Exclusive by Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
Dinara Safina, who leapfrogged Serena Williams to take over as world no1, leads the army of Russians in the WTA Tour’s top 10. Yet the unassuming ace has only collected 10 career titles and lost as many finals.
And three finals have been conceded this year, with Safina upset in Stuttgart by Svetlana Kuznetsova, beaten by Elena Dementieva in Sydney and outclassed by hard-hitting Serena Williams at the Australian Open.
And after beating Safina, Williams – then the world no1 – was quick on her feet when she quipped: “There’s 12 Russians in the world’s top 10!”
But Williams was not as nice prior to the 2009 French Open, when she dismissed Safina by commenting: “We all know who the real no1 is! And quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.”
Safina’s straight set victory over compatriot Kuznetsova in May’s Italian Open saw her capture the first title since taking over as the top ranking on April 20th, and win her only title in 2009 to date having fluffed all previous final appearances this year.
“Against Kuzy I had in my head that I had lost three finals this year, I didn’t want to have a reputation that I’m losing finals!”
– Dinara Safina
And Eastbourne regular Kuznetsova has an even worse record of losing in finals, having captured 10 career titles but finished second best 18 times.
She confessed after losing her grip on the 2009 Italian Open: “It was a little bit like Christmas, I was giving too many presents. I knew what I had to do but I just couldn’t do it.”
Even retired ace Justine Henin, who won seven grand slam titles, has urged Safina to take over as a long-term leader in the world rankings.
Henin admitted: “I know some players have been no1 without winning a grand slam, which I think is quite sad. I think for Safina that it’s maybe the time for her to go to the next step. It’s hard in the women’s game now to really find a boss and someone that is at the top and that wins a lot of tournaments.”
Whether Safina will turn on the south coast looks doubtful, but Eastbourne is once more expecting to play host to a strong set of long-legged players from Mother Russia. And this year maybe the nation tricolor flag will be waved at Devonshire Park when the ladies singles champion is crowned on June 20th, although Russians admittedly have a long history of finishing runner-up.
There may not be the grandeur of the Russian national anthem of ‘Gosudarstvenny Gimn Rossiyskoy Federatsii’ played prior to the final, but expect the Devonshire Park crowd to get behind any of the leading players from a nation that’s celebrating its 130th anniversary of playing the sport.
Tennis was born in Russian courtesy of the unlikely combination of Alexander II and a British military man, Major Walter Wingfield who originated from Wales. Alexander the Liberator brought about some radical changes after taking over the throne from the Tsar, and introduced some of the cultures from other countries to the nation.
But it was the major’s introduction to St. Petersburg of a ball game called sphainstike that really grabbed the public’s attention and as a result was regularly featured in the newspapers. The sudden media frenzy for lawn tennis helped make the sport popular, greatly aided by on-going promotion from the St. Petersburg Cricket Club.
And after Alexander II, Tsar Nicholas took over and was a keen tennis player with his diary full of entries referring to his pastime such as “I personally played seven sets today” and “I played tennis after breakfast until 5 o’clock today.”
Accordingly, Russia’s national championships were held in St. Petersburg as it had been the birthplace of tennis. Mikail Sumarokov dominated the men’s singles with five consecutive titles up until 1914, only to be halted by World War One military service.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution tennis failed to have the same attraction to the public, which was not helped by the fact that Lenin played the sport. This meant that many Soviets deemed tennis to be an elite sport, which was only played by the rich and well connected.
And things got worse for the sport that almost vanished because Joseph Stalin banned tennis after he took over at the helm of the USSR in 1922.
It was only after Stalin’s death in 1953 that tennis became popular with the public again. And it was down to a combination of Nikita Khruschev, Stalin’s successor, and the British press who altered the history of Russian tennis forever.
Khruschev, while visiting London, was asked by the British media why no Russians competed at Wimbledon.
His reply was a curt: “What is Wimbledon?” As soon as he found out about the global popularity of Wimbledon, he swiftly encouraged his country to become formidable in the sport. And the following year Russian teenager Anna Dmitrieva became the first Soviet player to compete at SW19, albeit in Junior Wimbledon, which ignited great interest throughout the USSR.
