When one of the world’s most acclaimed and recognizable athletes, 30-year-old Anna Kournikova, steps into Washington Kastles Stadium at City Center Wednesday, there will be little shortage of the seductive thrills the tennis phenom brings to match play.
By John Arundel
A Russian pro tennis player and model, Kournikova’s celebrity status has made her one of the best known tennis players worldwide. At the peak of her fame, fans looking for images of Kournikova made her name one of the most common search strings on Google.
While Kournikova has been successful at the game of singles (she ranked No. 8 in the world in 2000), in recent years she has become a bigger stand-out in the game of doubles, where at times she’s been ranked the No. 1 player in the world.
Last month at Wimbledon, Kournikova reunited with doubles partner Martina Hingis to participate in competitive tennis for the first time in seven years in the Invitational Ladies Doubles event at Wimbledon. On June 29, the duo defeated the British pair Samantha Smith and Anne Hobbs, 6-2, 6-4.
“My trip was an amazing experience and I am so glad that I decided to participate,” Kournikova wrote in her July 13 blog. “I had not been to Wimbledon since I last played there in 2002 so it was such an honor to be back and be part of this legendary tournament. As I have said many times before, Wimbledon is one of my favorite tournaments and places to play. Being back on the court with Martina was so much fun, it is like we were never away, just picking up where we last left off.”
With Hingis, a Washington Kastles player, as her partner, Kournikova picked up Grand Slam titles in Australia in 1999 and 2002. With their curvy athleticism and fetching good looks, Hingis and Kournikova facetiously refer to themselves as the “Spice Girls of Tennis.”
“The most memorable part of the event for me was being back on Centre Court,” Kournikova said. “It is such an amazing experience to play there knowing the history and how many unbelievable matches were played there. It was also great catching up with old friends from the tour who I do not get to see very often.”
Her Summer 2010 Wimbeldon and Washington appearances are Kournikova’s first round on the professional circuit in several years, as her tennis career has been curtailed, and nearly ended, by serious back and spinal problems. A resident of Miami Beach, FL., Kournikova makes the rounds only rarely these days when she plays in occasional exhibitions and in doubles for the St. Louis Aces of World Team Tennis.
In London, the Ladies Invitational was divided into two groups of four teams each, and Anna and Martina were in Group A. “We played everyone in our group, and then the winners of Group A and B moved on to the finals,” Anna said. Her first match was against Great Britain legends Hobbs and Smith. “We had a packed house, and the crowd was really into the match, cheering for great points on both sides,” said Kournikova, who ended up beating Hobbs and Smith 6-2, 6-4.
Anna’s second match was against Helena Sukova of the Czech Republic and Hungary’s Andrea Temesvari. “We were put on Centre Court for this match and it was a blast!” Anna enthused. “We were the last match of the day, so it was around 7 pm at night, and we had a great crowd that stayed to watch. We had a lot of great points and defeated them 6-1, 6-4.”
The final match in Anna and Martina’s Group was against Tracy Austin and Kathy Rinaldi of the United States. “We had a really great match, but Tracy and Kathy were playing too good on that day and won the match,” she said. “Martina and I were bummed that we lost, but we had a such a good time reconnecting on the court, and now we have new memories from Wimbledon.”
In London, Kournikova did quite a few media appearances, from CNN to morning shows and late night shows. “Martina and I did most of the press together as a team, so that made it a lot more fun,” she said. “I was really just breathing in the whole atmosphere around this great tournament, and it almost felt like I was in a time machine.”
Anna was born in Moscow on June 7, 1981. Her father, Sergei Kournikov, was only 20 at the time. A former Greco-Roman wrestling champion, Sergei earned a Ph.D and was a professor at the University of Physical Culture and Sport in Moscow, where he still serves as a part-time martial arts instructor. Her mother Alla, who was 18 when Anna was born, was once a 400-meter runner.
“We were young and we liked the clean, physical life, so Anna was in a good environment for sport from the beginning,” her father Sergei once told Pravda.
Anna first stepped onto the courts with a tennis racquet she’d received as a New Year’s gift in 1986. Shortly afterwards, she became a member of Moscow’s prestigious Spartak Tennis Club, and by the age of eight, she began appearing in junior tournaments.
By the following year, Anna was attracting attention from tennis scouts from across the world, signing a management deal at age ten to train at Nick Bolletieri’s famed tennis academy in Bradenton, FL.
The pint-sized tennis player with the mighty backhand was on her way.
During the 1990’s Kournikova exploded onto the tennis scene, winning the European Championships, the Italian Open Junior tournament and the Junior Orange Bowl, in fact becoming the youngest player ever to win the 18 and under division.
Kournikova made her grand slam debut at age 15, appearing at the U.S. Open (losing to Steffi Graf, the eventual champion). Despite a string of crushing title losses, in 1997 Kournikova became only the second woman in the open era to reach Wimbeldon’s semifinals, losing to eventual champion Martina Hingis. The two paired up in 1999 and have proven to be a commanding duo at doubles.
Anna’s two Grand Slam doubles titles came in 1999 and 2002, both at the Australian Open in the Women’s Double event with partner Hingis. The two eventually went in to capture 16 tournament doubles titles, including two Australian Opens and being a finalist in mixed doubles at the U.S. Open and at Wimbledon, and reaching the No.1 ranking in doubles in the Women’s Tennis Association tour rankings.
Kournikova has not played on the WTA Tour since 2003. On Wednesday, she faces a formidable challenger in WTT play in D.C. when she takes on fellow Russian player Victoria “Vika” Azarenka, one of the top female tennis players in the world, who was signed July 15 by the Kastles, as the team surges toward a defense of their 2009 World Team Tennis Championship.
Azarenka reached career high rankings of #6 in the world in late 2009, after winning two Grand Slam Mixed Doubles Titles (the 2008 French Open and 2007 U.S. Open) and reached the finals of three other Grand Slam tournaments, including the 2009 French Open Women’s Doubles, the 2008 Australian Open Women’s Doubles and 2007 Australian Open Mixed Doubles.
With the addition of Azarenka, the Kastles now hold an unprecedented 68 Grand Slam titles in their trophy case. “I love playing World Team Tennis and couldn’t have found a better team to join and city to play in,” Azarenka said.
Azarenka has earned her reputation as one of the most aggressive baseline players in professional tennis, and Kastles owner Mark Ein said he hopes with the addition of the Russian tennis sensation he hopes to lock up another title. “Her aggressive style and world-class singles and doubles play is a perfect addition to our team which already has the league’s best record,” Ein said.
But don’t count the other Russian out. As a player, Kournikova is noted for her footspeed and aggressive baseline play, and excellent angles and dropshots. A right-handed player with a two-handed backhand, Kournikova is formidable at the net, making forecful groundstrokes and drop shots on a dime, comparing her to such formidable doubles specialists as Pam Shriver and Peter Fleming.
Washington Life magazine and The Washington Kastles invite you to meet Anna Kournikova and Vika Azarenka with a pre-match reception on Wednesday, July 21 at The Washington Kastles Stadium at 11th & H Streets, N.W. in the Distrct.
A limited number of specially-priced $49 tickets to the VIP reception from 5-7 pm and match play starting at 7 pm are available, and include a close-to-the-action chairback seat for the match, and entrée to the exclusive after-party at Ping Pong Dim Sum on 7th Street.
Tickets are only $49 (a $100 value). Please call (202) 483-6647 to reserve, or click here for instant purchase.