By the time Anna Kournikova played her final tour match, vultures were already picking at the bones of a once-feted great tennis talent.
Many were leching over those same bones, of course, while glorying in her downfall. Picking out the young Russian as prime schadenfreude fodder while sleazily sparing as much thought for her physical form as her tennis form.
When the veteran Daily Progress sports writer Jerry Ratcliffe reminisced about the day in 2003 that saw Kournikova come to Charlottesville, Virginia, he remarked: “We were there to see Anna’s curves, not her serves.”
Sometimes, all you’re looking for from a newspaper is honesty, a little truth-telling, putting the story in simple terms, cutting to the chase.
And you know where you stand when a newspaper lets that sentence through the edit.
Given it was on his beat, Ratcliffe had been at courtside for the $25k Boyd Tinsley Clay Court Classic, a tournament so minor that the presence of Kournikova, trying to find some form, was wildly incongruous.
She was ranked 72nd in the world, and just days earlier had pulled out of a semi-final at a similarly low-profile tournament in Sea Island, Georgia, due to injury. Kournikova’s opponent that day would have been the 16-year-old little-known Maria Sharapova.
By the time Kournikova’s career reached Charlottesville, she was already bordering on desperation, physical pulls, niggles and herniated discs having taken a heavy toll, her confidence inevitably ebbing away. Once a top-10 player, she was in danger of tumbling outside the top 100. A turning point was what she sought, that elusive first singles title.
And so on May 14, 2003 – 17 years ago – Kournikova played what she hoped would be her first of five matches that week.
It turned out to be the very last match she would play on tour, the Russian beaten in three sets by Brazilian Bruna Colosio, a player who sat 384th in the world rankings.
The girl who had bowled over coaching titan Nick Bollettieri with her enthusiasm when springing into his academy barely a decade earlier was finished. She went down not firing but, according to reports from that day, buried by an avalanche of double faults.
Weeks later, in early June, Kournikova was seen in tears in England, pulling out of the grass-court season without playing a match.
The show was over, the series cancelled. Kournikova had just turned 22.
‘The fame was created by you guys’
Here’s a noteworthy Kournikova quote, snipped from a 2010 Wimbledon news conference I attended.
It came after a hit-and-giggle exhibition doubles match she played alongside Martina Hingis, at a time when both Kournikova and Hingis, once the self-styled ‘Spice Girls’ of tennis, were enjoying retirement.
“You know, the fame and everything, I guess most of it was created by you guys, by the media a lot of times, most of the time the yellow press,” Kournikova said that evening.
“[I] never tried to pay attention. I mean, obviously it was a little hard times dealing with it being 16, 17 years old, reading some kind of c**p about yourself, you know. Most of it was made up.”
The trials and tribulations of Anna Kournikova. The sob story writes itself and has been written again and again. Look, she still blames the media. What about those results, Anna? What about your c**ppy results? Nobody made those up.
Of course you could pick apart Kournikova’s career and float the idea it was a washout because she could not fulfil the potential apparent when she reached the 1997 Wimbledon semi-finals, losing to eventual champion and fellow 16-year-old Hingis.
But it would seem beyond churlish, a witless, hardly original reckoning.
Kournikova, the biggest earner in tennis who made millions in endorsements but couldn’t for love nor money lay her hands on a singles crown. Kournikova, the pin-up whose tennis was ancillary to her money-spinning modelling career. Kournikova, the easiest target since the last target was taken down.
It’s all been said, and said too often by those who “were there to see Anna’s curves, not her serves”. By those who knew where she stood in FHM’s top 100 sexiest women, if not the world rankings.
After tennis, the quiet life for Kournikova
She was asked in that same NASDAQ-100 news conference about her continuing losses, about the criticism she faced, and whether it hurt.
“I can’t change what other people think and all I can do is go and play,” she said. “That’s what I should really be focusing on, is just doing my thing, practising and playing and then if I do well, there will be less criticism.
“There will be criticism of something else. But at the end of the day, I can’t really do anything with it. There’s going to be one thing or another, so it’s your job, guys, right?”
Whatever she did, Kournikova believed there would be criticism.
Which perhaps explains to a large part her current life, retired and living privately in Miami, with long-time partner Enrique Iglesias, the Spanish pop singer.
Such is the couple’s secrecy, it is not known whether they are married. They have three children together, including twins that were born in December 2017, without the world having had a clue Kournikova was pregnant.
Tabloid whispers that Kournikova might have been expecting again only emerged days before she gave birth to their third child in January of this year. She keeps that low a profile, and why not?
She and Iglesias remain gossip-mag favourites but rarely give interviews.
She chooses when to accept modelling gigs, skipping strictly to her own beat.