But it took until the early 1970s before the Soviets were among the leading players. Georgian Alex Metreveli was the men’s golden boy by reaching the 1972 Wimbledon final, the 1971 Australian Open semi-final and the 1972 French Open semi-final.
While Olga Morozova was the inspiration for Russian women. And in 1973 Morozova finished runner-up to American Chris Evert at the French Open and Wimbledon. But one year later, Mozozova followed the old adage of ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ by joining forces with Evert and the pair were duly crowned as the 1974 French Open doubles champions.
But throughout the history of the sport, even today, Russian players tend to finish second best.
This was exemplified by Belarussian Natasha Zvereva who lost the 1988 French Open without taking a single game off German powerhouse Steffi Graf. Yet this was the teenager’s first year on the professional circuit.
However, Zvereva helped change the future for Russian players that were used to living under a Communist regime. The rookie publicly demanding that she should be allowed to keep her winnings from Roland Garros.
The Russian government were caught in a tricky situation and needed to save face around the world, so amazingly allowed Zvereva to call the shots and become the first Soviet athlete to keep their prize money.
This landmark victory of player power surely helped the girl from Minsk carve out a lucrative doubles career, which resulted in a remarkable 18 grand slam titles and an 1992 Olympic bronze medal.
With the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, president Boris Yeltsin oversaw economic reform and pushed tennis to even greater heights. And five years later Sochi’s Yevgeny Kafelnikov became the first player to be crowned a Russian singles grand slam champion.
Kafelnikov beat German Michael Stich in the 1996 French Open and admitted: “Now I have a chance to breath and I feel so relaxed that I could easily jump over the Great Wall of China!”
However, getting far more publicity in Russia and globally than Kafelnikov was teenage sensation Anna Kournikova. But this was because of a combination of her pouting good looks and her determination on court.
However, she was yet another promising Russian player who failed to deliver singles titles and, like Zvereva, ended up picking up hefty cheques for her successful doubles partnerships. Kournikova’s doubles career even briefly propelled her to world no1 and included victory at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park when top of the world rankings.
But it took until as recently as 2004 for Russian ladies to make the all important breakthrough at a grand slam, and three players served up success in one season. Amicable Anastasia Myskina got the ball rolling by capturing the French Open and defeating much-favoured compatriot Dementieva. Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon as a teenager and Kuznetsova won the US Open.
With all this national success in one year, the dollar signs definitely encouraged future tennis players to enter the lucrative world on the ATP Tour and WTA Tour. Yet Dementieva has since won something that is worth more than money can buy, an Olympic singles title. Dementieva, a regular at Devonshire Park suffered an early exit at Eastbourne 2008 but later that year claimed the gold medal at the Beijing Games.
With a new, richer Russia there have been numerous players who have risen to unprecedented heights. Tennis has now become the no1 sport for ladies whereas men still have hockey, soccer or tennis to choose for a highly-paid sports career.
Whether any of the many Russians on show at the 2009 AEGON International will collect a singles title remains to be seen, although history suggests that a Russian will finish as runner-up. Indeed, at 2008 Eastbourne Nadia Petrova was beaten in the final by Polish ace Agnieszka Radwanska.
Both sets of players in both the men’s and ladies draws are extremely strong, with many former world no1 players and ex-grand slam champions.
One thing for certain is that the influx of ever improving Russian tennis players is proving a bit hit with fans and players alike, having replaced the dull domination of the Americans in the 1980s and 1990s. Although Serena and Venus Williams are hot on the heels of Safina in the world rankings at no2 and no3 at the time of writing.
The women’s game is particularly packed with real aces in the Russian pack, such as Sharapova on her comeback trail following shoulder surgery, Kuznetsova and Safina. But it will be the five Russians of Dementieva, Vera Zvonavera, Petrova, Alisa Kleybanov and Anna Chakvetadze who will give the Eastbourne fans thrills and spills at the 2009 tournament.
“I had in my head that I had lost three finals this year, I didn’t want to have a reputation that I’m losing finals!”
– Dinara Safina