Saturday, July 12, 2008
Where are they now???? Anna Kournikova and Jim Abbott
Good article from http://cnnsi.com
Where Are They Now? Anna Kournikova and Jim Abbott
Now 27, Anna Kournikova is all grown up Story Highlights
Ten years later, Anna Kournikova has matured in attitude and in style
She's content with the phenomenon she was and the woman she's become
Kournikova now lives in Miami Beach and plays tennis a few times a week. Anna Kournikova's looks haven't changed much, but her outlook definitely has.
It's 1998 and I'm trying to interview Anna Kournikova. It's a bit like attempting to secure an audience with a world leader, which, Kournikova's handlers would have you believe, she is. Billed as "the most downloaded female on the planet," Kournikova is flanked by a battalion of handlers, agents, managers and other assorted obstructionists.
There are months of delays and unreturned calls. When favored with the courtesy of a response, the communication is annoying in the extreme. Can you send your questions in advance? Can you embed references to the products of Anna's various sponsors in whatever you write? That would really help speed the process! Finally, after more than a year, I am granted a 10-minute session at a hotel in New Jersey where Kournikova is being paid a prince(cess)ly fee to play in a weekend tennis exhibition. Monitored by yet another handler, Kournikova spends the excruciating session chomping on pink gum, staring at her nails, and performing a nimble feat of dialogue by giving yes/no answers to questions that begin with the word "how."
It's 2008 and I'm trying to interview Anna Kournikova. Half an hour before the appointed meeting time, my cellphone chirps. Chastened by experience, I steel myself for a call apologizing for a last-minute change of plans. But, no, it's Anna -- on an unblocked number -- confirming that she's running on schedule and if I'm having trouble finding a parking space at the Starbucks where we're scheduled to meet, I can always park at the adjacent Whole Foods. She arrives alone, pulling up in a tasteful but hardly ostentatious ride. She makes eye contact. She chews no gum. Ninety minutes into what is more a conversation than an interview, she is still going strong. No, I'm forced to admit, I have not read the book Eat, Pray, Love. "You really should," she says. "It's spiritual, but well-written at the same time."
She's 27 now, and while she pretty much looks the same as remembered, Anna Kournikova bears only the vaguest resemblance to the one-woman international conglomerate that damn near hijacked women's tennis a decade ago. While she's unwilling to concede that she's retired, she hasn't played a WTA Tour match in more than five years. The regal prom queen who once memorably remarked to a suitor, "You can't afford me," is now recommending literature. The tennis mercenary who allegedly made $50 million in off-court income before the age of 18 is now an ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America -- which sounds like so much p.r. until you learn that in April she went to gritty Tijuana, Mexico, to help open a youth facility.
When it's pointed out how little the Kournikova of today conforms to the image she created years ago, she nods her head so forcefully her Gucci sunglasses nearly fly off her face. "Of course, I'm a different person! People say, 'I can't believe how much you've changed!' What did they expect? People grow, evolve. It would be sad if I didn't change!"
Kournikova is now a RIPO -- Russian in Passport Only. She holds a green card and lives full time in Miami Beach, the port she entered in 1992, when she was a 10-year-old prodigy armed with talent and attitude in equal measure. "When Anna won a point, it wasn't an achievement," recalls Nick Bollettieri, her first American coach. "That was how it was supposed to go. I mean, she was Anna Kournikova." At age 14 she won the Orange Bowl, the top international junior event. At 17, in her breakthrough season of '98, she scored victories over Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and Steffi Graf, advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. and French Opens, and cracked the Top 20 for the first time. With that, Anna Inc. was open for business.
Tennis gave me my life," she says. Does she wish she'd dialed back the hype machine? "It's hard. We did the best we could. But there was no blueprint."
