Obsessing over Roger Federer's inability to convert match points? Agitated over the condition of Rafael Nadal's wisdom teeth? Bummed that you won't get to see what Ashley Harkleroad looks like with her clothes on (she already lost her first-round match in Florida)? It's all part of gearing up for Miami. And speaking of crossover stars, I'm hoping to bump into Anna Kournikova down there next week. I had a nice telephone visit with her just a few weeks ago.
The subject, then, was the December USO tour that took Anna to Iraq, Afghanistan and a U.S. military hospital in Germany. Also along on the trip: Nick Bollettieri, comedian David Attell, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus and Kim Dozier, the CBS news correspondent who was seriously wounded in Iraq in 2006. That's Anna above, with Attell (photo credit to U.S. Navy petty officer 1st class Chad J. McNeeley). The group was shepherded by U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The mission was the familiar one: holiday season morale and comfort building for the U.S. troops based overseas. These USO tours are not the typical celebrity drive-bys, nobody who ever took part in one ever mistook it for hosting a charity golf pro-am, or a Las Vegas New Year's Eve party. Let's start with the fact that the participants don't get paid a dime; they're obliged at times to wear forty pounds of protective body armor and helmets; they travel "in country" in military helicopters, and run - not unlike soldiers in a hot zone - on caffeine and adrenaline.
Going back some years, to the heyday of Kournikova's notoriety, you might feel obliged to ask, "Anna Kournikova and the USO? Who woulda thunk it?"
At the peak of her career, Kournikova was often described as a prematurely haughty starlet who was overly engaged in manipulating the public with her sex appeal (her No. 1 ranking as a Internet search term surpassed her career-high singles ranking by seven places). Some saw Kournikova as Lolita ver. 2.5, or a precursor to the Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan generation; let's remember, Kournikova famously called out to a fan who proposed marriage, "You can't afford me!"
And when did it become a crime to issue a withering put-down of the kind that gained Kournikova such notoriety? The kind of piety that Kournikova's remark teased out of some makes me roll my eyes, much like the professed horror of those who think Pete Sampras's tipping habits constitute some sort of judgment on his character. Some people will leap on any opportunity to declare their moral superiority.
When it came to Kournikova, I was always more interested the spunky but determined child who recognized her charms for what they were - tools. And even back then I was curious about the tomboy who used to get chased away from the supermarket near where she lived for whacking tennis balls at the exterior wall, who had no use for dolls, and was interested in boys only insofar as she could make a game of being chased (literally) by them. When I wrote a Tennis magazine cover story on Kournikova in the spring of 2001, it was that dimension of Kournikova's personality and (untold) history that intrigued me and led me to go on an exhibition tour in South America to spend a little time with her. It was a fruitful trip.
Knowing a little about how far Kournikova had come, I was always irritated when people - including scores who failed to distinguish themselves despite having far, far more opportunity - suggested that Kournikova was merely a media sensation, or ridiculed her for having become so famous while not having won a single WTA title. Scads of WTA players who won tournaments never came close to matching Kournikova's career-high singles ranking of No. 8, nor her two Grand Slam doubles titles. And the one thing I do know is that they don't sell or give away those ranking numbers and titles. And how good are you at what you do, bucko?
Of course, that's all ancient history. That controversy has run its course, and the Kournikova who emerged from it is appealing in a different, more fundamental and substantial way. My pal El Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated had the same feeling after spending some time with Anna not long ago. He was amused by how genuinely mortified and apologetic she was when he reminded her of some of her imperious, youthful transgressions. As is so often true in cases like Kournikova's, it's a good idea to wait until someone grows up before we begin making judgments about his or her character.
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