The 2001 Australian Open began with a stampede.
As the gates opened on a sunny Monday at Melbourne Park, thousands of fans stormed in like a Black Friday crowd at a retail outlet.
Their target? A seat at show court one for Anna Kournikova’s 10 a.m. match against then little-known Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova.
Jamie Cole, a 20-year-old from Bundoora, was in the thick of the fray.
“Everyone just bolted for the court she was playing on,” he told the Herald Sun.
Kournikova, 19, strode on to the court in a bright yellow top made especially for the year’s opening Grand Slam by Adidas.
The apparel provider was reportedly paying around $7 million of the $13 million she was pulling in annually from endorsements and certainly made a splash with the eye-catching top and shorts combo.
It didn’t matter that Kournikova had failed to make it past the fourth round since her sensational run to the semis at Wimbledon four years earlier.
She remained the most marketable figure in an era of women’s tennis that couldn’t have been stronger.
It was the first year equal prize money was on offer in Australia and there was a perception the ladies’ game — packed with champions like Venus and Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles — was more appealing then a men’s field clinging to the glory days of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
Even Lleyton Hewitt, who was dating Kim Clijsters and would win the first of his two major titles at the US Open later that year, had to concede his splashy five-year, $22 million deal with Nike was several tiers below what the Russian bombshell was commanding.
Despite struggling in the slams in 2000, Kournikova had enjoyed her most consistent year on tour and boosted her world ranking to a career-high No. 8 that January.
But she had gone 0-3 in WTA finals and her lack of titles was a regular question at press conferences, along with queries about how provocative she was prepared to be with her clothing.
The opening day crowd cheered and cat-called the pin-up girl in her encouraging 6-2, 7-5 win against Hantuchova, which was followed by 10 minutes of signing posters, programs and tennis balls.
In the second round Kournikova saw off Hungary’s Rita Kuti Kis, who had shot to prominence with a first-round victory over Jelena Dokic the year before after which the Australian ungraciously belittled her as a “never was”.
Kournikova followed that 6-3 6-4 win with a three-set victory over her doubles partner Barbara Schett, who wasn’t as generous as you’d expect when asked after the match if Kournikova was improving.
“No, at the moment I don’t think she is improving,” Schett said. “No, she isn’t.”
But despite nursing a stomach muscle injury she’d picked up before the tournament, Kournikova made light work of Germany’s Barbara Rittner in the fourth round, winning 6-3 6-1 to join the likes of Hingis, both Williams sisters, Seles, Davenport and Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals.
But before she could bring her flair to the final eight of a grand slam for just the second time of her career, she had to deal with a real flare.
In a major security scare, a lit flare landed just feet from Kournikova during her doubles match, damaging the surface of the court and causing play to be halted for more than 10 minutes.
“Suddenly something just dropped in front of me,’’ Kournikova said. “You can never expect something or see up front if something is going to happen. If you would know, you wouldn’t go there or you wouldn’t be there — you can never predict anything.”
Amazingly, a 15-year-old boy was later let off with a caution by police.
Davenport was in a less forgiving mood during Kournikova’s quarterfinal.
Controversially described by Aussie tennis great Pat Cash as having the body of a shot-putter earlier in the tournament, Davenport had far too much power and experience in a 6-4 6-2 win.
“The way I look at it is, it’s my results (that count),” Davenport said. “I’ve never fooled anyone that I’m the fastest person or the skinniest or anything like that. But I know my game, I work hard at it and do the best I can with what I was given.”
Kournikova insisted she was satisfied with the result despite snapping at a reporter who reminded her she was still to win a major, let alone a tournament.
“I will,” she said. “You can never predict anything. You can never say it’s going to happen tomorrow, in one year or in five years.
“I just have to keep working hard. I know that I’m a good player. If I continue to improve the way I’ve been improving, eventually my game will come together and everything will be fine.”
It wasn’t the only shot the media took at her on the way out.
The Herald Sun’s Nick Papps wrote a scathing piece about he was “over” Kournikova after her exit.
“As a red-blooded Aussie male, I know I’m supposed to be besotted with the pony-tailed blonde bombshell … well, not me,” Papps wrote.
“Over the past two weeks I’ve watched her close-up at the Australian Open, in press conferences, matches, PR exercises and practice. This is not stalking, it’s research, and from where I’ve been sitting I’ve found her petulant, arrogant and vacuous.
“She’s great until she opens her mouth. But the deep tan, blonde hair, beautiful smile and great physique start to wear a little thin after a few days. In press conferences Kournikova’s snapped at anyone who dares to mention she’s played in more than 80 tournaments without a victory, she’s been rude to her handlers who dared to consider allowing fans to talk to her in an autograph session and she’s dared anyone to criticize her.
“I know she’s only 19 but after watching her play tennis, I can’t help but wonder if she has become merely a clothes horse, paid $20 million a year to flog cute little yellow tops. When the next good-looking female player come along who can really play, our little Anna might be in strife.”
It proved to be prophetic.
After her doubles campaign was ended by the eventual champion Williams sisters and Capriati recorded a memorable win in the singles, Kournikova left Melbourne — and was never the same.
Injuries ruined the rest of her year and while she enjoyed success on the doubles court — winning the Australian Open the following year — she lost in the first round of every major in 2002.
But 20 years on from her most memorable run the now 39-year-old has transitioned to a quiet, family life.
Married to pop star Enrique Iglesias, Kournikova raises their three children — 3-year-old twins Lucy and Nicholas and one-year-old Mary — in relative obscurity.
Even if she still looks like she could rock that yellow Adidas top.