By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Relax. It was for charity.
Some aspire to climb Mount Everest, facilitate world peace or concoct a beer-flavored cure for the common cold. Me? I just want to hit on the hottest human ever to pick up a tennis racquet.
And have her hit back.
"Two hands, off both sides?" Kournikova says to me and my unorthodox stroke during a recent charity clinic at Dallas' T Bar M Racquet Club. "That is so cool."
Displaying an effortless elegance usually reserved for grandmas trying to raise stuck windows, I track down one of her shots with a flailing back-to-the-net return. Anna replies, both with a deft winner and a distorted compliment. Thanks to tennis, titillation and translation jostling for superiority in my mental mosh pit, I momentarily ascend to a higher plane of existence, where every occurrence becomes gravy ladled upon my satisfied, saturated life.
"She said she liked my muscle!" I whisper-scream to my clinic partners. "Holy shit! Didja hear that?! You think she really noticed me? You think she's checking me out? How's my hair?!"
With one tweaked consonant, The Brady Bunch's "Greg"—today known as Barry Williams—deflates my Utopia.
"Hate to burst your bubble," Brady says. "She said 'hustle.' Not 'muscle.'"
Thick Russian accent and thin playing résumé be damned, Kournikova still oozes "it." As the clinic participants and 3,000 fans at Frisco's Deja Blue Arena for the exhibition benefiting Tennis Competitors of Dallas and the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation can attest, she still has the looks. The allure. The looks. The aura. The looks.
"It's embarrassing, but this is one of the top highlights of my life," says KTVT-Channel 11 reporter J.D. Miles, who plays against her in one of the exhibition mini-matches. "I've covered Emmitt Smith breaking the rushing record, the Mavs in the NBA Finals and the Stars winning the Stanley Cup. But this is it. She's a great player. Not to mention, wow. She's beautiful. I think every time I ace her I should get to kiss her on the cheek."
In Kournikova's presence, young girls are grown-up princesses and old men are 42 going on 12.
Now 25, she's thinner, less curvy than her playing days: 5-foot-8 and 125 pounds. Prefers "AH-nah" to our Americanized "ANN-uh." Likes Madonna and sushi and orange juice and, amazingly, isn't perpetually pissed at being the planet's third-most photographed female behind the Statue of Liberty and Mona Lisa.
"I miss the adrenaline of a third-set tiebreaker, but some things I don't miss at all," Kournikova says of life after competitive tennis. "I'm still passionate, just about a lot of other things."
You'd never know it from the "lovable loser" tag or the Ace-King poker hand referred to as "Kournikova" because A-K is regularly beaten despite its attractiveness, but Anna was a solid if not spectacular player. No, she never won a singles tournament. But in a 9-year career cut short in '03 by foot injuries, she won her first match at age 14, advanced to the Wimbledon semifinals and climbed as high as No. 8 in singles and No. 1 in doubles, winning two Grand Slam titles.
Before it was fascinated by Maria Sharapova, America was fixated on Kournikova.
"She's been great for women and great for tennis," says clinic supporting actor Luke Jensen. "Six of the top 10 women in the world are Russian. Anna opened the door for every one of them."
In the exhibition, Kournikova is a surprising blend of substance and style.
Playing assorted matches with Miles, Williams, Dallas police officer PJ Allen, Dallas firefighter Lane Graves, former French Open doubles champions Luke and Murphy Jensen, former Wimbledon champ Jana Novotna and local women's standouts, Anna dazzles in a short slit skirt you could pack in a thimble.
She plays to the crowd, trying (unsuccessfully) to return Jensen's serves with her racquet handle, laughing when Miles almost disfigures her million-dollar mug with a wild volley and yanking 11-year-old Tatum Nowlin out of the crowd to play a point.
"It was awesome!" Nowlin says afterward. "I love her!"
Kournikova also bathes the event in irony, cloaking her underachiever image in the night's most determined play. She grunts, she slams and, in a tie-breaker against Novotna, even snaps at the chair umpire for awarding her opponent a free first serve.
"Who are you," questions an almost irritated Kournikova, "the Fairy Godmother?"
Not exactly sure what that means, but no doubt Kournikova ratcheted up her intensity from the clinic. Because to the subtle dismay of participants paying as much as $7,000 for their own episode of Glancing With the Stars, Anna wears sweats but not a sweat.
On four of T Bar M's indoor courts, we're treated to 20-minute hitting sessions with Novotna, Jensen, Williams and Kournikova. Anna was three minutes late to our court.
"Primping?" I volley across the net.
"Bathroom," she returns with a sheepish smile.
I toss some tennis balls and Anna catches/massages/fondles/caresses/grabs them, providing me a vivid memory and shameless column opener.
Almost immediately I whip a forehand winner up the line that Anna doesn't even flinch toward. I try an impossible drop shot, just to see her move. And, after two weak overheads that she returns with lobs, I get my chance to make a lasting first impression.