tampabay.com

Kickin' back: Kournikova's having a (tennis) ball

By KEITH NEIBUHR
Published April 2, 2006


Back problems halted Anna Kournikova's promising pro tennis career three years ago, but even today the 24-year-old Russian remains one of the sport's biggest names, largely because of her straight-out-of-Vogue looks and a well-publicized relationship with singer Enrique Iglesias. Kournikova, as many know, failed to win a singles title while on tour, but she was hardly a dud. She reached the Wimbledon semifinals at 16, claimed 16 doubles events and earned more than $3.5-million on the courts. Kournikova, who lives in Miami Beach, is scheduled to appear in Wednesday's Mercedes-Benz Classic at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa with Dade City native Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Chris Evert. She recently kicked back with Times staff writer Keith Niebuhr.

What do you miss most about being on tour?

Well, it's a feeling you can't really replace with anything else. It's so different being a pro athlete, feeling that adrenaline rush. You can't compare anything to just being on the court, having the crowds supporting you and the adrenaline rush. I miss everything about it, but at the same time I'm finding pleasure in other things.

Such as?

Well, I'm very proud to work with the Boys & Girls Club of America. It's giving kids the opportunity to go to the club instead of hanging out on the street. ... That's one of my main passions right now. I've always been very giggly around kids, so it's fun for me also. ... I'm also still playing a lot of charity matches, which is a great opportunity to give back some of my time to tennis and to the fans. And it makes me feel like I'm still playing and keeping that light alive.

Did Anna Kournikova fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket?

I didn't, but the girls in my office did that whole thing.

Why not?

(Laughing) Because I would probably just pick a team because of the names. I'm actually a (Miami) Heat fan. I love the Heat and go to a lot of the games.

Do you take any pride in the fact many, including current players, have credited you for starting the so-called tennis revolution in Russia?

Well, you know, the only thing I'm proud of is that I'm glad that they say they can do it and that there is an opportunity. Back in Russia, they've always had a huge sports community and demand for results, whether it's gymnastics or other sports. But before, there wasn't always the opportunity to get out and compete on the international level.

Are you still a fan of the sport and do you watch many events?

I watch all the majors and whatever else they're showing on TV. And I follow the results on the Internet, mainly to follow my friends. I was at the Anastasia Myskina match (against Maria Sharapova on Wednesday in Key Biscayne). I've known her since I was 5, so I really try to support my friends.

Anastasia obviously has done a lot of great things, but do you ever offer her any advice?

When we meet and talk, it's usually just about where we are and how we're doing. I really don't talk about the on-court stuff too much. As someone from the outside, I just tell her to enjoy it as much as you can. And I tell her, "Don't think if you lose it's the end of the world, there's always next Monday." When you're on the Internet, what sites do you hit?

I really just read the news and interact with fans on my Web site (kournikova.com). I hang out there a lot. I'm not on computer 10 hours a day, but I spend a good 45 minutes just browsing for the news, especially when I'm not at home. Do you have a myspace account?

No, I don't. But I've been hearing a lot about that. It's incredible what the Internet has done.

Are you ever amazed at how popular you became?

I just laugh about it. It was the right moment, the right place kind of thing. I get kind of embarrassed when people say that. But if I brought more fans to tennis, to women's sports, then I'm proud of it.

You said in an interview last year that if you're ever completely healthy, you'd consider playing pro tennis again. Still feel that way?

Well, I'm still young enough, so yes. If I'm 100 percent and can give my all, I'd definitely give it another shot. I would just have to be ready for it mentally first.

What's the first thing that comes to mind when I say the following things, starting with Serena Williams.

A friend and a great ambassador for the sport.

Double fault.

I've had those in my life (laughing). I had a lot of those, ever since I broke my thumb playing Steffi Graf in Eastbourne (Britain). I actually beat her that match.

Wimbledon.

Wow. It's the most amazing experience to be on center court.

Jim Courier.

He's a legend first of all. Next, he's the most humble person and he's very easy-going. And what he does off the court is inspiring.

Anna Kournikova.

There's what some people perceive and there's just me. I try to be myself every day with everybody. I'm not always going to be perfect and people aren't always going to like me. Sometimes, I don't. But I'm just me.