Return to centre: Anna Kournikova is on course for a comeback at Wimbledon
By Benji Wilson
Last updated at 8:02 PM on 19th June 2010
As a prodigiously talented teenager, Anna Kournikova – all long legs, beaming smile and blonde hair – changed the image of women’s tennis. But although she attracted worldwide attention, back problems put paid to her centre-court career after less than a decade. Now 28 and living in Miami with her boyfriend, singer Enrique Iglesias, Anna is back in the UK to play in the Wimbledon Legends tournament. Benji Wilson joins her for a knock-up
'It's funny, sometimes I feel like it didn't even happen to me and then at the same time it's like, "Wow! I lived through that,"' says Anna
You’re back at Wimbledon after all these years – you must be thrilled.
I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t been to Wimbledon since 2002, and probably my best memories are from there. Just the atmosphere and the traditions make it a totally special experience. Even the air is different! Right now I’m trying to take care of my health and look after my back – since I started practising harder for playing Wimbledon again it’s been bothering me a bit.
So you’re still competitive with a racquet in your hand?
Absolutely. Whether exercising or running or whatever, I like to compete. It’s healthy competition, of course – I don’t like the cut-throat stuff. But when it’s on, it’s on.
How do you feel looking back at your career as a pro now?
It’s funny, sometimes I feel like it didn’t even happen to me and then at the same time it’s like, ‘Wow! I lived through that.’ I was so young. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to handle my health issues better. I was very injury-prone – I’m not a big girl, my body wasn’t really built for sport. Twenty years of sport and exercise, six hours a day – imagine what that has done to my bones.
All that sport – do you feel you’ve missed out on being an average teenage girl?
Yes and no. You grow up so much faster – you’re much more worldly in certain things. At 15 I’d been to every continent, but at 20 I hadn’t been to college. I missed out on lots of school experiences, the things that normal teenagers do every day.
Some would argue it was worth it. What do you consider your greatest achievement in tennis?
For me it was always that personal satisfaction after each match. Whether I beat Steffi Graf or Martina Hingis or a player who was ranked 200 in the world, it didn’t matter, it was about how well I’d done in that game. Overall, I’m really satisfied with my career – I came from the Soviet Union when it was still very closed off and not many athletes got to go round the world.
Anna makes her Wimbledon Centre Court debut in 1997, aged 16; with boyfriend Enrique Iglesias
And you became famous not just because of your tennis but also because of your looks. Did it hurt when people said you were just a pretty face?
Of course. I’m a human being and sometimes it bothered me. But you develop a thick skin. True tennis fans know what I achieved [world number-eight ranking], and I know in my heart that I worked my ass off! If I’d been ranked 100 in the world I don’t think people would’ve been talking about how I looked because there are a lot of pretty girls in tennis. But people don’t talk about them if they’re not in the top ten.
You’d been playing tennis since you could walk, so it must have been frustrating being forced into retirement.
First of all, it was very scary to walk away. When I stopped in 2003 I was 22, and when you’ve been playing tennis from five years old, consumed by one thing, that’s your life. It took me a little while to find myself, grow up, get adjusted.
What was the upside? What was the best bit about your new-found freedom?
I could stay up until midnight! I’m not talking about club-hopping or anything, just knowing that I didn’t have to go to bed by ten because I didn’t have to get up at 7am to practise. And I could eat what I really liked to eat – not just pasta as fuel for your body so you can perform better.
Who do you admire most in the women’s game at the moment?
Obviously, the Williams girls, who have been able to sustain their careers over the long term. They’ve been very smart. People have criticised them for not playing the full tour schedule, but you know what? They’re still playing professionally at 28 and 30 so they must have been doing something right. That they can still play at this age is great – my body just wasn’t able to sustain that. I think I played a little too much sometimes. I might have had a much longer career if I’d done what they have.
But we can’t imagine you’re Miss Laid-back and Lazy now?
Well, no, I was brought up in a kind of military, disciplined environment. I like that – I’m very regimented. I’m a bit OCD, a bit of a perfectionist. I still put too much pressure on myself, it gives me a little bit of anxiety. Even when I’m cooking a meal it has to look amazing. My friends and family go, ‘It’s OK, relax! It’s not the end of the world!’ I’m like, ‘No! It has to be a certain way.’ Sometimes I just have to let things go.
Does that go for your clothes – do you spend hours getting it right?
Not really. I don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about what to wear – I always go for simplicity. If something works it works. If I like my black jeans I’ll wear them to death. I don’t like trendy things very much – there’s a reason why classics are classics.
But you’re lucky to have the physique to carry the simple things off – nothing to hide!
Well, I work hard. I still love working out, sweating and being in the gym. I work out for a couple of hours every day. For me it’s one of the most important things – it’s my time, I zone out. I also eat well…most of the time – you can’t deprive yourself too much! I love crisps, pizza, chocolate – in fact, pretty much any kind of splurgy food.
And if you had to pick your last meal?
It would be chicken wings and a burger.
So let’s talk boys. Tell us about Enrique.
He’s an incredible person. Very sweet, very kind, and he’s got a great sense of humour.
What language do you speak in to one another? Let’s face it, there are are several options…
Ha ha! We speak English. My Spanish is OK, not great. His Russian is pretty good. My grandmother, who splits her time between the States and Russia, has taught him a few things. I think she and my boyfriend are in love with each other, actually! They communicate by just looking at each other and making hand signals because she doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s hilarious watching them. I’m basically the translator a lot of the time.
Both you and Enrique are international sex symbols – how do you cope with the attention you must get from fans?
It’s very normal to us. The more fans he has, the more proud and happy I am for him because he loves performing for his fans. At the end of the day, you have to trust the people you’re with – if there’s no trust then why be with them?
‘You develop a thick skin. True tennis fans know what I achieved, and I know in my heart that I worked my ass off!’
People are always talking about you two getting married. Do you ever think about tying the knot just to shut them all up?
For me marriage has never been the most important thing. I do believe in the institution but I wasn’t one of those little girls who dreamed about a big goofy dress.
I would love to have a family but I’m only 28. And I’m so glad I haven’t had children yet because every year I feel as if I’m growing up myself. Once I’m ready, I’ll be able to give children much more than I could’ve when I was younger. I still have plenty of time.
What’s your beauty secret?
Sleep! I know it’s boring but, honestly, for my brain, for beauty, for just feeling good, the most important thing is sleep. I don’t care if I go to sleep at three in the morning and wake up at noon or if it’s 9pm to 6am. As long as I get at least eight hours then I can live the day to the fullest. There’s no magic potion, you just have to get enough sleep, do enough exercise and eat right.
So if we were to raid your handbag we wouldn’t find any Touche Eclat?
Oh yes you would! I love my Touche Eclat. Though at home in Florida it’s too hot for make-up. I only wear it for going out to dinner or public events, when if I didn’t have any
on people would get scared!
Dinners out, lots of beauty sleep and Enrique… life seems wonderful right now. Can you imagine a life without tennis, or will you be playing when you are 80?
Tennis is still one of the biggest parts of my life and I’m very much involved in the game. I play the World Team Tennis League in the States right after Wimbledon, and all year round I play tennis exhibitions and charity matches. Charity is so important to me – I’ve worked with Population Services International, Boys & Girls Club, and USO, which provides support to military personnel. It’s so important to me to give something back…and, sure, to keep up the tennis for as long as I possibly can too!
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