Saturday, January 09, 2010

BACKSPIN SPECIAL: What If? - In Search of "Citizen Anna" *

"She's my hero... or is it heroine? You know, there really should be a different word for someone like Anna. She's so wonderful." - Venus Williams, WTA President

I am so tired. She's late.

Why am I here? That's what I'm asking myself on this cold, blustery New York City afternoon in December as I sit alone at a corner table at the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue. The traffic outside is heavy on the street and sidewalk, as it's only a week before Christmas. I'm happy to be inside. The art deco design of the place is pleasing to the soul, while the stainless steel bar and black and chrome trim is a feast for the eye. I almost feel as if I've been transported back in time to the 1929 era diner of which this long-ago refurbished establishment is faithfully meant to recapture, and half expect to see the likes of Hollywood Golden Age icon Bette Davis (she reportedly loved this place) come waltzing through the door with a horde of photographers capturing her every step.

Of course, if that actually happened then I'd know that I'd totally lost my mind. Since it hasn't, I think I'm fine. So far.

The seemingly-constant electronic interruptions from Backspin HQ have finally ceased. Largely because I "accidentally" dropped my CommunicaTORE badge somewhere between my hotel and the subway after being forced to field queries from the folks back home every fifteen minutes since I made the mistake of telling everyone who needed to know about my supposed meeting with the elusive Anna. "Citizen Anna." "The Lady of the People." Or, my personal favorite, "St. Anna." take your pick which moniker you prefer, though I'm sure some chronicler of all that is right and good will come up with another one meant to dazzle the ears and hearts of the masses -- and stroke the ego of the Russian tennis player-turned-philanthropist & all things to all people -- any moment now.

Truthfully, I was surprised to get a message from one of Anna's "people" that she wanted to meet at all, let alone it turning out to be here. For one, this place immediately struck me as far too public and open a place for her to saunter into in the middle of the day. Or maybe that such a scene is precisely what she wanted to created, I've since theorized. While the middle-aged Anna maintains a mysterious Garbo-esque (to keep in tune with my vintage surroundings) persona, the young Russian tennis star hardly ever met a camera she didn't like. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a new phase in AK's life, one which is both a bold new step and a flashback to her "previous life." Secondly, getting back to my initial shock that I might one day end up sitting here and existing on "Anna time," I haven't exactly been one of the acolytes who've bowed to her every step over the past few decades, which have seen her streak across the public landscape like a terrestrial version of Haley's Coment, complete with publicist, personal photographer and palm reader in tow (all right, I made that last one up, but you get the idea).

But the message (from "on high?) came. Not by the usual electronic means, mind you. Anna doesn't leave anything behind that can be traced, held up to public judgment or released as fact BEFORE she wishes it to be so. Instead, a small woman dressed in a striped shirt and purple beret emerged from the group of exiting patrons from the new Arthur Ashe Stadium after the U.S. Open women's singles final last September, placed a OneListen e-message clasp (you know, the self-contained, self-destructing thingamajig that is ridiculously expensive, not to mention a touch too 007-esque for my taste... but still very cool) in my pocket as I milled around outside the press area and intriguingly said, "She'd like to meet with you about her next move."

By the time I'd looked up from my pocket, the woman who turned out to be Anna's Girl Friday had already disappeared into the crowd. When I listened to the message, which immediately afterward erased itself as pre-instructed, I learned that that supposed meeting wasn't scheduled to take place for another three months, I was obviously skeptical. I'd heard rumors that this was how Anna had expertly learned to manuever through the media maze without leaving a paper or e-trail after all these years, covering her tracks and keeping everyone guessing where, when and why she'd show up and shock the world with her latest pronouncement or objective until she actually found herself standing behind an actual microphone announcing her latest public relations masterpiece, but I guess it was a little like a platypus -- it's one of those things that you have to actually see to fully believe.

It wasn't until I received a second e-clasp (via certified delivery from an AK Enterprises courier, of course) that I knew all this wasn't a prank. The clasp contained a voice message from Anna herself, confirming the time and place for our pre-arranged "get-together," as well as a teasing comment about it soon being a new year and that a "new" Anna must come with it, or something to that effect, and that she thought I might be the one who should tell the world about it.

