According to the WTA Women's tennis rankings - 5 of the top 10 women are Russian (Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina). The US doesn't have a single player ranked in the top 10, and only 1 in the top 20. Among the top 50 ranked Women's Tennis players:
11 - Russia
6 - France
5 - Italy
4 - USA
6 - France
5 - Italy
4 - USA
In fact, 16 of the top 50 women originate from Slavic nations. Even 10 years ago, there may have been only 1 or 2 top ranked Russian women tennis players. 20 years ago, there were none. So where did all these beautiful and talented Russian women tennis players come from?
From Serge Schmemann of the International Herald Tribune (9/28/06):
Where in frozen Siberia did these Russians learn how to swing a racket? Svetlana Kuznetsova took the China Open. ... The glamorous Russian teenager Maria Sharapova swept past Belgium's best, Justine Henin-Hardenne, to win the U.S. Open.never mind.)
And so it goes, the extraordinary invasion of ... women's tennis, by players from a country that shouldn't be playing tennis at all. Sure, Russians excel at ice hockey, or chess, and we wouldn't think twice if they dominated, say, gymnastics, or synchronized swimming. These are endeavors that sit well with our Western notion of what Russians should do well: sports that require year-round refrigeration, endless indoor drills and lots of brooding. But tennis? The quintessential bourgeois pastime?
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: Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva, Nadia Petrova, Mikhail Youzhny, Nikolai Davydenko, Dmitry Tursunov, Marat Safin. (Please, it's Sha-RA-pova, not Shara- POH-va; it's Kuzne-TSO-va, not Kuz- NET-sova...Oh,
And there's nothing of the shy newcomer about them. They seem to have emerged as 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 it's hard to tell whether either is more Russian or American.
So what spawned these stars?
There's a time-honored tradition in the West to approach Russia as a riddle, devising elaborate explanations for Russia's admittedly befuddling ways. I know: I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow for 10 years, and filled quite a few bytes expounding on the effects of endless winter, endless expanse, the collision of East and West, long subjugation by Mongol hordes, the absence of a Renaissance, vodka, and other such formative influences. I've 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 total passivity and total anarchy (Full disclosure: I may have been swaddled).
So there is certain temptation to seek a Dostoevskian explanation for the rise of Russian tennis. Are these young stars a post-Soviet reaction to the collective ethic of the Soviet era? Are they another version of the trillionaire oligarch, people who frantically grasp for all the riches and glory denied them for 70 years? Tursunov has admitted in an interview that Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame was a model: "After tennis, I want to have a big house and wear a velvety robe." The Cincinnati Enquirer suggested that tennis was the Russian equivalent of basketball in the American inner city - a way out: "Think of a tennis court in Siberia as analogous to a basketball court in the Bronx."
The fact is that there was always tennis in the Soviet Union, even if it was often on lumpy courts behind high walls. But the Communist party always preferred to send teams abroad, because when stars went alone they had a nasty habit of defecting. All that changed in 1988, when tennis returned to the Olympics and the Soviet Union began to loosen up. Courts quickly began to sprout across the land. The game got a further boost from Boris Yeltsin, who was often photographed wrestling with a racket.
That was the era when most of the current stars got their first racket. Then Anna Kournikova showed how a Russian player can become a big bucks marketing star. Combine that with the fact that Russia is still a country where children are expected to master skills, whether chess, ballet or tennis, through relentless practice, and the head of Russian tennis, Shamil Tarpishev, says the invasion has only just begun.
Why women's tennis in particular? For that, the playwright Edvard Radzinsky has a compelling explanation. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he noted that professional sport was one of the few fields where women had a measure of equality in the old USSR. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, women were also freed to plunge into business. And so the two merged, most noticeably in tennis. "The role of the Tennis Lolita, of the Beauteous Champion, is but Russian womanhood's most public face," Radzinsky wrote.