The country's ladies are taking the tennis world by storm
Sunday was a special day for Russian tennis, as not only did Anastasia Myskina become the first homegrown winner of the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, but Maria Sharapova also won her debut title at the AIG Japan Open. With Myskina's recent triumph in Leipzig and Yelena Dementyeva's back to back wins in Bali and Shanghai in September, the weekend's events mean that Russian players have now won the last five WTA tournaments. There are another nine players in the WTA top 100. Has an on-court revolution really begun?
Myskina's 6-2 6-4 victory over Amelie Maureso in Moscow, which won her a hug from Boris Yeltsin as well as the title, was perhaps the most poignant moment of the last month. Although Yevgeny Kafelnikov has won the men's event five times, none of the ladies had until now been able to emulate him. That sorry statistic, though, has now been smashed into the past. Coupled with Sharapova's astonishingly mature performance in Tokyo, where the sixteen-year-old came back from three points down in the decisive third set tie-break, Russian tennis has quite rightly grabbed the world's attention.
However, most importantly, this has been for the achieved results, and not any other reason (although some observers have predictably branded the blonde Sharapova "the new Anna Kournikova"). Over the last 2-3 years, Russia's players have made tremendous progress and are now considered to be real genuine grand slam contenders. Dementyeva and Myskina are ranked eighth and ninth in the world, respectively. In the newly published rankings, Sharapova has jumped to 33rd from 48th, just in front of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Yelena Likhovetseva, and only two places behind Yelena Bovina and six behind Lina Krasnoroutskaya, who was herself a tour finalist at the Roger AT&T Cup in August. The mood in the Russian camp is buoyant, and such confidence can hardly be called misplaced.
Naturally, with the likes of the Williams sisters to contend with, as well as the Belgian duo of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne at the top of the rankings, success at international calendar's four main events is by no means a sure thing. However, the record suggests this is possible. Myskina beat world No.2 Henin-Hardenne in the Leipzig final, while Nadia Petrova reached the semi-finals at the French Open, where Vera Zvonareva (15th in the world) also overcame Venus Williams. Moreover, Svetlana Kuznetsova made it to the Wimbledon quarter-finals in all three events: the singles, ladies' doubles and mixed doubles. Indeed, five Russians made it into the last eight at Wimbledon for the first time in history. The talent is undoubtedly there for all to see; the players just need to accumulate experience.
President of the Russian Tennis Federation Shamil Tarpishchev is confident that success will come not only for individuals, but also in the Federation Cup. The team has displayed sound progress, including a 5-0 victory over Slovenia in the quarter-finals. When he promised that Russia's men would bring home the Davis Cup last year, not many people really believed him. Now the country's tennis fans believe that the women can repeat this feat.
Furthermore, the future is theirs for the taking. At 27 and 26, respectively, Yelena Likhovtseva and Tatyana Panova can hardly be called veterans of the circuit, but Myskina is only 22, Dementyeva 21, Yelena Bovina 20, Vera Zvonareva 19 and, of course, Maria Sharapova is just 16. Add to this list 17-year-old Dina Safina (Marat Safin's sister), who is already ranked 53rd in the world and has won the Palermo representative tournament, and 2002 Wimbledon junior champion Vera Dushevina, then it is all too obvious why Russia has every reason to be optimistic.
Following her Kremlin Cup win, Anastasia Myskina said, "With every tournament title, a win at the Grand Slams is becoming more and more realistic." This may be so, but she will have to deal with her compatriots first.