I admit, since that day last week, I've entertained thoughts that Anna might be seeking a co-writer for that long-rumored autobiography, and today was going to amount to a job interview. After all, how better to prove (or seem to do so) that you aren't a control freak than to have one of your sometimes-critics play a part in the tome in which you finally reveal all the truths about your three decades-plus in the spotlight? It'd be a brilliant move. To have someone who's never contemplated it much turn out to be the one who uncovers Citizen Anna's "Rosebud" moment, the key childhood memory or epiphany that prompted the frenzied life that followed, thereby making it important to that person (me?) and winning over another soul "to her side," would be "pure Anna."

But once I realized that I was threatening to become one of THOSE people, I decided to push all such thoughts to the back of my mind. Then it hit me -- maybe this was how Anna had won over all her media supporters through the years. One by one. One secret, self-destructing message here, a face-to-face meeting there, just to show some faith. She surely understood that the time between "contact" and "introduction" would invariably be filled with wild assumptions and hopes, leaving even the most jaded "get-together" invitee nervous and in awe by the time the "big day" arrived.

But I maintain that I WILL NOT be that way when she arrives. IF she arrives.

I think the first thing I'll ask her is whether that recent report about her considering "retiring" from public view has any truth to it. Just to break the ice, since I know she'd NEVER actually walk away from the spotlight for good. If she says "no," I'll ask her if it was her people who planted the non-story. If she laughs, I'll laugh, too. You know, I have to keep all the doors ajar... just in cast I was right about the book. One thing I DO know -- I won't ask her about turning fifty. It reminds me of something that one of her television show's audience members might ask, and I'm not about to join that legion, not in the slightest.

I turn down the waitress for the fourth time about a refill of my coffee (I can't risk having to leave the room since, with my luck, that'd be when Anna would decide to show her face), then look over my notes to pass the time. I don't know how much time I'll have with her, so I need to be prepared in case she quizzes me about some of the key moments in her life in order to test my "worthiness" to ascend to a higher rank in the Church of Anna. I can't fail such a basic test.

Of course, it all started on the tennis court.

Emerging from the heart of Russia, by way of Florida and the Nick Bollettieri Academy, young Anna seemed to become a star as soon as the cameras discovered her flowing blond locks, long legs and occasional winks toward the photographers. Oh, and she won, too. Early and often. She was the #1-ranked junior in the world, then took the WTA tour by storm at age 16. In her grand slam debut, she reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 1997. By 2000, she was the champion of the event, defeating Aussie Jelena Dokic in the final and soon becoming the best the women's game had to offer. She was simultaneously the top-ranked player in both singles and doubles that season, showing amazing athletic grace, a game able to seamlessly switch from a power-based to touch-dominated gameplan at a moment's notice, and an on-court focus that was second to none when the biggest points of the match were on her racket. At one point, at age 21, she was the reigning women's champ at three of the four slams. The tour head honchos were crowing that they had been blessed with the player who'd make WTA tennis not only the biggest women's sport in the world, but challenge for something ever greater.

But that was precisely when Anna got bored with being "just a tennis player." While her success ushered in the horde of pre-teen AnnaBe's, not only from Russia but from America, Europe and elsewhere, who would go on to dominate the sport through the next two decades, young Anna was restless. Having been the subject of her first high glamour photoshoot and "star treatment" before she turned thirteen, I suppose what happened next should have been predicted. The irreponsible conduct. The reports of wild late-night parties and drinking to excess. The inappropriate behavior that rankled the upper echelon of the sports hierarchy.

Who could forget the brouhaha that errupted when, the night before the Ladies semifinals, Anna tried to sneak onto Centre Court of the All-England Club for a riske photo layout for a popular men's magazine, only to be chased away by security while clad only in a bathrobe? As a past Wimbledon champion (though she was a 1st Round loser that year), she publicly stated her belief that she had the right to roam the grounds freely, and made vague threats about taking her grievance to court. In the end, she just decided to rent a grass court outside London and a Hollywood set designer to make everything look authentic. A season later, her nude Playboy spread was released within days of the U.S. Open final. Unfortunately, former Open winner Anna had lost in the 3rd Round.

