Tennis: Boris's loss is Kiev's gain: Richard Evans on the one that Yeltsin allowed to get away, the tennis talent Andrei Medvedev

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The Independent Online
DURING the Kremlin Cup in Moscow late last year, a rather shadowy figure sidled up to me at the Olympsky stadium and, pointing to the strapping young man practising in the Chicago Bulls playing strip, whispered, 'He may live in Kiev now but the family are really Russian, you know. He should be playing for us.'

The origins of the family Medvedev remain unverified but the fact is that it will be Ukraine, the emerging nation in need of all the prestige it can get, that will benefit from the exploits of Andrei Medvedev, the 18-year-old tennis player who is poised to take his place among the game's elite.

Boris Yeltsin, a tennis fanatic, will probably list the loss of Medvedev among the least appealing results of his decision to carve up the Soviet Union for he, too, will have recognised a cast-iron, packaged-from-birth, superstar as soon as he saw him.

It was not just the way he started winning but the way he handled his eventual defeat in the Australian Open this week that eliminated the last doubts about Medvedev's future. He began by handling a difficult assignment on the Stadium Court against the experienced and highly respected Australian Wally Masur, winning a tough match 6-4 in the fourth. Then he moved to an outside court and obliterated a respectable German, Lars Koslowski, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0.

It is seldom that a player as young as Andrei comes into a press conference and makes amusing and intelligent use of the English language. When asked if he felt he could sneak through a few more rounds, Medvedev retorted: 'Sneak? I do not like to sneak. I like to go forward when I deserve to win.' Nor does he have a bad word to say about anyone else - not even linesmen. 'They are also human people, they can make mistakes,' he says. 'If I don't make mistakes on court then I would be asking them not to make any but I am doing so many, compared to me they are angels.'

Angels? Oh and to think John McEnroe wasn't even in town to hear him say it. But Medvedev shares with McEnroe a readiness to castigate himself in public. After losing a nervy sort of match to Petr Korda, Medvedev gave a very clear insight into what it is like for a teenager to find himself out there playing established stars.

'We had practised a lot in Florida and it was usually close but here it was different. It was as if I was in wrong place, a strange feeling like some sort of discord. I put too much pressure on myself. My backhand didn't work, my forehand didn't work and it was all terrible, really.'

It won't be terrible for long. John Alexander the Australian Davis Cup player now commentating for Channel 7, rates Medvedev up with Borg at 18.

Andrei has an older sister, Natalia Medvedeva, with whom he played in the Hopman Cup in Perth. That prompted the question of how young Andrei was when he first started playing tennis? 'When I was in - how you call that thing - a pram. When I was in my pram they threw me some balls so I hit a few serves; had a rest and hit some more.'

The tennis circuit is going to be a lot more fun with Andrei around. But first there is work to be done and Medvedev is the last who needs to be reminded. 'All the players have their coaches trying to analyse my game and it is very difficult because everyone just wants to beat me, to prove I am in wrong place, that my place is not No 23 or anything. But I work hard to prove I am in right place.'

So do all people who like to see talent emerge. In the meantime, place your bets. Andrei Medvedev in the top 10 by Wimbledon.

(Photograph omitted)