Kuznetsova's fightback highlights Russian strategy for domination

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The terrifying future predicted by that old rogue Joe McCarthy half a century ago, when he stirred up Middle America's neuroses about Reds under the bed, has come to pass at Wimbledon.

Admittedly, the only Reds wandering about the All England Club yesterday were those who had neglected to apply the Factor 25 (and there was an alarming number of them, with matching luminescent noses), but nevertheless in the women's singles draw there were no fewer than 42 players born behind the Iron Curtain.

Of those 42, 14 are Russian and 17 have surnames ending in "ova". You have to be thankful that Dan Maskell, who rarely got the better of a polysyllabic name, is not still in the BBC commentary box.

The number 17 is significant, incidentally, since it also represents the number of Americans in the competition. That suggests that the old order is changing although, if it is, it is doing so with American complicity.

The heart of a Russian might beat in the most famous of the "ovas", the defending champion Maria Sharapova, but it does so beneath a Floridian tan. Sharapova is the only Russian woman to have won a Wimbledon singles title (an achievement celebrated 48 times by Americans), but it is a near certainty that she will not be the last. Moreover, or possibly "moreova", she was merely one among three Russian Grand Slam winners last year. The other two were both in action yesterday.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, the reigning US Open champion, who trains in Spain, played patchily in beating the talented Indian debutante, Sania Mirza. The victory came in three sets with an astonishing 13 service breaks. Still, Kuznetsova, who is seeded five, walloped the ball so hard, and showed enough flashes of her extraordinary athleticism, to suggest that she can be a force on grass, and might yet spend her 20th birthday next Monday still in pursuit of her compatriot's title.

Having dropped her serve in the first game, she battled back to win the opening set, 6-4, but then the wheels came off, which is not inappropriate imagery; her father, Alexandr Kuznetsov, has coached six Olympic and world cycling champions including her mother, Galina Tsareva, the holder of 20 world records. And her brother Nikolai was a silver medallist at the Atlanta Olympics. So she knows plenty about pedalling furiously, which is what she had to do to get back into the match. She lost a second-set tie-break before she overcame the 18-year-old Mirza, 6-4 in the final set.

Earlier, the ninth seed Anastasia Myskina, the French Open champion last year, defeated the Japanese Aiko Nakamura, 6-4, 6-3. And Elena Likhovtseva - a quarter-finalist here two years ago and the matriarch of these Russian players at the positively geriatric age of 29 - saw off the American Meghann Shaughnessy in two straight, though less than straightforward, sets, 6-3, 7-6.

So, is the old order changing or not in women's tennis? Between the Australian Open in 2001 and the Australian Open in 2003, every Grand Slam singles title was won by an American: Venus and Serena Williams four times each; and Jennifer Capriati three times.

Since then, seven out of nine titles have gone to non-Americans, yet four of the seven went to Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, a casualty here on Tuesday. Russia manifestly has what is known in football circles as strength in depth, and with Sharapova and Myskina looking in promising form here, and Kuznetsova buoyed by a remarkably hard-fought victory yesterday, those Russians, perenially supposed to be coming, have very firmly arrived.