Love is in the air for Anna

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:30 PM ET

Anna Kournikova is on the telephone line from Miami and let's face it, if you were in my place, you too would be cursing the journalism gods for not making this a face-to-face interview.

I have 10 minutes with the Russian tennis diva, who is doing a round of interviews to promote the Legendary Nights Tennis Classic coming up tonight at the Corel Centre.

First off, that whole concept seems a little off. It's billed as a Legendary Nights Tennis Classic, what surely sounds like one of those nights of nostalgia when a few flashes of former greatness amount to a good night.

It seems an odd place for a 24-year-old, especially one that graced the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue just last year.

But Kournikova will be there tonight at the Corel Centre, along with former greats John McEnroe, Jim Courier and Jana Novotna.

Kournikova, unofficially retired since last year, is in a different place right now than McEnroe, Courier and Novotna.

She is there as much for what she is rather than what she was. Let's face it. Her tennis does not match up to the accomplishments of the other trio. Before a back injury put her on the shelf, she never achieved the singles success many of her fans wished for her. Her Grand Slam success consists of a couple of doubles titles.

But the tennis component of the Kournikova mystique was always just a smaller part.

She remains one of the most beautiful people in the world (according to no less an authority than People magazine, which named her one of the world's Top 50 most beautiful people four times between 1998 and 2003).

You don't get much of a read off somebody in a superficial 10-minute interaction, but the impression Kournikova left was she is modest and resigned to the fact people are going to think what they think about her.

Just before doing this interview for the Sun, she was on with the the Three Guys on the Radio morning show on the Team 1200.

"It sounds funny," she said when they kept calling her the world's most beautiful woman. "You should see me right now."

A few minutes later, I asked her about being a groundbreaker for the current wave of Russian stars like Maria Sharapova. She refused to take any credit.

"That's nice of you to say that, but I tend to not look at it that way," said Kournikova. "I think it was just more of an opportunity to leave Russian and travel.

"If I did encourage them a little bit, I think that's great and it would make me happy and proud, but I don't really look at it that way."

Others do.

A documentary last year looked at the rise of the Russian women in tennis. It was called Anna's Army.

"Women's tennis, in Russia and around the world, is popular because of Kournikova," said Russian player Dinara Safina. "A lot of players want to be like her."

There probably hasn't been a more famous female athlete, no woman who has blurred the lines of athlete and celebrity like Kournikova has.

While she failed to make much in the way of headlines with her tennis (her Grand Slam high point in singles is reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1997), off the court she was the meal ticket for thousands of photographers and a staple of the rumour columns, the British tabloids and the many websites devoted to her and her stunning looks.

She hasn't disappointed the celebrity watchers. She has been romantically linked to hockey players Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure and is rumoured to have married one or both of them (hopefully not at the same time) and has lately been in the company of singer Enrique Iglesias. There's talk they married in Mexico, though nobody seems to know for sure.

Despite having been out of the game for a year, Kournikova is still big business for the tabloids and is still a popular topic in Russia, judging by the Internet.

She still has to put up with English Pravda breathlessly reporting the moans and screams coming from the Iglesias/Kournikova $2,000-a-night suite at the Four Seasons in London which kept other patrons awake (they were calling security at 4 a.m.).

"I get embarrassed talking about my private life," she says with a disarming giggle.

When she burst onto the scene at 14 or 15 years old, she said she didn't really take notice of the circus that swirled around her.

"I didn't pay attention," she said. "I thought that was just the way sports is. I didn't realize what was happening around me at that age. It just seemed normal.

"But when I got to be 18, 19 and 20, it was a little more difficult. You start to pay attention to the things around you and you realize what is going on. You can't control it and you try and block it out, but at the end of the day you can't block it out.

'PAINFUL THINGS'

"I'm human and there were a lot of hurtful and painful things written and said about me. There were some good things, too ... but I guess that's the price you pay for being in the spotlight. Right now, not much bothers me. I've seen it all. "

Kournikova said she feels sorry for Sharapova. There are always going to be people who are going to be jealous of players' success, especially when it leads to off-court opportunities.

There might have been even more resentment towards Kournikova because her on-court achievements were disproportionate to her astoundingly high profile off the court.

"I feel bad because the girl works so hard. She deserves everything," said Kournikova of Sharapova. "They should be giving her credit for her tennis. By doing outside things, you kind of set yourself up. You don't think people are going to pick on you because you're doing that. People take it and twist it."

Kournikova said she is thankful to tennis for opening the door for her to do some of things she's doing now like writing a column for Elle magazine and doing charity work with the Boys and Girls Club.

She is still keeping the possibility alive for a return to tournament tennis.

She plays or works out five times a week, rewarding herself now and then with some chocolate ice cream ("I cannot resist chocolate. Regular chocolate or chocolate ice cream. It's definitely a motivation for me," she said).

"I was always one of those players who played better if I played a lot of matches and tournaments in a row. That's what's a little harder for me now. I kind of stop and go. I play one event a month and it's hard to get into a routine," she said.

"I never really wanted to make an (retirement) announcement because I still want to keep that option open. The only way I want to come back is if I feel 100% and that I can give my best. I feel there is no reason to come back and play halfway and get injured all the time. I kind of hope and wish I can still come back. I'd rather not say anything and see what happens."

chris.stevenson@ott.sunpub.com


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