Revolution puts Russians in power

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If ever a piece of history was flagged up well in advance, it was today's French Open women's singles final between Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva. It may be the first all-Russian Grand Slam final, and the one which will produce the first Russian women's champion, but the number of Russian women populating the tennis world's top echelons has been growing for some time.

If ever a piece of history was flagged up well in advance, it was today's French Open women's singles final between Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva. It may be the first all-Russian Grand Slam final, and the one which will produce the first Russian women's champion, but the number of Russian women populating the tennis world's top echelons has been growing for some time.

Of the 128 women in the starting line-up in Paris 12 days ago, 19 had RUS after their name, and a glance at the junior tournaments shows even more threatening to break through (accompanied by many others from eastern Europe). It has led to two oft-posed questions on the tennis tour: who will be the first to win a major title, and why are there so many good Russian women players?

The first will be answered today, when either Myskina or Dementieva goes one better than Dementieva's coach Olga Morozova, whose defeat in the 1974 Wimbledon final was the closest a Russian woman has yet come to winning one of tennis's four Grand Slam tournaments. The second is much harder to answer, mainly because the obvious reason - a programme of junior development instigated by the national tennis association - isn't the explanation.

There appears to be no single reason, but from the various explanations proffered by the players and those who watch them, three obvious ones emerge: the Kournikova effect, money, and intense competition.

Anna Kournikova has drifted away from tennis in recent months. She spent much of last year denying she had retired, but she hasn't played competitively for more than a year, is reported to pick up a racket very rarely, and her sole reason for spending a day in Paris last weekend was to launch a new perfume. Because she never won a singles tournament in 121 attempts, she has been made something of a figure of fun in tennis terms, but she did rise to No 8 in the singles rankings and No 1 in doubles, and her contribution to the rise and rise of her country's female tennis fortunes is becoming increasingly recognised.

Her value to the Russians is that they have seen her make it. There may be some envy, but there is nothing like someone to aim for who you can associate yourself with. Maria Sharapova, the most glamorous of the Russians and a quarter-finalist this week, said last year: "I'm not the next Kournikova, I want to win matches."

Dementieva and Myskina, who were thought to harbour similar views when they burst on to the scene and only this week have surpassed Kournikova's on-court achievements, have begun to recognise how Kournikova has helped them.

"Sometimes it was sad," says Myskina. "I was no worse than Anna, but everyone spoke about her, and the rest of us were second choice. We're trying to be friends off-court, but sometimes it's difficult." One of the things Kournikova has shown her compatriots is that there is money to be made in tennis, and for the daughters of the last generation of Soviet adults this is a major incentive.

"There isn't much money in Russia," says Udo Cervellini, the tournament director in Filderstadt, Germany. "In tennis many have discovered the chance to earn well." Perhaps the biggest single factor in the Russians' success is the intense competition among them. "Being Russian No 1 really means something to them," says the WTA Tour communications manager, John Dolan, who deals with the players on a weekly basis. "It's a very positive rivalry, because they all seem to get on. They're friends, they have dinner together, and they've developed a respect for each other which means being the best in the pack is an honour they all understand."

It's a view confirmed by Nadia Petrova, a semi-finalist at Roland Garros last year, who is the daughter of the hammer thrower Victor Petrov and sprinter Nadejda Ilina, a bronze medallist in the 4x400m relay at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. "We're all a similar age," she says. "We all went through the junior time together, and it was the same then that if one did well the others wanted to be better. It's the same now, we pull each other."

As allegations of match rigging swept through tennis last autumn, it seemed only the men's game was affected. Asked why she thought this was so, the world No 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne said the will to win in women's tennis was so strong that few if any women players would see a financial incentive to throw a match as greater than the desire to win it. Such desire seems to be especially great among the Russian women, which may explain why a stream of players are following in Kournikova's footsteps, while few are emerging to follow the successes of Russia's two former men's world No 1s, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.

Martina Navratilova says there were always top-notch Russian players, but believes the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 freed them up. "They didn't really have the opportunity to travel, or they would travel for one, two, three years, but at 20 when they really started hitting their stride the federation wouldn't send them out any more," she says. "There was one player who was a couple of years younger than me, she was big, strong, a good player, but she was headstrong and argued with the officials, so the last time she went out was 18 or 19, and she was close to top 10 in the world.

"That was the Communist system, which was why I had to leave Czechoslovakia. But it would have been a lot more difficult for the Russians to do that, because they knew there were a lot more repercussions if they left, they knew their family was in trouble, maybe even going to jail."

Even now the Russians seldom stay in Russia. Myskina is coached by her boyfriend, a former Second Division Bundesliga player in Germany, so does much of her training in Stuttgart. Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova have both moved to Spain and Petrova has had spells living in Egypt, Poland and the Netherlands to follow her career. Vera Zvonareva moves between Washington and Baltimore.

Russia's success, culminating in today's final, would have seemed a pipe dream 20 years ago. Because tennis wasn't an Olympic sport, the Soviet authorities made no money available for it, leaving players like Morozova and Alex Metreveli - Wimbledon runners-up in the 1970s - to plough lone furrows. But one of the reasons the far-sighted International Tennis Federation president, Philippe Chatrier, wanted to get tennis back into the Olympics was to boost its profile in countries such as Russia, and when it returned in 1988 money had begun to flow from Soviet coffers.

Today the Spartak club in Moscow, just a few miles from Red Square, will celebrate its part in developing the first Russian female Grand Slam champion. Both Dementieva and Myskina learned their tennis there, becoming good friends while playing each other about 30 times during their junior careers. But today's red square will be the Philippe Chatrier court at Roland Garros. And Chatrier, who died in 2000, will know from his grave that he had a hand in it.

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