I can’t concentrate—the umpire is too hot, says Andy Roddick. The tour’s, uh, hottest player isn’t just trying to schmooze his way to a close overrule. Perched in the official’s chair over Arthur Ashe Stadium is that hottest of hotties, Anna Kournikova, she of the 14 billion Web hits, the Maxim cover, the is-she-or-isn’t-she marriage to Sergei Fedorov. It’s a Kids’ Day exhibition between Roddick and top seed Andre Agassi, and they’re not going to let the honorary ump off easy.
“Why do I not have your cell phone number,” Roddick implores. “I’m not sure Mandy would like that,” Kournikova retorts, referring to Mandy Moore, Roddick’s teen idol squeeze.
“I can dance,” Roddick continues, launching into a bizarre cross between Latin dance and epileptic seizure meant to parody the gyrations of Kournikova’s latest love, Enrique Iglesias.
“I’m living La Vida Loca,” he howls. “Oh wait, that’s the other guy.” “I can skate,” gibes Agassi, doing his best Fedorov impression—or is that Pavel Bure? “Winner of the point gets her cell phone number,” proposes the Hairless Wonder, before serving it up.
This year’s U.S. Open is all about who isn’t here. Serena Williams, who has won five of the past six Grand Slams, is sitting out with a knee injury. Sister Venus, who owns four slams of her own, is also MASH’d, with a pulled stomach muscle. Defending champion Pete Sampras, who has won more hardware than any man, finally made his retirement official. And even Marat Safin, the hypertalented Russian who schooled Sampras in the 2000 final, is out with a wrist injury.
But there’s been shockingly little notice of the fact that this benefit appearance marks the beginning and the end of Kournikova’s Open. Injuries to her finely sculpted, seriously overexposed back will not only keep her out of this year’s tournament, but may also force her into retirement at the ripe old age of 21. If that’s the case, let’s remember her last U.S. Open match. It was the first round last year at Louis Armstrong Stadium, and the 37th-ranked Kournikova drew Angelique Widjaja, the teenage pride of Indonesia. Yes, Anna looked great, the Adidas crop top and short shorts every bit as racy as anything from Gaultier. (Does anyone remember Martina Navratilova’s shorts being criticized as less than feminine?) But Anna played awful. At one point, she bounced a serve into the net, an error that would elicit snickers in Central Park. Later she hit a backhand swing volley that sailed into the backstop—easily 20 feet beyond the baseline.
She sprayed forehands, she sprayed backhands, she netted sitter volleys. It was a perfect Hobbesian tennis match: ugly, brutish, and short.
The crowd didn’t know what to think. Booing was too obvious, and there was nothing to cheer. None of the assembled investment bankers even stopped to propose marriage. Kournikova’s body language suggested a certain haughty indifference, like that of a supermodel at a fast-food joint, but beneath the visor that propped up her ponytail, her eyes betrayed real hurt, the kind of wounded pride you see in a hitter who can’t get around on a fastball anymore.
This wasn’t the first time I saw that look. It was the 1994 U.S. Open and an intriguing juniors match was shaping up on an outside court. Martina Hingis, then 14 and the top junior in the world, was taking on Kournikova. Only a few weeks past her 13th birthday, young Anna was a protégée of Nick Bolletieri, and considered a comer, not for her looks but for her game. I showed up at the outside court where the match was scheduled, figuring I’d arrive somewhere late in the first set. But instead I saw the players leaving. Hingis had shellacked her younger opponent—love and love, or maybe love and one—in something like 32 minutes, one of those matches that are over before they start. Making her way off the court, Hingis smirked her soon-to-be-classic daughter-of-Chucky smirk. Message sent: “Go play with someone your own age, kid.” Anna was still very much a little girl, dwarfed by her giant racket bag and too gawky and gangly to star in a Disney movie. Her long, blond hair and porcelain complexion were the only outward signs of a nascent sex appeal. In a word, waifish. As she waited for her handlers to escort her from the scene of the crime, her big, blue eyes were propped open as if in shock and brimming with tears. If Sally Struthers had asked, you would have opened your heart and your wallet for this little girl.
It’s easy to forget, but there was a time between her first Open and her last when Kournikova had game. She covered the court like a cheetah, whacked backhands with grim precision, stroked forehands with old-school style, and ventured to the net more boldly than any top player of her generation And despite the pressures that come with magazine covers, she was one of the hardest workers on the tour. Sure, her serve was a cream puff, prone to breakdowns at inopportune times. She lacked the sheer imagination—the spin, the angles, the changes of pace—that buoyed Hingis’s game. And she lacked the physique that allowed the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, and Jennifer Capriati to play take-no-prisoners power tennis. The irony, of course, is that the very body that made her famous beyond words let her down on the tennis court. And now Kournikova’s body has let her down in another way altogether. No, she never won a singles tournament. But she was ranked as high as eighth in the world. She made the semifinals of Wimbledon on her first trip. She won two Grand Slam doubles titles and was ranked number one in the team discipline. In short, she had a career that hundreds of players, from Meagan Shaughnessy on up, would kill for.
The game of women’s tennis has always been filled with sad stories, from Suzanne Lenglen’s to Mo Connolly’s to Monica Seles’s. And while no one’s going to mistake Anna Kourni-kova for Anna Karenina, this is still a story with no happy ending in sight. The game’s marketers will anoint a New Anna—maybe Maria Sharapova, maybe Daniela Hantuchova, maybe Ashley Harkleroad, or even Marat Safin’s little sister, Dinara Safina—and the on-court flesh peddling will continue uninterrupted. But what’s next for Original Anna? Maybe she can get a game-show gig, reviving the old John McEnroe vehicle The Chair (“Our male contestant tries to keep his blood pressure within the target range while tennis’s sexiest star cavorts around the stage in a sports bra . . . “). Maybe she’ll be a guest judge on American Idol. Or maybe there’ll be reality TV—an ESPN2 spin à la Anna Nicole Smith. Or perhaps she’ll just marry Prince William. But whatever the future holds for Kournikova, remember that beneath that signature model sports bra beats the heart of an athlete asking, “What if?”