In the last appearance of young Anna at Wimbledon, a streaker ran across the court during her match, with a conveniently-located photo from the Russian's nude pictorial serving as both a modest shield and a reminder of where Anna had chosen to focus her fame. Eventual champion, and fellow Russian, Elena Dementieva, when asked about the incident, simply scoffed and remarked, "It's always something. Maybe next time she'll wear HIS picture over HER private parts."

Four months later, Anna was arrested for public intoxication and assault against a law enforcement official after a particularly raucous birthday party at a Miami night club. It was "all a misunderstanding," but also simply the last in a shockingly long line of incidents that served to turn her from prodigy to cautionary tale. It was a classic case of too much too soon, as the jaded former teen queen became disinterested with the sport that made her a star. Her training regimen was sacrificed for a stint in rehab, movie premieres and mid-week jaunts to the Caribbean with the latest boy band member who'd caught her fancy. By age 24, she was essentially out of the sport. A brief-but-stormy Las Vegas 24-hour wedding chapel marriage to Andre Agassi soon followed. The paparazzi loved the pair, but it didn't take long for them to stop loving each other (said Agassi of Anna, "There was no there there," leading Anna to retort, "As if he would know the difference."). That Thanksgiving night auto accident on the Strip opened up a can of worms that I'm not even going to get into here. I simply don't have enough time to do it justice.

Within a few years, long after her "unofficial" retirement had made her an afterthought in the sport well before her thirtieth birthday, she announced that her "new life" wasn't satisfying, either. Saying she was "bored, broke and back" she attempted a tennis comeback at age 28, maintaining that she'd been too immature to realize how great she'd had it earlier and was committed to living up to her potential in her "second" career.

It didn't happen.

Oh, she DID make an initial splash, though. She reached the final of the first slam in her comeback, at the U.S. Open. She reached the final after being granted a wild card, playing Venus Williams in a classic match-up that went to a third set tie-break, after Anna had blown a 5-1 lead in the deciding set. After having nerves of steel in her prime, Anna's game imploded with everything on the line this time around. She lost the tie-break 7-0, serving four double-faults, including the final two points of the match (when four straight serves landed in the middle of the service box... on Anna's own side of the court). With tears streaming down her face, and her hand constantly covering her eyes, she was something of a ghost throughout the post-match ceremony. Many openly wondered if she'd ever be able to get over her collapse, and they were right to consider the worst. The successful Comeback Anna turned out to make only a cameo appearance on the tour.

Embarrassed and talking openly about how often the Open choke continued to give her sleepless nights, Anna's physical conditioning went downhill fast. Though she continued to play, largely to the detriment of her reputation and public image. After being the butt of continual jokes by late night comedians, and even a string of barbs from a particularly yappy Republican President in the White House who'd earlier faced off against her free-wheeling lifestyle and its effects on children (Anna notably struck back with her famous "I'll worry about who I'm spending the night with as long as the President promises to worry more about the economy and world peace" line), she announced her official retirement from tennis at age 30 after losing in the opening round of qualifying in a $10K challenger event in Surprise, Arizona. It was barely reported in the worldwide media.

But it wasn't the end of Anna's legacy. It was the start. The woman who would become Citizen Anna was about to be born.

After three years away from the harsh spotlight, she tentatively stepped back into public view. I say "tentatively," but I've always speculated that she'd spent her 36-month sabbatical mapping out her precise path back to the top, and beyond.

In the first twelve-month interval in her re-emergence, she regained some minor fame by participating in and winning television's "Celebrity Biggest Loser" weight loss reality show. Soon after she was crowned champion of the American version of "Dancing with the Stars." The day after lifting the trophy, she jetted off to visit surprised troops at an overseas army base.

Anna briefly returned to tennis, receiving a wild card and winning the Wimbledon doubles title with former "Spice Girls" doubles partner and fellow thirtysomething Martina Hingis. During the post-match ceremony, she announced another "retirement" and said she had decided to take advantage of her newly-fit body and become reborn... as an Olympic marathoner.

