Kourni still walks tall

Thirty minutes later than arranged, we said hello, with Anna Kournikova dressed in the Miami South Beach uniform of trousers, top, tan, and Gucci sunglasses holding back the blonde hair.

I apologised for being late, explaining that an earlier meeting had overrun. ‘Thank you for fitting this into your day,’ Kournikova said cheerfully.

To think that there used to be a stage, around the time that Anna K was describing herself as ‘beautiful, famous and gorgeous’, when she would be late as she pleased, and certainly would not have waited for anyone beyond a minute or so. But perhaps, in 2009, this is the real Kournikova emerging.

When she was on the professional tennis tour, she did not win a singles title, and she would not have won any popularity contests either.

The other players resented someone who took all the attention, and all the multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts, and who once said of herself that she was ‘like a menu at an expensive restaurant – you can look at it, but you can’t afford it’.

Don’t hate me for being beautiful, was another of Kournikova’s messages, which must have enraged the women’s locker room even more.

It was said that the other players tried harder against her because they wanted to show that being pretty meant nothing on court.

Although looking almost identical now to when she played her last professional singles match in 2003, her outlook on life is all new.

The Kournikova of 2009 would hardly recognise the self-enchanted version of before. There’s a much smarter, sunnier approach to life. She is happy, polite and has impeccable manners.

‘I like myself so much better now. I’ve completely changed since quitting the tour. When I was playing, I was 21 and now I’m 28,’ said the Miami-based Russian, who stopped playing because of injury, and now plays exhibitions, promotes charities, and doing some occasional modelling.

‘It would be strange if I hadn’t grown up, if I hadn’t changed. I like getting older. I wouldn’t want to be 22 or 25 in my head again.

‘I feel as though I’m getting smarter and wiser and learning a lot of things. Now that I’m older, I’m much more tolerant of myself, much kinder towards myself. Maybe it would be nice to have the skin of a 20 year-old, though.’

Kournikova illustrates that last point by yanking at the skin around her eyes, but wrinkles are not a problem. She has said that, ‘for the record, I haven’t had a boob job, and no Botox’.

Some still seem to hold it against her that she never won a singles title. She sometimes wishes she was given ‘more credit’ for her achievements.

‘Did it frustrate me that people always said I never won a singles title? No, not at all. It doesn’t frustrate me now. And it didn’t frustrate me then either. I have no life-changing regrets from tennis.

‘I know what I have achieved. I don’t care or want to change anyone’s perception or opinion of me. But do I sometimes wish it were different and that people gave me more credit? Yes. I’ve still got a heart. I’m not made of ice.

‘At the same time, I’ve been in the public eye for so many years, there’s been so much criticism, so much scrutiny, so much time in the spotlight, that I’ve developed a certain shield, a certain thick skin, if you will.

‘But the most important thing is what you think of yourself and what you did, and what the people close to you think.

Misconceptions, half-truths and lies about Kournikova abound. One anecdote that did the rounds was that a male spectator called out during a match: ‘Anna, will you marry me?’ to which Kournikova responded: ‘You can’t afford me.’ Not true, apparently.

‘That was made up,’ she said. ‘There are a million things that have been made up about me. There was someone screaming something at me every two seconds during my matches. Do you really think that I would answer when people screamed out at me?’

For the past 12 years, she has lived in Miami, and is in a long-term relationship with the singer Enrique Iglesias.

‘I love Miami because it’s so low-key. It’s not a proper city like New York or Los Angeles, where if you go outside you have to be properly dressed and everything.

‘In Miami, I could walk around naked. The good thing here is that there aren’t too many photographers chasing you. If you’re in LA, the photographers are everywhere.’

Women’s tennis still sparkles, she says. ‘Where there are women, there is always glamour. Sex appeal is always going to be a part of tennis, but the most important thing is how you do on the court. When I was playing, people just got used to me being a pretty face, I guess.’

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