How Boris Yeltsin served up a tennis revolution in Russia

Russian tennis players now rank among the world's best. The reason? A masterplan drawn up by their tennis-loving former president

Andrew Osborn
Thursday 01 July 2004 00:00 BST

Oblivious to the stinging nettles and weeds that appear about to throttle the ochre court, Masha, a precocious brace-wearing nine-year-old, drills tennis ball after tennis ball like a machine. "I don't want to be Anna Kournikova, I just want to be myself," she gushes during a brief break.

Oblivious to the stinging nettles and weeds that appear about to throttle the ochre court, Masha, a precocious brace-wearing nine-year-old, drills tennis ball after tennis ball like a machine. "I don't want to be Anna Kournikova, I just want to be myself," she gushes during a brief break.

Just over the treetops lurk row after row of archetypal drab Soviet tower blocks, Lada-filled traffic jams and Moscow's grimy red and white factory chimneys. Masha's world, the Spartak tennis club in the north-east of the Russian capital, is, however, a world apart. She is part of what is being hailed as a revolution in Russian tennis that makes Britain's current crop look meagre, to put it kindly.

The former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, a man who liked his tennis racket as much as vodka, is being hailed as the revolutionary-in-chief. It is "Tsar Boris" who is giving Russia's top players friendly advice and Tsar Boris who first made it acceptable to participate in a sport that the Communists had regarded as class-ridden and bourgeois.

An important turning point for tennis came in 1988 when it was once again recognised as an Olympic sport. The Soviet system was geared to being successful in Olympic sports at the expense of all other disciplines and therefore started to get serious about tennis at long last, but it took Mr Yeltsin's interest to bring real change.

The "revolution" began in 1990 when Russian television pictured Mr Yeltsin, exuberant at the best of times, leaping about a court in white shorts extolling the virtues of the game. And five years after Mr Yeltsin, now 73, stood down from the premiership, that revolution finally seems to have produced a coup, if one played out on the other side of Europe, at Wimbledon and Roland Garros.

Retired since 1999, Mr Yeltsin keeps a low profile in Russia with the one exception of his favourite sport. After Anastasia Myskina, 22, carried off the French Open title earlier this year, Mr Yeltsin took her out for lunch in Moscow and regaled her with advice and criticism. "He is like a grandfather to us and the lunch was really casual. He knows everything about tennis" Myskina enthused afterwards. "We discussed the matches and he was telling us how to play. He told me to play more shots down the line and to improve my serve. He also thinks Elena [Dementieva] and I should play doubles together."

Mr Yeltsin, who used to play tennis himself three evenings a week himself, travelled to Paris to watch Myskina play in the final. He also visited Wimbledon last week and before leaving SW19 he urged the Russian girls to win the tournament.

Although he is often remembered for his fondness for alcohol, Mr Yeltsin, who lost two fingers in an accident with a grenade in his youth, was an exceptional sportsman in his time. Reputedly blessed with extraordinary stamina, he was a star volleyball player in his younger days and is said to have worked extremely long hours when he was president from 1991 until 1999. Having originally taken up tennis to combat stress, he then become completely obsessed with the game, a passion that continued despite him suffering at least one heart attack and undergoing surgery.

Mr Yeltsin it was who appointed the USSR's long-standing Davis Cup captain, Shamil Tarpischev, as his personal coach when president, installed him in a Kremlin office, and went on to appoint him minister of sport. Tennis inevitably started to receive more generous funding and has since taken off with a flourish.

And the effect of Yeltsin's interest? In 1990 the USSR boasted fewer than 200 courts; now there are some 2,500. Fifteen years ago there were just 120 annual tournaments. Now there are more than 1,000 and Russian tennis clubs say that their enrolment rates are higher than they have ever been.

In Britain the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) has also tried to buy success, spending nearly £5m a year on academies and training camps for its leading players and £1.4m a year on coach education. However, there the similarity with Russia's tennis revolution ends. The only British players to have had any impact on the world game in recent years have been Tim Henman, who was not a product of an LTA initiative, and Greg Rusedski, who grew up in Canada.

