Prologue. Go back in time about 30 years. The USSR, still in existence, thrived in almost every sport - long-distance running, swimming, gymnastics, ice hockey, discus, judo, you name it. Yet tennis was not at all part of the repertoire, at least not at the highest levels. Now go back to the future. The Russians currently boast 14 women and six men among the top 100 tennis players in the world, and Russia, especially when it comes to women, is considered the top tennis powerhouse on earth.
When discussing today's Russia, it is tempting to see tennis - an elitist, Western sport - as a kind of reaction to old-time Communism. It's the individualist response to collectivism. Actually, the Soviets took notice of tennis ahead of the 1988 Seoul Games, when it was recognized as an Olympic sport. But the first generation didn't get very far.
After the fall of Communism, the Russians spent the 1990s just surviving, and the massive sports budgets vanished. As a result, an entire generation of players and coaches went abroad in the best-case scenarios, while the less fortunate took to selling clothes and toys in the street. So how is it that tennis, particularly the women's game, never stopped flourishing all this time?
The state budget. The first reason is entirely prosaic. Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president from 1991 to 1999, was a tennis fanatic and made the game his pet project. During his tenure his associates controlled massive state budgets, making his mission easier. Yeltsin didn't just fall in love with tennis, he obsessed over it. He never let the pressures of his job, no matter how great, keep him from his three nights a week playing. Not even a heart attack deterred him.
"He was like a grandfather to us, always encouraging us and sometimes putting a smile on our faces, like when he would give advice on how to improve our serves," recalls former Top 5 star Anastasia Myskina, who was the first Russian woman to win a Grand Slam singles title when she took the French Open in 2004. Even after the end of his term, Yeltsin often helped push the team on its way to the top using connections in high places.
The Pro. Yeltsin could advise Myskina and secure budgets, but someone was needed in the field, and that's where Shamil Tarpishchev came in. The Chechen coach has run the Soviet/Russian national squad since 1974. Tied to the top leadership, he survived Mihkail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost to serve as Yeltsin's first trainer.
He has been unquestionably the main influence on Russian tennis through today. Besides the generous budgets, Tarpishchev offers other advantages: He is a top coach and psychologist and has extensive experience as well as a drive to keep on investing in his players.
One anecdote illustrates his involvement in the day-to-day lives of his female charges. After Anna Chakvetadze's family home in a posh suburb outside Moscow was burgled, he took the star to a Chinese specialist to restore her circulation quickly - the star's hands had been tied up during the ordeal for an hour and a half.
A woman's touch. Why are the women the ones excelling at Russian tennis? The main reason is because girls between 6 and 10 are less stubborn than boys. That's the age children learn the fundamentals of the game, at least according to Tarpishchev. He also claims that "the cost of working with adult female players is more than with males. You have to invest $50,000 a year with a woman as opposed to $70,000 to $80,000 for a man, and that's a significant difference."
The head coach of the Spartak Club, Igor Volkov, who personally trained Tarpishchev, claims that Russia's national character also contributes to its success. "People in Russia are goal oriented," he says. "Though it's hard to be in Russia, our character brings us great achievements." Quantity also makes its mark. "We have right now more than 350 young talented players," boasts Rarpishchev. "Quantity like that has to translate into quality."
So Justine Henin may be No. 1 and Maria Sharapova only No. 5, but the Russian ousted the Belgian in the quarterfinal last week en route to an Australian Open singles title. When will the Russian revolution be complete? Lina Krasnoroutskaya, a former player and tennis commentator for Russian channel NTV-PLUS, claims it is already an accomplished fact. "The changing of the guard has taken place," she says. "Sharapova succeeded Henin and she's number one in the world now."
Unsurprisingly, Henin doesn't buy into this interpretation, but she is likely to admit that Russian women's tennis dominates the white-collar sport, both on the individual and team levels. If Yeltsin is watching from above, he is certainly delighted.
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