And because of this, I fell victim to the belief that Kournikova was just a mediocre player who never won a singles title.
Recently, I’ve had a change of heart. While Kournikova looks the same as she did almost a decade ago, evidence suggests she has changed. Grown up in fact. And her turnaround has made me turn around to look at her in a new light.
It started with two articles about Kournikova: Cindy Shmerler’s piece in the May issue of TENNIS and L. Jon Wertheim’s piece in the “Where Are They Now?” issue of Sports Illustrated (the one with tennis on the cover). Both writers describe a friendly, well-adjusted, and accessible Kournikova, much different from the guarded and blasé teenager who brought va-va-va-voom to the women’s game in the late 1990s. When she speaks, Kournikova comes across much more sensible and funnier than I remember (maybe because I never really cared what she had to say). She seems about as normal as you can get after basically starting a tennis career at 10, the age she was when she and her mother moved from Russia to the Bollettieri Academy in Florida.
Kournikova’s record, while not spectacular, was nothing to be ashamed of. She was the No. 1 junior player in the world by age 14, and only 16 years old when she reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1997, losing to Martina Hingis. In 2000, when she hit her career-high singles ranking of No. 8, she was in the Top 10 with Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters, and Monica Seles. Not shabby company. (She even beat some of them.) And we all know she excelled at doubles, becoming the No. 1 player at one point and with Hingis capturing two Australian Open doubles titles.
While watching YouTube video clips of Kournikova in her “prime,” it’s understandable why her athletic ability was overlooked, kind of in the same way an actress’ great acting chops can be overshadowed if she’s too beautiful. In truth, Kournikova was a fearless fighter on court, with quick feet and solid ground strokes. Unlike some of the mindless baseline bashing that goes on today, she actually set up points, using angles and different spins, and was eager to get to the net where she could quickly end points with a well-placed volley or drop shot. Because she liked to be creative, she played risky shots that didn’t always win her matches. But it’s nice to see a female player use variety as a tactic to compete against her stronger peers.
When the wheels fell off Kournikova’s game, critics blamed her unfulfilled potential on her off-court distractions. Too many lad magazine pictorials, sponsorship commitments, endorsement deals, hockey players, etc. But, in the end it was an unfortunate string of injuries (stress fracture in her foot, sprained ankle, sprained back) that prevented her from being able to seriously compete at the end of her pro career.
This brings me to another reason why I’ve come to appreciate Kournikova. People continue to take cheap shots at her, like she's some sort of convenient punching bag for underachievers, when it doesn’t seem deserved.
“If she’s not crying by the time she comes off court then I did not do my job...I just despise her to the maximum level just below hate,” said former pro Justin Gimelstob during his rant about his World TeamTennis colleague on a Washington radio show in June. He also called her a “bitch” and “douche,” taking the art of sports trash talking to a whole new level of idiocy. What did Kournikova do? She kept her mouth shut while others punished his behavior. I kind of wished when their WTT teams played each other, she had yelled out, “Guess what, Gimelstob, you can't afford me!”
Then American player Ashley Harkleroad took a swipe at her. “Anna [Kournikova] is stunning to look at, but she’s probably a bit damaged from what she’s been through. That’s how she acts, a bit damaged,” said Harkleroad in the August issue of Playboy. If by “damaged” Harkleroad means raising money for Boys and Girls Clubs, having a steady boyfriend for six years, maintaining her business relationship with K-Swiss, or not taking her clothes off for Playboy at her coach/fiancé’s urging, then yes Ashley, Kournikova must be pretty damaged.
You’ve got to show respect to someone who remains a popular public figure almost five years since playing her last sanctioned match, someone who’s done this by not taking the road often used by today’s Hollywood starlets. Kournikova does not get arrested or cause car accidents while under the influence or publicly feud with her best friend or validate her existence by having her face plastered on most the despicable gossip show ever created, TMZ.
While browsing YouTube, I came across a clip of the 1997 Wimbledon semifinal match. At the end of it, moments after losing, Kournikova starts chatting with Hingis. She does not sit in her chair sulking or hide her face in a towel crying. Instead, she makes conversation while patiently waiting for the girl who just beat her to gather up her gear before walking off the court with her. Who does that today?"
This is the side of Kournikova I overlooked when she was making waves in tennis. This is the Kournikova that seems to still exist today, only now a little older and wiser. I can appreciate that.
Sarah Thurmond is an associate editor at TENNIS magazine.
Sums up pretty well what I think of Anna.