Exclusive by Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
It means, as it stands, that there will be no Americans in the Ladies Singles main draw of the grass court tournament at Devonshire Park for the first time ever – with Russians continuing to dominate in Singles on the professional circuit.
Stephens is suffering from an abdominal problem while Shvedova has an on going right arm injury. Both players have opted to practice and rest ahead of The Championships.
Stephens, who has yet to reach a Singles final on the WTA Tour Singles final, has hit the headlines this year because of her brushes with world no1 Serena Williams.
Stephens’ form nosedived after her exploits in Melbourne (and the previous event in Brisbane), but returned to cause problems against opponents during the clay court season beginning at the Madrid Masters.
She concluded the gruelling season on clay with a run to the 4th Round at the 2013 French Open for the second season on the bounce, bowing out to defending champion Maria Sharapova of Russia.
Doubles expert Shvedova will also miss the traditional Wimbledon warm-up event, which has the usual stellar field in the Ladies Singles.
Although Russian-born Shvedova continues to live and train in Moscow, she switched her Russian nationality in 2008 as part of Kazakhstan boosting its profile on the sporting arena.
Shvedova, twice a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, came to prominence at Singles during 2012 Wimbledon when she achieved a Golden Set success over Italian Sara Errani. And last year she started to sport prescription sports glasses due to a nervous tic in one eye.
2012 AEGON International draw | By Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
Caroline Wozniacki, the former world no1 and ex-Eastbourne champion, has been set a stiff task at the AEGON International – her first return to Devonshire Park since triumphing in 2009.
The no3 seed has been drawn against tenacious teenager Christina McHale, widely regarded as the next best thing on the WTA Tour and expected to soon fill the big shoes of ailing veterans Serena and Venus Williams as the American no1.
The winner of this highly anticipated contest is pitched in the same quarter as another ex-world no1 in the shape of Ana Ivanovic, who is on the comeback trail under recently appointed British coach Nigel Sears. But the Serbian star, seeded no4, has a game that is suited to grass despite having never made much of an impact at Wimbledon.
However, Ivanovic faces a qualifier in the 1st Round then, if successful, the winner of China’s in-form Jie Zheng and the stunning Czech Republic ace Klara Zakopalova.
Whoever comes out of that quarter potentially faces Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the Czech Republic star who finished runner-up at last year’s Eastbourne final.
Kvitova was ousted by new world no1 Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, so will be keen to obtain some grass court practice ahead of defending her title at SW19.
But Kvitova has been handed a nightmare opening round opponent in the form of Ekaterina Makarova, as the Russian is a former Eastbourne champion courtesy of a thrilling two set victory over Belarussian Victoria Azarenka in 2010.
In the same quarter there could be a 2nd Round clash between two talented young Germans, seeded Angelique Kerber and Mona Barthel. Both are deemed dark horses in the race to win the AEGON International, although South African Chanelle Scheepers will be planning a possible quarter-final showdown with Kvitova if she can see off Barthel in the opening round.
Marion Bartoli, the defending Eastbourne champion, is set to face Romanian beauty Sorana Cirstea in the 1st Round.
The French ace, if she wins, would face the winner of Aleksandra Wozniak and Galina Voskoboeva. Bartoli is seeded for a quarter-final clash with Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova.
Agnieszka Radwanska, the world no3 and top seed, leads a tough looking top quarter. The Pole, a former Eastbourne champion, is drawn against Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova – who is known on the WTA Tour for causing upsets. The winner faces either Petra Cetkovska or Carla Suarez Navarro in the 2nd Round.
Daniela Hantuchova, who surprisingly slipped up in her 1st Round match on grass at Birmingham, has been handed an opening round showdown against Brit Anne Keothavong. And the Slovakian will already be eying up her potential 2nd Round opponent out of New Zealand no1 Marina Erakovic and Austrian ace Tamira Paszek, who for the tournament is based at her Godparents who live in Eastbourne.
2009 AEGON International | 17-23 June
Shuai Peng arrives at Eastbourne having suffered a disappointing build-up to the Wimbledon warm-up event.
The Chinese ace made a shock 1st Round exit with a poor performance to fall to world no62 Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden at May’s Brussels Open.
And she simply had no answer at Roland Garros when she was steamrolled past by eventual French Open champion Maria Sharapova.
