More than a decade after she retired from competitive tennis, Anna Kournikova is still one of the most recognizable faces in the game.
Known for her beauty and off-court celebrity as well as her on-court exploits, the Russian superstar will be one of the main draws at the Legends tennis tournament starting Friday evening at Camana Bay.
“I’m so excited. I’ve been playing four times a week in the buildup,” said the 34-year-old, who will feature alongside former Grand Slam winners Andy Roddick and Jim Courier in a star-studded lineup for the event.
“I don’t do many of these type of tournaments, so I can’t wait,” she said.
These days, Kournikova, a teen prodigy who reached the Wimbledon semifinals at age 16 but was forced out of professional competition through injury at 21, plays mainly for fun.
“It is nice just to play with your friends and family and do the occasional exhibition,” she told the Cayman Compass.
“I have a bunch of family members who play, it is not like we play for real, it is more to have fun and enjoy.”
She does not have to look too far for a competitive match and occasionally hits with her pop-star boyfriend Enrique Iglesias at their Florida home.
“He played as a kid growing up in Florida. He is naturally very good. He beats me occasionally,” she admitted.
The Legends tournament, also involving former U.S. Open finalist Mark Philippoussis, trick shot specialist Mansour Bahrami, and Ashley Harkleroad, is mostly for fun. But Kournikova believes the competitive spirit will come out on the court.
“We all take it seriously, nobody ever wants to lose,” she said. “It is about who wins on that day, and once the match is over we are all friends and the boys will have a beer together.”
During her brief career, Kournikova, became one of the most photographed women on the planet. With endorsement contracts on everything from tennis clothes to sports bras and luxury watches, she achieved a level of fame that transcended tennis.
On court she was consistently ranked in the world’s top 10 and won three doubles titles with her partner Martina Hingis.
Though she has been dubbed a legend, at 34, ahead of Friday’s tournament, she says she does not spend too much time thinking about how she will be remembered.
“For me, it is more about the people around me and the people who know me best,” she said. “The real tennis fans know my accomplishments and people who don’t know much about tennis just know the name.
“It is never really in my thoughts to leave some kind of legacy other than to be a good person, a good friend and family member.”
Kournikova was by any measure a prodigy. She started playing tennis in Russia at age 4 and was recruited into a Nick Bollettieri Florida academy at age 9 before turning pro at 15, reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open in her first Grand Slam tournament.
But after a series of struggles with injury, her career was brought to a premature end in 2003.
“It was very strange back then to have to stop at such a young age. It was a good thing because I was so excited at the many other things I was able to explore, but it was definitely strange in a sad way.
“Tennis was what I had always wanted to do and the only thing I knew how to do for real. That’s life and things happen. I was fortunate enough to have people I love and trust around me during that period.
“I have no regrets, everything turned out good. I have had my ups and downs, but life is great.”
Kournikova and the other stars will be involved in clinics with sponsors and junior players over the weekend.
For youngsters coming into the game, she says the key to success is an almost single-minded focus.
“Hard work, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, you’ve got to love it, you’ve got to be a little bit obsessed even. You have to enjoy it because it is going to take over your life and it should if you want to succeed. You don’t really have a balance or time for much else.”
Going professional is not realistic or even the main goal for most people, but there are plenty of other reasons to get on the court and play.
“Tennis and sports in general gives you so many other things,” Kournikova said. “It creates a sense of belonging and gives you a new circle of friends. It’s a great way to stay healthy, and it is fun.”
She may have lost that pure focus in retirement, but she will never lose her love of the game.
“I don’t know that I am obsessed with it anymore. I am really into pilates, yoga and running with my dog, but I do love playing when I get the chance. It’s something I’ve done my whole life so it comes naturally, like brushing my teeth.”
General Admission tickets are $75 each and are on sale at the Discovery Centre in Camana Bay or through Blackbeard’s outlets across the island. VIP tickets are $250 for standing or $350 for seated and can be purchased via emailing [email protected]