“You lost here today, sum up your day at Wimbledon,” asked a stuttering voice from behind the BBC camera. A few hours earlier, Anna Kournikova had fallen in the first round of Wimbledon in 2002. She was ranked 55, her career plunging in a spiral as the media lapped up her losses. What followed was a painful, infamous interview. As Kournikova rolled her eyes and laughed away the leading questions, the reporter became so flustered in her presence that he asked her to do his job: “What would you think was a good starting question?”
Few tennis players have ever replicated the frenzy that constantly surrounded Kournikova. Her arrival in the sport was soundtracked by the screams of hysterical fanboys. As she became the world’s highest-paid female athlete, her most lucrative endorsement was a sports bra deal. The infamous tagline said: “Only the balls should bounce.”
Back when women in sport received even less respect than today, the discourse around Kournikova was excruciating. She was described as a “teen sexpot” at 16 before the writer noted that he “appear[ed] to be flirting” with her. By 18 she was harrowingly dubbed the “Jezebel of Sweat”. The Sun once promised to publish “a photo of Anna every day”. Meanwhile it seemed every last Kournikova article was mandated to use the world “flirt”.
Kournikova could be snotty, rude and a nightmare for WTA staff but she perfected the art of stirring the pot; by her 18th birthday she had been linked with the Russian hockey stars Pavel Bure, then aged 28, and Sergei Fedorov, aged 30. When informed in Sports Illustrated that some disapproved of the age of her suitors, she doubled down: “Every country I visit, I have a different boyfriend,” she said. “And I kiss them all.”
This month marks exactly 20 years since Kournikova broke into the world’s top 10, yet people primarily associate her playing career with the gloom reflected in that Wimbledon interview and remember her as a terrible player known only for her glamour. Her name is offered as a cautionary tale and her career has slowly morphed into one of the great sporting punchlines. She may have earned all of that money, they say, but she sure couldn’t buy herself a title.
The focus on Kournikova’s title count is unhelpful. She was a solid athlete with a crisp all-court game who excelled from modest beginnings in Moscow. She beat Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, reached a Wimbledon semi-final in 1997 at 16 and became doubles No 1 in 1999. Kournikova’s popularity may have been rooted in her blond hair and her looks, but she still enjoyed a career that most tennis players dream of.
In the years since, Kournikova has influenced much more than just her own career and her rise inspired greater feats. In 2004, a year after Kournikova’s final match, a trio of Russian women, Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, won Russia’s first three slam titles consecutively. Since then, women’s tennis has thrived across former Soviet nations.
The two greatest Russian players feel her influence deeply. Sharapova spent her youth renouncing the unending comparisons with Kournikova, but Kournikova was still the blueprint. Sharapova followed her lead from Russia to the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, she frequently wore Kournikova’s hand-me-downs and built a similar portfolio of endorsements: “I knew I needed to get past Kournikova,” Sharapova wrote in her autobiography. “When I did that, I’d be judged on my own terms.”
When asked to name the most influential Russian tennis players, Kuznetsova was clear. “Anna Kournikova is No 1 for sure,” she told WTA Insider. “For me, she brought really big popularity to Russian tennis, women’s tennis. Everyone after her was just after her. For me, she was a big, huge push … Everybody was saying she never won a tournament, hee hee ha ha. I’m like: ‘OK, have you been to the top 10? Have you ever held a racket?’”
In the mid-90s, women’s tennis was in such a rut that Martina Navratilova called the tour “Steffi and the Seven Dwarfs”. In one heave, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Martina Hingis and Kournikova exploded on to the tour like supernovas and changed the game for good with their combined swagger, marketability and mutual resentment. Women’s tennis has always been an outlier among women’s sports, the one willing to cynically (and successfully) use glamour and sexuality to advance its brand. The way Kournikova marketed herself, attracted attention and was surrounded by agents helped to shape the game as it became increasingly more professional in the 2010s.
In the end, Kournikova’s flame burned brightly and swiftly. By 2003, aged only 22, she injured her back and she was done. The question that always accompanied Kournikova was what would happen when she grew older and the cameras had found someone else to permanently train their lenses on.
Perhaps her greatest achievement, then, is what she didn’t become. Instead of desperately attempting to consolidate her fame in retirement or struggling to adjust in the absence of an adoring crowd, she simply departed on her own route. After commanding the most public-facing career tennis has seen, she lives the most private life today. She recently gave birth to a third child. She seems to be happy. We will probably never know.