Shuai offered little resistance in their 3rd Round encounter against the Russian world no1, although attempted to vary her gameplan with a range of different styles – only to be shot down each time.
And Shuai’s confidence will have taken a hit going into the grass court season, although she will no doubt be able to hone her skills by also competing at Doubles.
Angelique Kerber, who was one match away from becoming the first German woman to reach the Roland Garros semi-final stage since Steffi Graf in 1999, expects to bounce back in style on grass.
The no10 seed at the 2012 French Open soared into the quarter-finals, only to be left dazed and confused by the petite Italian ace Sara Errani – the runner-up to Maria Sharapova in Paris.
Kerber was given the runaround throughout their tie, and even ran straight into the umpire’s chair during their tussle.
But the German no1 will have to control her fragile temperament if she is going to make an impact at Devonshire Park ahead of Wimbledon and London 2012.
She impressed in the early rounds to end her grueling clay court season, but was second best to the Italian.
Yet Kerber has to be among the favourites to claim the 2012 AEGON International crown, having show the skills and determination to reach the 2011 US Open semi-finals.
Whether Kerber can ever fill the massive shoes of her compatriot, the legendary Graff, remains to be seen. But she is certainly giving it her best shot – and is seen by many as a potential world no1.
She admitted: “If I want to be the best in the world then I have to be fast and resistant, I also have to think more!”
By Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
The Czech star completed her clay court season in Paris by storming to the semi-finals before being blown away by new world no1 Maria Sharapova.
The battling world no4 has kept faith in utilising all her dangerous weapons – big serve and fierce forehand – that destroyed Sharapova in the 2011 Wimbledon final.
And Kvitova made a magnificent start to the 2012 season, climbing to world no2 in February, prior to a lull.
But Kvitova is back to her purposeful best and brushed aside shock French Open quarter-final opponent Yaroslava Shvedova, despite the world no144 surprising defending Roland Garros champion Li Na in three sets.
The left-hander set up a potentially mouthwatering French Open semi-final showdown with Sharapova, when Kvitova had the opportunity to make amends for their strange semi-final match at the 2012 Australian Open, when Sharapova snatched success in three sets.
But Russian ace Sharapova proved too hot to handle as she reached her maiden Roland Garros final at the third attempt. And has left Kvitova to concentrate on defending her Wimbledon title, and warming up at Eastbourne’s 2012 AEGON International.
Since Kvitova’s triumph at SW19 she has had to grind out victories by refusing to panic, so that she can control the points.
Among the handful of favourites at Devonshire Park, the Czech star is set to shine ahead of her return to Wimbledon’s Centre Court but faces stiff competition for the AEGON International title with such a strong field.
By Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
The Polish ace, the Eastbourne champion four years ago, had been hanging on to the tennis top tails of the leading stars until this season.
Now she is a force to be reckoned with.
Radwanska will return to the AEGON International as top seed in a highly competitive draw that features a number of former world no1 players.
But Radwanska, yet to claim a Grand Slam title, could edge nearer that coveted world no1 slot – her ambition – when the grass season begins.
The Pole dances and glides on grass during the grass court season, her classic game perfectly suited to the fast surface.
And this year Radwanska competes in back-to-back events at Eastbourne, Wimbledon and the Olympic Games following an enduring clay court season.
With neither Victoria Azarenka nor Maria Sharapova set to play at Devonshire Park, Radwanska will be eager to collect more WTA Tour points and claim the Eastbourne crown ahead of the two big tests at SW19.
But first she faces the 2012 French Open, where six years ago in Paris she was the Junior champion: “Clay is not really my favourite surface, but I’ve had some good results on it.
“I hope I can do better than last year when I reached the 4th Round at Roland Garros.
“I am trying my best and I am just happy that this year I have been able to play a couple of good matches on clay.
“But at Paris whether it suits me or not depends on who is standing on the other side of the net.”
Asked whether she preferred to win a Grand Slam or the Olympic Tennis gold medal, Radwanska said: “You cannot compare, they are two separate things – it is like winning a Grand Slam or being world no1.”
By Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
Those world ranked at singles within the top 56, on both the ATP and WTA Tours, on 11 June 2012 are set to automatically qualify for a place in the Olympic Tennis main draw.
However, under the current IOC rules no nation is permitted more than four players at singles.
