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Anna Kournikova: More Than A Pretty Face

Tennis star Anna Kournikova at WTT press conference

Russian-born Anna Kournikova's skills and beauty made her one of the best known players on the women's professional tennis circuit in the 1990's. Injuries forced her into an early retirement, but, Anna's love of the game and desire to help children brought her back to the court.

Anna Kournikova was known on the women's circuit as the best player to never win a singles title. She played her last WTA tour match in 2003 after a series of back and spine injuries, and stress fractures in her feet, forced her to retire.

But Kournikova was not ready to quit playing tennis. She joined World Team Tennis (WTT), an innovative co-ed league founded by tennis Hall-of-Famer Billie Jean King of the United States 35 years ago. The league plays a short three-week season in July, with 10 teams across the United States and players from 16 countries.

The 29-year-old Kournikova plays for the St. Louis Aces and she told VOA Sports about her eighth WTT season.

"I am just really happy to be part of the league, because it is a great opportunity for me since I do not play full time on the professional tour," said Anna Kournikova. "It is a great way for me to be still involved in tennis and be out there in front of the fans."

During her playing career, Anna Kournikova reached a ranking of number-eight in world singles, though it was doubles where she excelled. She was ranked number-one and captured 16 titles, including two Grand Slams at the Australian Open with Switzerland's Martina Hingis.

"I actually started playing doubles when I was younger, for fun and so we could get more practice time and stuff like that at tournaments," she said. "And then I was not putting so much pressure on myself in doubles. I think that is why I was doing a lot better."

Anna Kournikova with the children
Anna Kournikova with the children

But Kournikova, who became a U.S. citizen last year, found a way to combine the game she loved with another cause close to her heart - working with children.

"Well I have always felt that I had a connection with kids and even when I was in the professional tour we would always do at each tournament these kind of clinics," said Kournikova. "And once I stopped playing full-time, what I do right now is mostly travel around the country with Boys and Girls Clubs or the USO and their families. The families of the troops, encouraging kids to be active and to stay healthy and promote basically sports."

Anna thinks playing tennis is a great way for kids to stay active. She started playing tennis when she was five-years-old.

"Sports, when you are little, it teaches you so many things," she said. "It teaches you teamwork, it teaches you leadership, discipline, how to set goals, how to achieve goals. And all those things you can use in life."

Watching Kournikova interact with the kids during a clinic, it is easy to see how much she enjoys herself. Eight-year-old Tatum Sheppard was one of the many the young tennis players she connected with.

Anna with Tatum
Anna with Tatum

"I had an awesome time," said Tatum Sheppard. "She told me never stop playing and take care of your body. And she also signed my hat and my shirt."

At the height of her career, Anna Kournikova appeared on hundreds of magazine covers, including international editions of Esquire, Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She was also the number-one most downloaded athlete on the Internet, with more than 20,000 Web pages devoted to her.

But because of her success as a model and possibly a backlash because of her good looks, she was often ridiculed for failing to ever win a singles title. But Anna says the criticism did not bother her.

"No, not at all," said Anna Kournikova. "I mean, I know my results, I know my achievements. I know the players that I have beaten - almost all the number-one players that were playing during my time. And the true tennis fans know my results and stuff and I had a really, really great career. I was really happy. I wish I could [have been] a little healthier back in my playing days, but I am really pleased with my career."

So what does the future hold for Kournikova?

"Wow I do not know! Hopefully health," she said. "And you know, right now I am just really enjoying time with the kids, traveling around and really giving back a lot. That is what I really enjoy doing now."

Anna Kournikova says she will continue to do just that - playing the game she loves and teaching it to kids, while helping them stay active and develop a healthy lifestyle.