What Kept Russia From Producing Tennis Stars Before Now?
By SERGE SCHMEMANN
Published: October 1, 2006
Where in frozen Siberia did Russians learn how to swing a racket? Svetlana Kuznetsova took the China Open. Dmitry Tursunov beat the best American player, Andy Roddick, to knock the United States out of the Davis Cup. The glamorously teenage Maria Sharapova swept past Belgiumís best, Justine Henin-Hardenne, to win the United States Open.
And so it goes, the extraordinary invasion of pro tennis, and especially womenís tennis, by players from a country that shouldnít be playing tennis at all. Russians excel at ice hockey or chess, and we wouldnít think twice if they dominated gymnastics or synchronized swimming. After all, these are sports that require year-round refrigeration, endless indoor drills and lots of wintry brooding. But tennis?
Two decades ago, there were no Russian names among the top 100 players, much less among the glitterati of the sport. Today, Maria Sharapova is a trademark, and behind her is a cascade of top-ranked Russians with jaw-challenging names. And these are not shy newcomers. They seem to have emerged as complete, prepackaged, beautifully turned out stars, complete with obsessed parent. Tursunov, like Sharapova, was exported by a relentless father to the United States at a precocious age, and itís hard to tell whether they are more Russian or American. So what spawned these stars?
Thereís a time-honored tradition in the West to approach Russia as a riddle, devising elaborate explanations for admittedly befuddling ways. I know: I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow for 10 years, expounding on the effects of endless winter, endless expanse, the collision of East and West, long subjugation by Mongol hordes. Iíve always had a soft spot for the swaddling theory, wherein the practice of binding babies like mummies between feedings formed a nation given to lurching between passivity and anarchy.
So there is a certain temptation to seek a profound explanation for the rise of Russian tennis. Are these young stars a post-Soviet reaction to the collective ethic? Are they another version of the trillionaire oligarchs, people who frantically grasp for all the riches and glory denied them for 70 years?
The fact is that there was always tennis in the Soviet Union, even if it was usually on lumpy courts behind high walls. But the Communist Party always preferred to send teams abroad, because stars traveling alone had a habit of defecting. All that changed in 1988, when tennis returned to the Olympics, and the Soviet Union began to loosen up. Courts began to sprout across the land. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the game got a further lift from Boris Yeltsin, who was often photographed wrestling with a racket.
That was when most of the current stars got their first rackets. Anna Kournikova gave further inspiration when she became the first Russian tennis player to become a marketing star. Combine that allure with the fact that Russian children are still expected to master skills through relentless practice, and the head of Russian tennis, Shamil Tarpischev, says weíve only seen the beginning.
Why womenís tennis in particular? The playwright Edvard Radzinsky, writing in The Wall Street Journal, noted that when the Soviet Union collapsed, women were free to plunge into business. And professional sport is foremost a business.
But back to swaddling. Isnít tennis all about lurching between passivity and furious activity?