Kournikova continues to sizzle in retirement

KING OF PRUSSIA: Anna Kournikova is still the center of attention on centre court.

Or, at least, on a makeshift one in a mall parking lot.

A tennis sensation from the time she was a teen, Kournikova spent more hours posing for photographs than she ever did raising tournament singles trophies.

Her playing career on the WTA Tour long finished, Kournikova is focused these days on getting fans to look at her work instead of her looks.

"I never thrived on attention," Kournikova said in an interview this week. "I never was in it for attention." She has shed her tag as an overhyped athlete and made the transition to goodwill ambassador. She visits troops and also has become a children's advocate through her work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and other charities.

Sizzling under the hot sun in suburban Philadelphia on Monday, Kournikova was holding a tennis clinic for a small group of lucky youngsters who were learning the basics of the game from a former Grand Slam doubles champion.

She then discussed her plans for visiting the troops in Iraq.

"With my name, I feel like I have a voice," Kournikova said.

"Hopefully I can bring awareness and attention to the causes I'm involved with." She appeared at ease as she showed about 20 kids how to grip a racket and work on their drop shots. Kournikova wrapped her arms around a 7-year-old girl and helped guide the racket to the softer ball.

"Don't swing too hard," Kournikova laughed. "I know you have a lot of power." She tussled one girl's hair, and playfully chided the youngsters for not wearing hats under the broiling sun. Kournikova crouched to get eye-level while she instructed the kids, who probably had no idea why she was so famous.

"A lot of them are 8 years old," she said. "They don't even know who I am." She suggested a group hug during the team picture, and the kids started cheering her name.

"OK, I'm going to start crying," she said.

Moments later, Kournikova's walk toward a promotional appearance at the mall was nearly interrupted when a male fan got too close and security intervened.

She was whisked away to a meet-and-greet, then shuffled off to a VIP tent for more photos with sponsors.

Kournikova did everything but play tennis.

She was scheduled to play for the St. Louis Aces against the Philadelphia Freedoms in the American-based World Team Tennis. But she will miss the season with a wrist injury, and wore a protective wrap on her left hand.

"It's ridiculous. I'm so bummed," she said between bites of a salad, green beans and carrots.

She also wore a large diamond ring on her left ring finger - the finger typically reserved for engagement rings. Kournikova, who has long been linked to singer Enrique Iglesias, declined to discuss the ring's significance.

Injuries cut short Kournikova's playing career in 2003, and her latest setback was a reminder why she was never able to stage a serious comeback.

"It just reminds me of how hard it would be," Kournikova said.

"The body is already beat up." So it's off to Germany and Turkey to visit troops instead of preparing for a tournament. And yes, Kournikova still sprinkles the occasional photo shoot into her schedule.

It's a whirlwind lifestyle Kournikova has been used to since she burst onto the tennis scene as a teenager. She was only 15 when she made her Grand Slam debut at the U.S. Open and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon two years later. Kournikova, who was born in Moscow, was ranked as high as No. 8 in the world.

"At 14 is when it really all exploded," she said. "A lot of times I didn't realise what was going on. Now looking back at it, you can analyse it. Back then, you just kind of wake up, go, live your life. It was normal." So how does the woman who had more hits on the Internet than with a racket analyse it at age 28? "I think it was cool," she said. "It was a lot of hard work.

It was a lot of satisfaction for my family and me. It was also fun.

I got to drink soda and chew gum and travel around the world. At 9 years old, I was living in America and eating fruit 12 months a year. I didn't have that back home. I'd been to most countries by 14." Sure, she never won a major championship. But Kournikova feels she doesn't have to defend her career - even without an appearance in a singles final in any of the four Grand Slam events.

"It's true. It's statistics," she said. "But I look at my other statistics and they perfectly, happily satisfy me." Under the lights on the temporary court, Kournikova hit balls into the crowd as a throng of photographers snapped away.

She was gracious and chatted with fans as she signed autographs after the WTT event. One autograph per fan ages 16 and younger.

Kournikova was about to step into a van at 10:42 p.m., seemingly well past last call for the little ones, when a small girl came running up to her, shouting "Anna! Anna!" They briefly chatted and discovered a shared love of turtles.

Time for bed, then off to Washington for the next WTT appearance.

Her wrist injury will keep her off the court.

But the fans don't care. She's still Anna Kournikova.