Anna Kournikova, despite having not played a professional match since 2003, is one of the most recognizable names, and faces, in tennis. The 26-year-old Russian remains active in the sport, playing for WorldTeam Tennis’s Sacramento Capitals. Though much maligned for her lack of a professional singles championship, Kournikova won two Australian Open doubles titles with Martina Hingis (in 1999 and 2002). Beyond tennis, Kournikova has been named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People four times and has accrued a celebrity status that largely transcends the sport. She’ll be in Texas this month, playing in the CHRISTUS Pro/Celebrity Classic in Beaumont and working with kids on the Andy Roddick Kids’ Courts at the Whitewater Tennis Center at Horseshoe Bay Resort. The CHRISTUS Pro/Celebrity Classic benefits the Children’s Miracle Network (CMN).
texasmonthly.com: What do you enjoy most about coming to Texas?
Anna Kournikova: Well, I’ve been to Texas many, many times, but I think this will be my first in that specific area. I hope we’re going to have a good turnout, and I’m so excited to play with Pete Sampras. That’s going to be awesome. I haven’t seen him in a while. And, of course, we’re playing for a great cause, so I’m looking forward to it. I love playing these exhibitions. For me, this is my opportunity to be close to the fans and be close to the game and to be on the court.
texasmonthly.com: Is it more fun to play these exhibitions than to play a really competitive professional match?
AK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s no question about that, but it’s also still competitive. It’s definitely more fun and more relaxed, but we always try to play the best that we can because the fans are there to see some great tennis.
texasmonthly.com: Is there something different about going to the smaller markets?
AK: Definitely. It’s not like I enjoy them more or less than the other places, they’re just very different, and they have their own charisma. If you go to New York, there’s the U.S. Open; a lot of cities—Cincinnati or L.A. or a bunch of others—have tournaments. It’s always cool to go to places where there are no tournaments but where there are huge tennis communities.
texasmonthly.com: You’ll be working with some kids on this trip through Texas. Talk about your involvement with the youth game.
AK: Kids are my passion. That’s what I do mainly now—work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. So, for me, this is a perfect extension. I really want to bring an awareness to the kids to get involved, whether it’s tennis—obviously it’s great if it’s tennis—but any other sport. It’s great to stay active. Sports teach so many things to children: teamwork, leadership, discipline, all the skills that you can apply in life. That’s going to be the most fun, being there with the kids.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of work do you do with the Boys and Girls Clubs?
AK: Bring awareness about sports and fitness and health and nutrition, and support them. I normally go to a lot of the national conferences and listen to their stories. There’s drug prevention and alcohol abuse and all sorts of things that teenagers and pre-teens deal with. I relate to a lot of the kids. I’m kind of still young, and it’s good to listen more than anything. We just have to show them that we’re there. You know, they just want somebody to be there, and most of the time, they don’t know how to ask for things or how to express themselves. So, really, you’ve got to listen.
texasmonthly.com: Could you ever see yourself coaching?
AK: No, I’ve never really thought about that. I think I would get too nervous.
texasmonthly.com: Injuries forced you to leave the professional game in 2003. How’s your health now?
AK: I’m feeling fine, but it’s not like I’m working out professionally. I work out one hour a day in the gym, and then I’ll do cardio and stuff, but it’s not nearly anywhere close to [what I’d need to play] professionally. I mean, I’m nowhere nearly strong [enough] or prepared to play professionally anymore.
texasmonthly.com: Could you ever see yourself going back to the professional circuit?
AK: I’m 26 now. There is still a possibility I think until 30. I could probably do it, but I would have to really put in six months of physical preparation. Not in tennis, but my body, because it’s changed so much in the past five years that I haven’t been playing. It’s completely different.
texasmonthly.com: Your former doubles partner Martina Hingis returned to the professional circuit in 2005. Did you talk to her about how she did it?
AK: No, we didn’t discuss it. We normally don’t discuss tennis or sports. We usually talk about different stuff.
texasmonthly.com: Could you see yourself playing doubles professionally again?
AK: I haven’t really thought about it. I’m one of those people that if I make up my mind, I’ll just do it tomorrow. I’m not one of those who thinks too long. If I feel like it, I might. If I don’t, I won’t.
texasmonthly.com: What do you like most about being retired?
AK: Having no commitments. Not that many, you know. Now I do whatever I want to do. There is no, ‘You have to.’ It’s just more freedom, I guess. And, you know, I’m completely different now. I’m still learning, and I’m still maturing, but it’s a big difference from 20 to 26.
texasmonthly.com: How closely do you still follow the professional game?
AK: I watch all the Grand Slams, and whatever they show on TV.
texasmonthly.com: Is it nice to see a contingent of Russians at the top of the women’s game?
AK: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve always had a good sports base. It was really hard to travel back then because nobody could afford it. So, it’s impressive to see all the girls out. That’s awesome.
texasmonthly.com: Do you know those girls well?
AK: Not really, because they all kind of started after I had already stepped away.
texasmonthly.com: Talk about your experience with WorldTeam Tennis (WTT).
AK: I love it. I’ve played for five years, and it’s a great way to be on the court, to be back in front of the fans and support the game.
texasmonthly.com: And your team, the Sacramento Capitals, won the championship this year.
AK: Well, I wasn’t actually there when they won. I’ve only played four matches this year. But I was really excited for my team.
texasmonthly.com: You have a multifaceted public appeal—as an athlete, a model, a celebrity. What are you most proud of in your career on and off the court, and how do you want people to recognize you?
AK: I don’t care and don’t really pay attention to what people recognize me as because everybody’s going to have their own opinion. I am proud of what I’ve accomplished for myself, where I came from. I literally would be cleaning toilets right now in Russia; I wouldn’t be playing tennis. We were poor. I have traveled the world, learned, met so many different people, played the game that I love, and made some money. It’s all those things together.
texasmonthly.com: And you’re satisfied now.
AK: Exactly. And now I can just do what I love to do and just bring awareness to the things that I think are important.
Nov 2: Ford Park Event Center, 5115 I-10S, Beaumont; 409-951-5400; fordparktx.com. Nov 3: Horseshoe Bay Resort, Whitewater Tennis Center, 500 Horseshoe Bay Blvd, Horseshoe Bay, 10 a.m.