The Kournikova phenomenon was a classic case of harmonic convergence. Women's sports -- tennis in particular -- were growing in popularity, eyed as a promising frontier by sports marketers. The Internet enabled fans from Minsk to Minneapolis to access Kournikova in a way they never could, say, Chris Evert. As the global economy kicked into high gear, you could scarcely find a more ideal exponent for it than an exotic Russian who spoke flawless English and performed all over the world.
Kournikova embraced it all. The daughter of communism (she was born in Moscow in 1981) took commercialism to new extremes. She endorsed products from watches to brokerage firms to sports bras, virtually every campaign built around her looks rather than her athletic prowess. When she wasn't pushing products, she was striking come-hither poses for magazines. (Full disclosure: In 2000, Kournikova, then 18, graced the cover of a certain weekly sports magazine, wearing little besides a peach shirt and a Mona Lisa smile.) The pundits could debate whether this was a feminist setback or a feminist triumph -- "What is she supposed to say, 'No, I don't want your money?' That's like winning the lottery and then saying, 'No, I don't really deserve it,' " no less than Martina Navratilova once said of Kournikova. Meanwhile, Kournikova was making bundles of cash for her sponsors, her tour, her agents and, not least, herself. Nathalie Tauziat, a higher-ranked but less publicized WTA player at the time, called Kournikova, "a blonde windfall."
But Kournikova's cult of personality exacted a price on her tennis. While the contagion known as Annamania raged and hormonally charged boys showed up en masse at women's tennis matches for the first time, an inconvenient truth persisted: Kournikova, for all her appeal, had never won a tournament. Pitted against the hype, her ability had little chance. Distraction was her destruction.
In the retelling, Kournikova was the tennis equivalent of the Fridge, a unique physical specimen rather than a creditable athlete. In truth -- and this is what gives the story a slightly tragic ring -- Kournikova was abundantly gifted. She played whimsical, well-rounded tennis and excelled at the net, an area of the court most contemporary players avoid as if it were quicksand. She reached as high as eighth in the singles rankings and in 1999 was the world's top doubles player. But the weight of never having won a title ultimately crushed her. "I put pressure on myself, especially as I got older," she says. "At 16, 17 you have no fear. You don't think or analyze. You just play on automatic. You can get smarter as you get older, but in sports you can be too smart, you know?"
Her fragile psyche was compounded by a fragile body. Foot, back and ankle injuries forestalled her career. By the spring of 2003 she was playing low-level challenger events in an attempt to revive her game. That May she withdrew from a match against a 16-year-old arriviste named Maria Sharapova. The following week Kournikova played in Charlottesville, Va., in front of a crowd consisting mostly of Virginia frat boys. She lost to a Brazilian ranked outside the top 300 and hasn't played a sanctioned match since.
Her impact unquestionably went beyond commerce and Internet photo galleries. Following the trail blazed at least in part by Kournikova, there are five players in the WTA's Top 10 from Russia or the former Soviet Union. "Anna," says fourth-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova, "showed there was possibility through tennis." As playing careers go, however, Kournikova's is a case of sizzle beating steak, in straight sets.
In assessing her record, Kournikova speaks with such candor and detachment that it's almost as if she's describing another person. "In a perfect world, would I have won a tournament? Yes. But I wasn't able to string those matches together. Sometimes I got unlucky, and sometimes I just lost." Regrets? "Not a thing. Except to be a little stronger physically. Come on, regrets? I grew up a little girl in the Soviet Union playing at a small sports club. Tennis gave me my life." Does she wish she'd dialed back the hype machine a bit? "It's hard. We did the best we could. But there was no blueprint." And whatever you do, don't lavish her with a shred of sympathy. "Hey, I took the money. It's simple. If you don't want the attention, don't take the money."
Tennis has come to rival boxing in the frequency of comebacks, so don't be surprised if Kournikova joins the swelling ranks of the "unretired." She works out daily and this spring clocked seven-minute miles running in a charity triathlon in Miami. Though her hands are noticeably free of calluses, she plays tennis a few times a week, sometimes on the public courts not far from her waterfront home. This summer she'll compete for the St. Louis Aces in the World TeamTennis league. "Honestly, who knows?" she says. "I'm young enough to still play. But physically could I take it?"
