Wednesday, August 18, 2004

It's a Russian revolution

High rankings reflect new talent surge

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

MASON - Justine Henin-Hardenne said this spring she's "hearing more Russian than English spoken around the locker rooms."

That's suggestive of tennis' seismic shift.

Russian women, nearly invisible two decades ago, are now omnipresent. This year, their first Grand Slam titles came back-to-back, Anastasia Myskina winning the French Open and Maria Sharapova taking Wimbledon. And now, for the first time, five Russians rank among the world's top 10.

Vera Zvonareva, a top-10 player, couldn't even crack the Russian Olympic team.
(Enquirer photo/SARAH CONARD)
The depth of talent is so great that two such top-10 players, Sharapova and Vera Zvonareva, couldn't even crack the Russian Olympic team.

"The rise of Russian players in the standings is very impressive," Henin-Hardenne said. "They're young, audacious, and they never relinquish anything, even if they are losing."

Think of a tennis court in Siberia as analogous to a basketball court in the Bronx, in that the sport shimmers as an opportunity to escape poverty.

"The ones who make it on the Tour don't often come from wealthy backgrounds," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said.

"When you see the Russian women, they're hungry. It's a way out for them, in a sport where you can do it on your own, essentially."

The addition of tennis to the Olympics in 1988 has been cited as a turning point.

The Soviet Union then began to funnel funding into coaching and development.

"In Russia ... an Olympic medal is prized above all other sporting awards," International Tennis Federation president Francesco Ricci Bitti told Tennis Week. "The growth of tennis in Russia has been phenomenal over the last 20 years, and our sport is now reaping the benefits."

In 1984, there were no Soviet men or women in the year-end top 100. Today, Russia has 12 women and five men in the top 100.

Of the Russian women, nine rank in the top 50. Eight of those have won WTA tournament titles, something the most famous Russian of all - Anna Kournikova - never accomplished.

She was a landmark figure, though. She became a top doubles player, twice winning the Australian Open. She reached the Wimbledon singles semifinals at 16 and rose to No. 8 in the rankings.

Dinara Safina, a Russian ranked No. 41, said earlier this year: "Women's tennis, in Russia and around the world, is popular because of Kournikova. A lot of players want to be like her."

Zvonareva, one of three Russians in the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open, also credits Russian men's star Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who won two Grand Slam titles and the 2000 Olympic gold medal.

If Kafelnikov and Kournikova spurred Russian interest during the 1990s, it was Myskina and Elena Dementieva who led the current charge of Russian women.

"They're just three years older than us, and they got to the top 10," Zvonareva said. "We thought, 'We practice in the same place; why can't we do this?' "

Cream of the crop

The top 10 Russian women with their current world ranking and pronunciation of last name:

3. Anastasia MyskinaMiss-KEE-nah
6. Elena DementievaDe-MENT-ye-vuh
8. Maria SharapovaSha-ra-POH-vuh
9. Vera ZvonarevaZvon-a-RAY-vuh
10. Svetlana KuznetsovaKooz-NET-so-vuh
14. Nadia PetrovaPe-TROH-vuh
25. Elena BovinaBo-VEE-nah
26. Elena LikhovtsevaLee-HOFF-she-vuh
41. Dinara SafinaSa-FEE-nah
71. Alina JidkovaYID-ko-vuh



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