And that's just what she did, with a twist. During her training for the 2016 Games, it was loudly trumpeted that she would take part in the Concert for Humanity, the biggest worldwide charity endeavor of its kind, and would make an important declaration. On the opening night of the four-day festival, with concert organizer and U2 frontman Bono by her side, she announced that she was dedicating her Olympic dream to all the poor children of the world. She said her newly-founded nonprofit organization, Anna's Kids, would soon become an across-the-globe vehicle which would both organize "care trips" for everyday young people from around the world, during which they would meet and help underprivileged youth. The lives of both sets of children, she promised, would be changed forever by the program, which was supported largely by the monetary donations accepted from private citizens, product sales on the AK website, and individual face-to-face money drives put together by anyone who wished to join her organization and lend their own free time. Her stated goal was to raise over one million children out of poverty by the time she ran her first Olympic race, and said that she'd personally raise the funds to double whatever the final collected donation total was by the time she won a Gold Medal.

She pulled it off, too. Not the Gold, but the goal... and she TRIPLED the collected donations by the time of the Opening Ceremony. She didn't win any medals at those Games, but it didn't matter. New Anna was off, and once she got roling she gathered not a speck of moss.

"She's the best. I bow to her." - Bono

Anna used her Olympic experience to personally acquaint herself with a variety of world leaders, and she used those connections to spread the Anna's Kids influence to still more parts of the globe, charming governments into starting their own own intitiatives and making her own something greater than anyone ever thought it could be. As her philanthropic profile grew over the proceeding years, photo-ops with the U.S. President and the Pope followed (the latter of which produced an odd coupling perhaps matched only by the day Elvis Presley dropped in on Richard Nixon at the Oval Office), and was even listed amongst a group of entertainers nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their change-fostering charity work.

While Anna was building the caregiver side of her persona, her "star" side wasn't being left to starve.

Of course, there was The Child... she of the "Anna, with Child" topless Vanity Fair cover shot that was released just one month after the baby girl's birth. The father? We still don't know who it is, which has only fed the tabloid-inspired speculation mill every time she's been seen whispering into the ear of a longtime acquaintance at the latest Hollywood award show gathering or New York City charity ball for quite a few years now.

Every picture tells a story, and spawns a million more.

From there, Anna entered the "entertainer/entrepanuer" phase of her empire-and-image building scheme. "The Anna Show" premiered on 500 television stations worldwide in 2021, and her female-friendly topic lineup harkened back to the glory days of the old "Oprah Winfrey Show." As an advocate for women's issues, Anna began to effect and drive the storyline of the American culture as effectively as she had brought together worldwide groups of would-be do-gooders with her once-and-once-again famous face and name half a decade earlier.

Two years into her show's run, she launched her multimedia "A" magazine ("the first magazine for athletes, non-athletes, girls, boys, men and women," or so the press releases said). It quickly rose to the top of the list of circulation and online subscription lists, and Anna appeared on every cover, in various stages of dress, undress, glamorous or make-up free (her "just out of bed, natural-looking" cover became the mag's highest-selling issue).

As always, Anna still had a knack for selling Anna.

But, by then, she was a one-woman conglomerate. As her business interests grew, she funneled money into the show. She broadcast from the Great Wall of China, Red Square, the White House, the Vatican and yes, even from aboard the International Space Station. But it was her more personal issues-oriented programs that grabbed everyone by the throat and made them take notice.

She knew how to push buttons, and managed to hit all the right emotional tones in print and on the air. If you were a star and needed a "safe" environment for your confessional interview and "new start," you went on "Anna." If you had a cause or a revelation, needed an ear or a shoulder to cry on, there was no question where you needed to go. Any politician seeking a higher office wanted her endorsement, and sometimes even got it.

"Anna was one of the greatest sportswomen of our time. Indeed, she's one of the greatest WOMEN of our time. She's excelled in multiple arenas in her life, and meant so much more to our culture than the simple, but exciting, moments that played out before our eyes during her brief athletic career. In fact, one might say that the tennis talent that first brought her to our attention was but a prelude to the true mission of her life." - former President Michelle Obama

When Anna announced that her show would cease production, which if finally did last summer, after nearly seven award-winning years on the air, it was met with sadness... but also an excited expectation about what she'd do next.

