It was to be a long drawn journey to Amby Valley, miles away from Lonavala, Mumbai's closest weekend destination.
Half a million male journalists (kidding) who had advanced their alarm clocks to make the 8am jaunt waited anxiously for buses to arrive, to take them to catch a glimpse of Anna Kournikova, 'the world's richest loser'. Sahara Parivar, the group that flies you around the country, builds homes, and also sponsors the Indian cricket and hockey teams, was offering her to the media for a question-answer session.
The scene seemed right out of a Bollywood film as the bus screeched into the 234 acre plot to the sound of drums and an intimidating statue of a lady riding four lions with the Indian Tricolour in the backdrop.
Amby Valley is different from other holiday haunts. It is not splendid. A bodyguard salutes you, placing his right palm on the left side of his chest; another holds a sniffer dog ready to tear you to bits, and armed guards look straight ahead at nothing. You half-expect Bollywood baddies Amrish Puri or Danny Denzongpa to appear out of nowhere even as some pretty ladies welcome you with a rose, peculiarly covered with a netted fabric, and ask for your business card.
Sounds like a high-security arrangement, except that none of the guys who got on to the bus from Dadar TT in central Mumbai were checked for identification. Anyone could have passed off as a journo by registering his or her name on a sheet of paper.
Abhijit Sarkar, Sahara's manager for corporate communications, romped on to the stage and announced that Kournikova would arrive for a photo opportunity for four or five minutes and then reappear for the Q&A session after a couple of minutes.
When Anna appeared, I couldn't decide which was more curvaceous: the ghat through which our bus had driven to reach Amby Valley or the Russian bombshell.
Adorned in a sky blue sari, the tennis diva appeared on stage with her blonde mane let loose and a smile that was radiant and unreal.
It all seemed rather forced -- Sarkar pegging Sahara's Amby Valley and singing the praises of Sahara Shri (read Subroto Roy, the founder of Sahara Parivar), and Kournikova's smile disappearing the moment she stepped off the stage.
After about five minutes, she reappeared and sat on stage with another Sahara staffers. And then began a boring, inane question-answer session.
Why haven't you won a WTA title till now? a cricket journalist asked.
"There were all kinds of circumstances. I was too young when I started, then injuries happened. I was playing big players. Sometimes I just lost. These things happen," Kournikova replied.
What did you do in Amby Valley for the past four days?
"Many things. I slept, rested, ate and did some work."
She brushed aside claims of being the poor little rich girl, saying she wished she was rich. Coming from someone who earns about $15 million a year in endorsements, that statement seemed rather surprising.
On her relationship with Sahara, she said she had agreed to be the brand ambassador for Amby Valley because she believed in it.
She said she knew some Indian sportsmen by the name of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi and also knew that India has a very good cricket team. Coming at a time when the team is fighting hard to make it to the final of the TVS Cup tri-series in its own backyard, that sounded jarring.
There were some gems though. Like when she refused to apologise for being a more famous celebrity than a tennis player. "I have always been a tennis player, never a model. I do the other thing because of modelling," she asserted.
"I never intended it to be this way. It happened, so it happened. I am a person first, a tennis player second, and then a model."
More an icon than a tennis star, Kournikova has come to terms with the fact that her face sells magazines more than her game, which has deteriorated since she reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1997.
Born in Moscow and living in the United States for the past 12 years, she said she considers herself a Russian as well as an American. "But, above all that, I am a global person. I am never in one place for more than a month. Not even at home [in Florida]."
Refusing to comment about her return to the tennis circuit, she said she hates the fact that she is unable to predict her return. "I hope I can play some time next year," she said. "But till that time I have to deal with it. But when I return I want to play singles as well as doubles."
As the press conference ended, Kournikova rushed offstage, only to return minutes later in a black T-Shirt and blue jeans for another quick photo opportunity before making her exit, visibly upset by something.
She grabbed her bag, jumped into a waiting black Mercedes, and zoomed off.
Soon after Sahara Shri appeared and the hard-selling of Amby Valley began.
Just for the record, the cheapest home in Amby Valley costs Rs 1.7 crore [approximately US $375,000]!