KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Anna Kournikova causes a small stir when she walks down the hallway underneath a stadium where she competed not so long ago.
Serena Williams embraces her warmly and says they should get together sometime. A shirtless Nicolas Kiefer wanders up and breaks into a startled grin when he sees her. “What are you doing walking around half-nude?” she demands in that innately sultry voice. “Hoping to see you,” he says, quick on his feet.
Kournikova beams and pushes her famous golden tresses behind her ears. She looks fit, sunny and very young, because she is — nearly five years into retirement at age 26.
Costume bracelets jingle on her arms. Many of them feature blue plastic “evil eye” beads and, according to her, cost 99 cents. “I’m obsessed with them,” she says. “They’re supposed to protect you.”
Yet Kournikova has the air of someone entirely capable of taking care of herself. She arrives early for an interview and politely asks the public relations assistant accompanying her to wait outside the room — she doesn’t like being hovered over. She sits down, pulls a light floral-patterned shawl around her shoulders to ward off the chill of air conditioning, leans forward and devotes her full attention to the questions.
Kournikova has enlisted for a sixth season of World Team Tennis competition and will play three dates this summer with her new team, the St. Louis Aces. A millionaire many times over, she does it for love, not money, although marquee players like her get high-five-figure nightly paychecks.
The circuit is a little different from the one Kournikova used to travel on the WTA tour. She’s scheduled to appear in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Schenectady, N.Y., this July, and she has flown on discount airlines and logged considerable mileage in team vans in past seasons. She says one of her favorite rituals is stopping at a Friendly’s franchise and splitting a sundae, a habit verified by a high-ranking WTT official.
If all this sounds more grounded and earthy than you would expect from one of the most Googled women in the world, welcome to everyday Anna. People still rush at her in airports and toss gifts to her from the stands at her WTT gigs, but Kournikova has made peace with the public’s enduring fascination and spends most of her time in places where she’s no longer the center of attention.
“I can kind of control and decide where I go and what I do,” she says. “If I’m coming here today I know I’m going to be seeing press, I’m going to be seeing people and fans, so I’m prepared. When I’m at home, I lead a very quiet life. I go to the same places; I see the same people. I’ll get one paparazzi a week or something.”
Home, since 1997, is Miami, and one of Kournikova’s havens is a local Boys and Girls Club she’s been visiting for the past five years. She helps with homework and arts and crafts projects, plays kickball (a sport she’d never heard of until the kids taught her) and eats 50-cent hot dogs.
“I approached their organization myself,” she says. “They were a little shocked in the beginning, they were like, ‘You’re interested in kids?’ For me the connection is, I grew up in a tennis club. That club was all about tennis and sports; this club is about everything. It’s an after-school program. I just go to the club and hang out with the kids and basically go back into my childhood.
“It’s important to give them the attention they deserve. It’s not like even I sit there and preach about a certain subject. It’s really about just spending time and making them feel good about themselves. They’re so innocent. I love seeing their innocent smiles and their curiosity.”
Kournikova isn’t in a hurry to have children herself, though. Although she was a workaholic on the practice court, she describes herself as commitment-phobic — she and singer Enrique Iglesias have been linked on and off for years — and still in transition from being a professional athlete. Appropriately, she’s reading “Eat, Pray, Love,” the bestseller about a woman’s life passages. “I’m trying to learn to take a deep breath,” she says, inhaling to demonstrate, “but it’s hard. I guess that will come more with age and maturity and settling down a little.”
She gets her kid fix when she visits her mother and 3½-year-old half-brother — “my free baby,” as she calls him — in nearby Palm Beach. “That’s perfect for me right now,” Kournikova says. “I play with him for a couple of hours and then I say, ‘Here, take him back.’”
Life isn’t all warm fuzzies, of course. Kournikova is a businesswoman with a kite’s tail of endorsement contracts and management and PR agencies, still capitalizing on the appeal she built during her nine-year pro career before back injuries forced her to retire in 2003. That career was a success by most measures, but wound up being measured harshly because of the feline beauty that started a cottage industry.
“When I hear people say she was a pretty girl who couldn’t win, I think that’s ludicrous,” says Wayne Bryan, coach of the WTT’s Sacramento Capitals with which Kournikova was the feature attraction for three years. “She was ranked No. 1 in doubles, won Grand Slams, got to No. 8 in singles and went to the Wimbledon semifinals.
“I can’t really say enough about her. She’s funny and personable and kind. And she’s an extraordinary doubles player — she really comes alive on the doubles court. I wish she had stayed on the tour to play doubles,” says Bryan, whose twin sons Bob and Mike are the world’s top men’s team.
World Team Tennis has allowed Kournikova to stay involved without being too intimate with the game.
But Bryan also saw the thornier side of Kournikova’s fame: the extra security she needs on the road at times, the overfamiliarity of fans who have overimbibed, the gaping and unsolicited comments, as if her mere presence created a de facto red carpet. “She handles it pretty well, but I can’t imagine being her full-time,” he says.
Team tennis, clinics and exhibitions are the ideal way for Kournikova to stay involved but not intimate with the game. She watches Grand Slam action on television but doesn’t keep close track of who’s up or down; among the players she most enjoys, she said, are Justine Henin and the two young Serbians, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.
Kournikova says she hasn’t spoken to Martina Hingis, her friend and former doubles partner, about Hingis’ sad exit from the game late last year after a positive cocaine test (a result Hingis disputed) and a return of chronic pain from injury.
“I just know what I read in the press, and as I know, myself, very well, it might be twisted,” Kournikova says. “I really hope everything will work out with her. At the end of the day, she’s a complete legend. She’s achieved so much and I have nothing but respect for her.”
A comeback didn’t seem out of the question for Kournikova as recently as a couple of years ago, and she still won’t completely rule it out, but she says she’s content.
“I sleep very good at night,” she says. “I know where I came from, what I achieved, how hard I’ve worked; I know what kind of results I’ve had. There’s a lot more things I want to achieve and explore and learn. I want to get more educated and grow as a person, but I think I did pretty well with tennis.”
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.