Just after the U.S. Open final (and my "first contact"), the news broke that the one-time tennis star turned wild child turned afterthought turned global activist and Olympian turned conscious of a culture turned potential law-breaker (yeah, that's unfair -- I mean, those nasty insider trading charges were dropped almost as quickly as they appeared) turned TV star was named as the new head of Cartier. She "liked it so much, so bought the company," Anna said. Plus, she gleefully noted, "I like the free product."

But is that all? Is rising from that toddler who first had a tennis racket placed in her hand in Mother Russia to the top of a Forture 500 company going to be the final act in the story of Citizen Anna? Not likely, which is why I'm suddenly feeling anxious about this meeting after having glossed over all my pre-"interview" notes.

Just then, I feel a cold brush of air as the diner door opens. I look up, and have to squint to fully take in what I'm seeing.

I was expecting an entourage, or at least a few minions following close behind. But there she was. Alone, like a swift breeze that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Oh, she was wearing the obligatory identity-obscuring dark sunglasses and stylish coat partly unbottoned to reveal the typical attire of a well-dressed businesswoman taking in a late lunch meeting, but it was most definitely Anna.

I'm slightly disappointed by her "normal" appearance, but oddly impressed.

She looks around the room, then sees me at my ascribed position. She moves across the floor, weaving around the half-filled tables with the adeptness of a cat on the prowl. Contrary to her life's work, it's obvious that she recognizes that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I wonder if she had the waitress position me here so that I could watch her graceful entrance from beginning to end? Always the performer.

She sits in the seat across from me, and flashes that familiar smile. I won't be taken in by it, though.

"Sorry I'm late. You wouldn't believe some of the conversations I've had today."

"World leaders at your beck and call?"

"I wish. No...," she starts, as she takes off her glasses. Her faces slightly contorts itself as she tries to keep the notion straight. "It had something to do with what type of floor polish makes a floor look incredible, but not so slick that everyone will be slipping and sliding around the office all day."

"Always sweat the details, I guess."

"Hey, that's how I got here. Why stop now, right?" She laughs. "By the way, I only have a few minutes. My flight's been moved up. But I promise we can continue this at another time if you feel you need more time to get up to speed."

That's awfully vague, I think. "Uh, sure. We could do that."

There's an awkward silence, as if she's waiting for me to take this meeting to it's prescribed destination. But since I don't know where that is, I'm suddenly at a loss for words. I'm never at a loss for words. The notes will do me no good now. I've already forgotten them all, and I didn't even get to go over some of the questions I'd jotted down that were intended to help reveal... finally, she speaks.

"I'm so glad you accepted my invitation. I was afraid you might not show up. After all, you've been a bit cynical when it comes to some of my pet projects." As she says this, she turns up the corner of her mouth into a captivating half-smile.

"It's not the projects that I've questioned, just the intentions behind them. I don't get paid to mindlessly follow the crowd. I don't believe that old report that you once walked on water... but, of course, I'm open-minded."

She smiles. "You see, that's why I wanted to meet you. Even when you're insulting me, you do it in a way that makes me wonder if you're serious, or just trying to confuse me. I like that. Plus, it's good to know you're "open-minded" -- you're going to need to be if this is going to work out for both of us."

"Speaking of, why did you want to have this meeting, anyway?"

"Oh, that'll reveal itself soon. This is just sort of a get-to-know-each-other chat. You know, to make sure we aren't going to hate being across the table from one another."

"Well, I'm not leaving." I laugh, hoping that she'll laugh back. She does. It's a hearty chuckle, too. I didn't expect that. Is she just doing that for my benefit?

"Good, good. That wouldn't make for a very good first impression, would it?"

"I've made worse."

"So have I, as I'm sure you've written about in the past." She checks her watch. The clock is ticking. "Is there anything that you wanted to ask me that can't wait? I mean, besides what I have planned for you. I'm sure you have people to report back to about what I might have revealed today."