Meanwhile, she spends her days living what she admits is a charmed existence. Her parents, Alla and Sergei, divorced in 2004, but Alla moved to Palm Beach, remarried and has a three-year-old son, whose half sister is all too happy to babysit. "I get my kid fix," she says. "Then I say, 'Here ya go, Mom. See ya.' " Kournikova is a spokesperson for K-Swiss. She reads. When the urge strikes, she hits the South Beach clubs. And there are those Boys & Girls Club fund-raisers. "Don't get the wrong idea," she says. "I basically get dressed up and beg people for money."
Testament to the durability of fame, she still has run-ins with the paparazzi. She claims it's particularly bad when she goes out with her longtime boyfriend, singer Enrique Iglesias. "Girls look at him. Guys look at me," she says. "It goes with the job, but it gets annoying when you feel violated. Just take the picture and be done." She can still watch celebrity shows and learn about herself. For the record: "I'm not married, not pregnant, didn't have a boob job, no Botox. What else?"
If it sounds as though she's figured life out, well, she hasn't. "Here's one thing I don't get," she says. "Why are people afraid of getting older? You feel wiser. You feel more mature. You feel like you know yourself better. You would trade that for softer skin? Not me!"
He pitched the U.S. to Olympic gold two decades ago, then spent 10 seasons in the majors. Even now, he's an inspiration to athletes trying to overcome their disabilities
THE LETTERS come from Saratoga, Calif., from Fairfax, Va., from Monmouth Beach, N.J., written by determined mothers, desperate fathers and sometimes the children themselves. The content can be remarkably similar. A boy is born without the use of one hand. A doctor suggests that he try soccer, but the boy is interested only in baseball.
And before anyone can change his mind, he finds out that somebody played major league baseball despite having one hand, accomplishing more in the majors than most of his peers did with two. The boy is introduced to the legend of Jim Abbott.
Twelve-year-old Michael Branca learned the legend from his mother, Robin, who had heard about Abbott on the car radio during the 1988 Olympics. Ten-year-old Billy Inserra learned it from a children's book about Abbott, Overcoming the Odds, which Billy chewed on as a baby. And eight-year-old Blaise Venancio learned it on the Internet, watching video of Abbott artfully transferring his glove from his left hand, which is fully developed, to his right arm, which ends in a fleshy nubbin. Michael, Billy and Blaise are all Little Leaguers who practice the Abbott Switch, in which Abbott would catch the ball with the glove on his left hand, then cradle the glove in his right arm while pulling out his left hand and letting the ball fall into it.
Of course, none of them were alive 20 years ago, when Abbott went the distance for Team USA to win the gold medal game at the Seoul Olympics. None of them were alive 15 years ago, when he threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees. And none of them were watching nine years ago, when he tossed his last pitch, for the Milwaukee Brewers. Abbott wonders why, now that he's 40 and long retired from baseball, boys and girls keep writing him letters. Perhaps it's because they know he writes back.
Officially, Abbott is a motivational speaker, hired by corporations such as Prudential, Exxon and Wells Fargo to tell his story. Unofficially, he is the repository for everybody else's story. Abbott receives approximately 20 e-mails or letters a month, all of them heart-wrenching, many of them about children who are missing a hand, or part of a hand, or feeling in a hand. He responds to each one personally.
"To Blaise," reads the note to Blaise Venancio. "I just wanted to wish you the very best of luck with baseball this year. Hopefully you are having a great time playing. I know it is sometimes hard to do things a little differently from other kids. But believe me, if you stick with it, you can be just as good. Always believe. Anything is possible."