Meanwhile, Russia already has a next wave of talent to look forward to. Kitted out from head to toe in the latest designer gear, Masha wields an expensive tennis racket and is enjoying a one-on-one tutorial with the Spartak club's revered head coach, Igor Volkov. As she strikes the ball with adult precision but childlike enthusiasm, her father, a well-groomed man in his thirties, nonchalantly flicks through the pages of a Russian-language GQ magazine. In the club's woodland car park gleaming Mercedes four-wheel-drives with tinted windows jostle for space with Audis and BMWs.

Hemmed in by the thick trees of Sokolniki park, the club looks shabby and overgrown at first sight. Stray dogs loll around discarded piles of rubbish and the paint is peeling from the wooden "club houses" that dot the area. The clay courts look too as though they have seen better days; the lines are faded, the nets droop a little too much and the wire fencing is coated in rust.

However, there is nothing shabby or indeed overgrown about the club's members. Its sprawling 21-court enclosure is filled with the confident voices of boys and girls who look as though they would be more at home horsing around in an upmarket nursery. Instead they are walloping ball after ball under the watchful supervision of a small army of coaches.

This is "the Kournikova factory", the place where Anna Kournikova, the country's original pin-up Russian tennis star got her start, and the club that is credited with producing an uncommonly talented crop of Russian women players. It is also a club that is associated with Mr Yeltsin, who is said to have especially favoured its development.

Maria Sharapova, 17, who takes on Lindsay Davenport in today's Wimbledon semi-final, is the exception, not the rule; she trained in America. She now lives in Florida where she is coached by Nick Bollettieri, who has also coached Andre Agassi and Boris Becker.

She is, however, following Kournikova is at least one regard, being just as likely to be found modelling as hitting smashes across the net. She is to appear on the cover of next month's Italian Vogue magazine.

Sharapova is the first Russian since Kournikova in 1997 to reach a Wimbledon semi-final. But seven of the Russian women who played at Wimbledon this year (including three seeds) came from the Spartak club and this year has seen a record 15 Russian women travelling to the tournament.

Spartak's most famous alumnus may be the over-exposed Kournikova, 20, but she has so far failed to win a major competition. That's a performance unlike two of Spartak's other former charges: Myskina and Elena Dementieva, 23. The duo, who it is said used to battle each other for the trophy of a pizza in their Spartak days, recently faced off in the final of the French Open, which Myskina won.

On the men's side, the Spartak club has produced Marat Safin, 21, a temperamental but unusually gifted player, whose match against his fellow Russian Dmitri Tursonov was watched by Mr Yeltsin.

Igor Volkov, Spartak's head coach, puts Russia's phenomenal success of late down to the tough national character. "Russian people are targeted and focused," he told The Independent. "It's hard to live here but we have great achievements under our belt, human achievements. It's all about people."

Others are more sceptical, however, and believe that today's generation of young Russians has seen what kind of lifestyle Kournikova has achieved with the fast cars and the celebrity boyfriend (Enrique Iglesias), and simply want the same.

"It's all about money," says Anatoly Konokovich, a taxi driver. "They just want to become wealthy, to build a solid financial future. Don't let anyone tell you anything else. Tennis in Russia is all about prestige. It's for the wealthy; you need money to play. Anyone can go out and buy a racket and some balls but nobody will teach you."

Mr Volkov concedes that tennis is not within reach of all "ordinary people", but insists that Russian tennis players are driven by patriotism and glory, not money. "We're a sporting country. Money comes later but in the first instance we play for pride."

The club trains its charges hard; twice a day every day from the age of five, and Mr Volkov argues that pupils are not selected because of how wealthy their parents are, but on their sporting potential. "Training is very intensive and very hard work."

The only reason that Russia did not enjoy great success in Soviet times, he adds, is that players were often not allowed to compete in tournaments abroad for fear they would defect. "Democracy has moved things forward in that regard. Things are better on that front now." Nor, adds Mr Volkov, is Russia's success down to lavish funding; the Spartak club is state-funded and run by the country's trade unions, and any casual observer can see that things could be better. He adds with some bitterness that Mr Yeltsin may be credited with turning Russian tennis around, but he has not invested his own money in Spartak.

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