Eastern Europe's production line continues to deliver the goods
Friday 02 July 2010
With three east European semi-finalists in the women's singles yesterday, it is clear that the Noughties' trend of Eastern Bloc success is far from over – or far from ova – even while the hopes of Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova and the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova are done.
Pironkova is the only Bulgarian in the draw. Kvitova comes from a nation with rich tennis history, albeit with famous names including Drobny and Navratilova taking foreign citizenship in search of greater freedom before the Iron Curtain fell.
Vera Zvonareva of Russia marches on, and it's appropriate that Russia will be represented in the final because there were more women from Russian (15) in the 128-woman draw than from any other country, and here is a story of programmed national success.
The numbers of Russian women in the main draw at Slams has been in double digits since the US Open of 2002, with as many as 19 at the French Open in May. The mass production player development has roots in the old Soviet Union, specifically the return of tennis to the status of medal sport at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Tennis was a medal sport until 1924, and returned to medal status in Los Angeles, when it became a big deal for the Soviet Union. It was around the same time that Natasha Zvereva (from modern-day Belarus) was emerging, and then famously fought a battle to be able to keep her own prize money, as opposed to hand it to the Union. She moved to America in the early 90s.
Then came the emergence of Anna Kournikova in the mid-90s, schooled first at the famous Spartak Tennis Club (alumni including Kafelnikov, Safin, Dementieva, Safina, Myskina) and then at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida. Ordinary Russians saw tennis as a potential route to fame and riches. "We always had an amazing tennis school and clubs in Russia," Kournikova says. "It's just the opportunities never were really there when it was still the Soviet Union for them to travel."
Tennis centres across Russia did flourishing business, while many players went abroad, including Maria Sharapova to Bollettieri's. By 2004, the "ova" era produced three Slam winners in one year: Anastasia Myskina (French Open), Sharapova (Wimbledon) and Kuznetsova (US Open). The trend has echoed, albeit to a lesser extent, in other former Soviet nations. As Kournikova says: "I was the first post-Soviet era player to leave Russia, practise in better circumstances, in a better environmen. Once kids and parents saw what I did, they realised that there is that opportunity."
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