Chapter 27: Anna Kournikova

Chapter 27: Anna Kournikova

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Extraordinary Teens

Anna Kournikova

International Tennis Pro and Model

Quick Facts:

Born in Moscow, Russia

Began playing tennis at age 5

Came to the United States at age 9

Turned pro in 1995 at the age of 14

At age 14, Anna was the youngest player ever to win a Fed Cup match

In 1997, Anna reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon and became the 2nd woman in the Open Era, next to Chris Evert, to reach the Wimbledon Semi’s in her career debut

Reached as high as #1 in the world in doubles and #8 in singles on the WTA Tour

Won 17 professional tennis titles

Has 2 Grand Slam doubles titles at the 1999 and 2002 Australian Open with Martina Hingis

Appeared on the cover of hundreds of magazines around the world

My parents were very young when they had me. My mom was eighteen and my dad was twenty—and both of them were professional athletes who were always really busy.

Growing up, I had lots of energy, so my parents decided to get me involved in the local tennis program in Moscow when I was five years old. (Now that I think about it, they were probably looking for some sort of daycare facility too.) I played well and I enjoyed the sport so my parents challenged me some more. Two years later, I began taking lessons at a professional tennis club where a lot of the current Russian tennis players were trained. Sure enough, tennis quickly became my life, my outlet, my circle of friends, and my community. My coach was basically my second mother!

Everything in my life was about tennis and training. Somehow I knew, even though I was just a kid, that I didn’t really have many other options. At the time, life in Russia was tough—there weren’t that many opportunities there like there are in the United States. Fortunately, every time I stepped on the court, it felt like tennis was what I was supposed to be doing. Just after my ninth birthday, my family received an offer for me to play at a famous tennis academy in Florida. I was so excited! This was also the time when things really started happening for me.

In 1992, my mom and I made the decision to move to America. At first, my dad couldn’t come with us. I left Russia not knowing what to expect, but I was happy to play tennis in the United States because, in those days, Russia was still known as the “Soviet Union” and tennis courts, tennis balls, and other equipment were expensive and rare. Still, it was a tough decision to leave my home country because that meant my parents really had to sacrifice a lot! So even as a child I knew I had the responsibility of always performing to the best of my ability each and every day.

I worked hard; and at the age of fourteen, I turned pro. For a lot of sports, most people don’t start playing professionally at fourteen, but tennis is one of those sports where rigorous training starts at a very young age. In fact, as I remember it, it wasn’t even a question of turning pro or not. I was groomed for so many years in preparation for this opportunity that I never even questioned it. I was both eager and hungry to prove myself on the WTA tour.

Mind you, this didn’t happen overnight; it was really a natural progression. I had won everything I could win on the Junior Circuit so I was really excited to move on to the next level. At this point, I was already used to the grueling practices and travel schedule, so the physical transition wasn’t too difficult. I had my entire team with me, which included my coach, my parents, and trainers, so we had our own traveling family. It was all a very normal life for me.

Even though I enjoyed tennis, I didn’t play games on the side just for fun. Every time I stepped onto the court, I had to be driven and focused because there was so much to go over in practice each day. I went to school and then I spent the rest of the day practicing. Fortunately, my mom was always supportive and at my side. She became my coach, my best friend… my everything.

Talent and success can definitely lead to a glamorous lifestyle, but believe me, it takes a lot of hard work to get there. Like most things, if you want to achieve something, you have to work hard, have a lot of discipline and you also have to make many sacrifices. When I was nine, I had to make the decision to move to another country. When I competed professionally, I spent less time with my friends, I was very careful about my diet, and I played through some painful injuries. On top of that, I basically grew up in the public eye. Even by age eleven there were articles written about me in the newspapers and magazines. Sometimes the media was praising my performance, and other times they were very cruel.

Of all the challenges I’ve faced, however, one of the toughest was dealing with other people’s criticism. I had to learn very quickly not to take things so personally. It’s so easy to get frustrated and down about other people’s opinions of you and your performance. All you can do is give your best—the rest is out of your control. Over time, I’ve also had to learn not to focus on all of the disappointments. Life is too short for that! Instead, I try to remember that it’s important to live in the moment and to enjoy the journey as well.

You have to give your best to be your best.

No matter what, you have to love and enjoy what you do. You also have to enjoy the process of learning how to do what you do, better. If you don’t have a passion for what you are doing, then you are wasting everybody’s time—including your own. My mom always told me that if I worked hard, I would get what I deserved—and I can now say she was right. You just have to keep trying even if you fall down. If you don’t get it right on the first, second, or third try, it’s okay; just don’t give up. Be diligent and be intelligent about the things you chose to do. You can’t necessarily control the outcome, but you can certainly control your input.

In tennis, I’ve learned that if I want to win, I must get into the zone before the game even begins. How do I do this? I practice… a lot. I practice to the point where I feel confident and I know, without a doubt, that I did everything I could to prepare myself for this match. Preparation always builds my confidence, but of course, it doesn’t always mean that I will win.

I know it is important to learn how to handle the losses too. Instead of getting really mad or frustrated, I’ll say, “Well, maybe I didn’t get the result I wanted, but I tried my best and now I know what to work on for next time.” What matters is how a person reacts to situations. I always try to learn from every experience and if necessary, I kick myself in gear and tell myself that it’s time to get up and try again!

Tennis has taught me to appreciate the importance of discipline and focus. As a pro athlete, my discipline helps me deliver my best effort even if I don’t feel at my best in the moment. For example, I might be flying for twenty-four hours to get to the Australian Open or perhaps I’d get a headache or a stomachache right before a big match. I have learned to push through these obstacles and to keep my mind on the ultimate goal. But of course, this does not mean you should overwork yourself either. You must push yourself beyond your comfort zone while keeping a healthy balance in life.

Sure, it can be difficult to make a distinction between your heart and your head when making decisions, but this is where coaches and close friends are so important. As an athlete who is bound to get injured now and again, I find that I have to pay close attention to feedback and information I get from the people I respect so I make the best decisions I can. You have to be smart enough to know that you can’t know it all. That’s why I’ve tried hard to find the right people to work with me—the kind of people who are going to be looking out for my best interests.

It’s tough to be a teenager today with so much peer pressure. Believe me, I know. Imagine having the whole world watch you grow up on TV… well that was me! The pressure I have dealt with from the media is very similar to the pressures in high school only on a larger scale. I’ve learned that it’s so important to stay true to yourself and to listen to your own instincts. It’s okay to want to be accepted, but at the same time, you have to be yourself. Don’t let other people’s opinions change who you really are.

I’ve been very, very fortunate that my parents have always been there for me. But even so, I’ve still been challenged, I’ve still had to educate myself, and I’ve still had to learn how to rely on myself—and that also meant taking full responsibility for my own mistakes. But that is also why I’ve gained so much from my experiences.

I’ve traveled to many places and I’ve met so many wonderful people from all different cultures. And when I stop to think about it, I could still be in Russia working in another job making just enough to get by. The only reason I’m not in that position is because I pursued tennis and gave my best every time I stepped onto the court.

As a result, I’ve had the chance to enjoy so many wonderful opportunities. Success may not come right away, but simply by doing the best you can right now, you are putting yourself in the best possible place for tomorrow, the next day, and the rest of your life.

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