She winks. It catches me off guard. I've completely lost my train of thought... this must be how the British Prime Minister felt the day that "that photo" of the two of them was snapped during a break in the Child Welfare conference a few years ago. I say the first thing that pops into my mind. "Your fiftieth birthday is coming up in less than two years. Are you planning anything special?" Ugh, I want to throw a net around the words and pull them back as soon as they've escaped my mouth.

After a long pause, during which she seemed to be considering the idea for the first time (which I highly doubt), she says, "Hmmm, wasn't Martina Navratilova playing tennis at age 50?"

"Is that another comeback announcement?"

"We'll see." The enigmatic smile returns. "But probably not the comeback that you might think. It's like what I used to think when I made snow angels back in Moscow when I was little and stared into the sky for what seemed like hours -- the more you know, the better you sleep.

As I instantly try to figure out whether she just said something profound that provides some insight into the life she's chosen to lead, I allow silence to intrude upon the moment. Anna seizes it as her opportunity to keep me guessing. She pulls her MultiPhone out of her coat pocket (I never heard it chirp. Was it on vibrate?) and checks a message. Her expression doesn't change. She pulls down the mini-monitor and looks up.

"I have to go," she apologetically intones. "I DO think we can work together. I'll contact you soon."

After a quick tap of my hand, she's standing. With her head up and eyes pointed straight ahead, she weaves her way back across the room toward the door just as artistically as she had when she arrived moments earlier. I watch as she steps outside, dons her glasses once again, then takes a few strides into the masses of humanity and metal whizzing by. Within a moment, she's off to points unknown (Xanadu, perhaps?), slipping away as if a deer soundlessly disappearing in the early-morning mist and into a dew-covered forest. Poof! Then nothing.

It's over. For a moment, I wonder if she was really even there at all. I still don't know what exactly it is that she thought we could work on together. Maybe I never will. Maybe that's the point. Like a great magician, she's mastered the art of slight of hand. Face-to-face, she's able to beguile the individual on which she focuses her attention so well that they lose their balance for a moment, and that's precisely when she beats a stylish retreat. Always leave them wanting a little more.

I admit, she even did it to me. A little. And I promised myself that wouldn't happen.

The waitress sets down a tray with the bill on my table. I look down and realize that it's already been paid. By Anna, I assume. I don't even remember her having contact with anyone else. Maybe it's her modus opperandi for "get-togethers" like this. She pays in advance, leaving one final mysterious calling card behind to be discovered even after she's disappeared from view.

I notice that there's something beneath the piece of paper. I look underneath and am stunned to find another OneListen message clasp. Just then, I see Anna's striped-shirt and beret-clad Girl Friday from Flushing Meadows slipping out the front door. She must have been hiding in plain sight all along.

I walk out onto 10th Avenue and am taken aback by the cold air as it rushes into my face. In that instant, I remember Anna's snow angel comment and wonder again if it meant anything. Next time we meet, I'll lead off with that. I promise myself that I will. She won't be able to fluster me a second time. I'm a professional, after all. Though everyone back at Backspin HQ might question that notion when I'm forced to tell them how little information I got from my lunch guest. Maybe I won't tell them at all. I'll say she stood me up. It was all a hoax.

I feel my pocket. Yep, the message clasp is still there. I'll listen to it later, when my mind is clear of all things Anna. Ah, I can't wait to talk to her again.

Oh, no. Did I just say that? Have I become one of THOSE people?

Maybe I'm just tired.

- The preceding was intended as an experimental, lighthearted parody. All resemblance to any living persons, places or things is purely by design, but totally without malice.

...Seles (2004), Clijsters (2007), V.Williams (2008)


Blogger Diane said...

You made my day.

Long live Citizen Anna!

Mon Jan 11, 04:40:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Stranger things have happened, I guess.

Of course, by that, I don't mean making your day is strange. I mean that sometimes it's weird how flights of fancy end up coming strikingly closer to truth than anyone ever expected. Kind of. :D

Mon Jan 11, 05:24:00 PM EST  
Blogger sport8341 said...

welcome sprocket

Wed Dec 01, 09:08:00 AM EST  

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