Blaise, from Monmouth Beach, N.J., is a natural lefthander who was born with Poland's Syndrome, which cost him the use of his right hand. When he started playing baseball, he wanted to wear a glove on his right hand, like all the other southpaws. His father, Matt, tried five different mitts, bathing them in oil to soften the leather, but Blaise couldn't close any of them. Finally in March, Matt showed Blaise the video of another lefty with a similar problem. Blaise decided then to copy the man in the video.
In May, wearing his glove on his left hand, Blaise ran in from centerfield to cover second base, making a backhanded pick-up of an in-between-hop throw. When asked how he did it, Blaise said, "Jim Abbott. He's my friend."
ABBOTT LIVES on a cul-de-sac in Corona del Mar, Calif., within walking distance of the beach. He spends his summers in Northern Michigan, at a house in the woods on a lake. He and his wife, Dana, have two physically gifted daughters, 11-year-old Madeleine and eight-year-old Ella, who pitch for their youth softball teams. Abbott also has hundreds, if not thousands, of other, physically challenged kids.
Abbott started meeting them shortly after he joined the California Angels in 1989, after an All-America career at Michigan. Sitting in the clubhouse, he would feel a tap on his shoulder, from a coach or a clubby. He knew what the tap meant: There was an aspiring baseball player outside who wanted to meet him. "They would always have their gloves with them," Abbott says. "I'd ask them to show me how they switched their glove, and they would do it real fast. And then I'd show them how I did it. And we'd do it together."
It's not just kids who draw strength from Abbott's story. On May 29, Abbott delivered a speech at the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Las Vegas for a corporation called Investors Capital. After Abbott's talk ended with a standing ovation, he walked into the lobby and was greeted by 36-year-old Adam Schenk. Schenk developed his first brain tumor when he was three. During surgery on a second tumor, when he was 30, Schenk had a stroke, resulting in massive nerve damage to the right side of his body, including his right hand. "When I was in the hospital, Jim is the one who inspired me to eat again and walk again and dress myself again," Schenk says.
Schenk and Abbott sat in the lobby of the Ritz for more than an hour, two guys talking baseball. Schenk recited all of Abbott's big league statistics—an 87--108 record, 888 career strikeouts and a 4.25 earned run average. "You know," Schenk told him, "it wasn't a very good record." Abbott nodded knowingly.
After he retired in 1999 Abbott got a call from Lilly Walters, author of One-Hand Typing and Keyboarding Manual. Walters, who lost part of her left hand in an accident when she was 10, wanted a testimonial for her book. But she also represented public speakers and asked if he was interested in a gig. Abbott was an unlikely choice, devoid of bluster and ego, a guy who kept his gold medal hidden at the bottom of a dresser drawer. Besides, even speaking at full volume Abbott often sounds as if he is whispering. But he enjoys connecting with an audience and feels that his story can make a positive impact on people's lives.
Still, "I don't want to talk about my playing days forever," he says. "You can't live in the past. You have to find the next phase, the next passion. Tell me: Where do I go from here?"
The answer lies in all those letters. They come from 13-year-olds like Andrew Christopoulos, who has a rare blood disease called Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis that required weekly chemotherapy treatments for four months. Abbott's letter to Andrew read in part, "I've always believed that tough challenges make even tougher people. Andrew, you will always be up to any challenge. Always believe that."
Abbott does not like to be portrayed as an ambassador, but that will be his next job description. Neil Romano, the head of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, has tabbed Abbott to be the office's spokesperson. "Jim Abbott exemplifies," Romano says, "that people with disabilities have an awful lot to give."
Romano knows policy, but Abbott knows people. He knows so many, in fact, that it is impossible for him to remember all their names and faces. So when he thinks of them all, he often thinks of just one.
"His name is Joe Rogers," Abbott says. "He wrote me a letter once. He is a hockey player from Michigan, a goalie, and he uses his hand for his glove. He's going to Notre Dame [on a partial scholarship]. He's terrific, just the nicest kid in the world. I wish I could know every single one of them as well as I know him. I ask myself all the time if I'm doing enough. I wish I could do a lot more."