ATLANTA — Anna Kournikova is moving away from her image as a sexy tennis star in hopes of reaching out to a much younger audience.
Known as much for her good looks as her success on the court, Kournikova now works for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Cartoon Network. She says she is driven to get kids off their sofas and into sports and exercise.
Kournikova says the move from bikini model in magazines like FHM and Maxim to kids' exercise advocate was not expected by some of her fans.
"People always get shocked," Kournikova said Wednesday while preparing for the Boys and Girls Club of America's national conference in Atlanta. "It has been a gradual transition, and I wanted it that way."
Kournikova's provocative photo spreads made some refuse to respect her tennis career, despite winning two Grand Slams doubles titles with Martina Hingis and becoming the eighth-ranked singles player in the world in 2000.
The 27-year-old says she is determined to be taken seriously when educating kids about exercise.
"I started working with the Boys and Girls Club in 2004," she said. "The first couple of years I didn't want to do any publicity. I just wanted to learn about the organization and find out about what was going on. I went to the conferences and went to the conventions unannounced and just sat in the back and listened.
"People can tell if you're being sincere, and I think that has helped me in the last few years. I think people have seen that I am sincere about it and I know what I'm talking about."
She said proof came in a recent appearance on Rachel Ray's talk show.
"There were only women in the audience and I'm sure they were like 'Here's this blonde we used to see in a bikini,"' Kournikova said. "Once we started talking, it was a great feeling and the women were really responding and all nodding and agreeing with the things we were discussing about the kids. That was very satisfying to me, to see that I can make a difference."
The Atlanta-based Cartoon Network's "Get Animated" program is Kournikova's current push.
"I've shot a DVD with Cartoon Network to be distributed to all the Boys and Girls Clubs, and basically the Get Animated campaign is about encouraging kids to get active, to get them off the couch and get them really involved in sports activities, exercises and a healthy lifestyle," she said.
Kournikova had little choice about exercise as a young child in Russia. Her mother, Alla, was a former 400-meter runner. Her father, Sergei, was a Greco-Roman wrestler and a physical education professor.
Kournikova was 5 when she was given her first tennis racket. By 8 she began playing in junior tournaments. A year later, her
family moved to Florida, where she was enrolled in Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy. She turned professional at 14.
She says wanting to spend time with kids is not an attempt to recapture childhood years that were largely devoted to tennis.
"I had the best childhood," Kournikova said before adding, "It was very hard work. I was away from home. I didn't speak the language. I was only with my mom and then I started playing professionally, which was extremely difficult. It was 11 months out of the year on the road, living out of a bag and training all the time. Eating, sleeping, training, recouping. Trying to go to school at the same time.
"It was very, very hard but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's what got me here and gave me my life."
Kournikova has not played on the WTA Tour since 2003. She participates in World Team Tennis with such other former stars as Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova and plays in occasional exhibitions. She also has competed in several triathlons.
She hasn't abandoned modeling. She was back in Maxim — and back in a bikini — last year.
"I do an occasional modeling job," she said. "You've got to have some kind of income."
Kournikova says she misses the spotlight.
"Obviously you cannot replace playing in front of 10,000 or 15,000 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the third set at the U.S. Open," she said. "That's completely crazy.
"But I'm finding my Adrenalin and my passion in the things I'm doing now, whether it's working with kids, running in a triathlon, playing tennis for Team Tennis or exhibitions. I try to enjoy it now, not just from the physical part but from inside, to feel good about what I'm doing."