This is would prove to be problematic for the tennis-mad nation of Russia as they currently have seven women in the world’s top 56.
The Eastbourne favourites of Kuznetsova, Ekaterina Makarova and Nadia Petrova could each miss out on a shot at an Olympic medal for Russia unless they dramatically improve their world ranking.
Even taking into account the ITF’s wildcards, the four player rule would prevent Kuznetsova from competing.
Maria Sharapova, the Russian no1, admitted: “Growing up in Russia it was all about being an Olympian, especially the Winter Games, and tennis was not a big sport back then. Now tennis has become extremely popular in Russia.”
The Czech Republic are another nation who will be a victim of their own success on the WTA Tour, with five leading players vying for the four allocated berths at Olympics Singles.
Meanwhile, hosts Great Britain will be relying on wildcard entries for the Ladies Singles Competition as not even teenage sensation Laura Robson would automatically qualify for the Olympics.
by Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
Draw’s double trouble | Serena and Venus Williams are dangerously unseeded in a top-quality draw of 32 that has attracted most of the world’s top players.
Wildcard Serena makes her competitive comeback since being crowned 2010 Wimbledon Championship and faces Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova in the opening round, and if victorious plays the winner of top see Vera Zvonareva and British wildcard Heather Watson. Serena could face Sam Stosur or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the quarter-finals and probably Victoria Azarenka or Marion Bartoli in the last four.
Venus last played in January’s Australian Open and will play no8 seed Andrea Petkovic in the first round, the same player that she retired against at Melbourne.
“We’re not here for results, but we are going to do our best to take home titles. I’m very excited to be back, I love playing – it’s my job”
– Venus Williams
Shine the lights it’s ‘Vogue’ | Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was one of a number of WTA Tour stars to be involved in Saturday’s photo-shoot for the Turkish version of ‘Vogue’ magazine. Pavlyuchenkova turned up for practice at Devonshire Park with her hair still up and in full make-up to hit with glamour girl Julia Goerges. The German ace said: “I’ll play Ana (Ivanovic) in the 1st Round, there are tough draws here at Eastbourne – it’s nice getting straight away into great competition on grass.”
Stosur serves her predictions | Gutsy Australian Sam Stosur, an Eastbourne regular and current world’s no 10, will face Russian Nadia Petrova in the opening round and said: “There’s a handful of people who can do very well and on form I think Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Julia Goerges are possibly playing best.”
“I grew up playing on a hardcourt so I’d like think I’ve got a reasonable chance although grass is probably the most difficult for me.
“You’ve got to take it each match at a time and try not think ‘the last few months haven’t been as good as I wanted them to be and this this isn’t going to be a good tournament’.”
Brit special for top pair | Nottingham finalist Elena Baltacha and Heather Watson, the British no1 and no2 respectively, have been handed wildcards – as expected.
The world no74 Baltacha made the 2nd Round of the French Open and has been drawn against French ace Aravan Rezai, Guernsey’s Watson recently cracked the world’s top 100 but faces a stern test as she been handed a draw against top seed Vera Zvonareva.
“I got amazing support at Birmingham, let’s see if Eastbourne can match it”
– Heather Watson
British no3 Anne Keothavong saw off France’s Alize Cornet in the opening round of qualifying 6-4 6-2, but the other four Brits – Naomi Broady, Anna Fitzpatyrick, Kate O’Brien and Emily Webley-Smith were all halted at the first hurdle.
Ivanovic hits great form | Serbian star Ana Ivanovic warmed-up for Eastbourne in style at Birmingham, reeling off her first three matches in under three hours to march into a semi-final showdown with fellow Eastbourne entrant Daniela Hantuchova.
The former world no1 was having a resurge following her French Open exit, despite seeking a new coach after she stopped working with Heinz Gunthard, until Hantuchova halted her 6-7 6-3 6-2. Ivanovic, who is currently only travelling with a hitting partner, said:
“Things happen very fast on grass, but it was the first time I have played four matches in a row for a long time.
“I have to find a good coach, someone who will commit and be willing to travel, and someone with whom to get along because you do seem to spend a lot of time together.”
Kleybanova K’O’d | Russian ace Alisa Kleybanova, who withdrew from the French Open citing illness, has withdrawn from Eastbourne and the Wimbledon Championships.
Navratilova replaces Novotna | The legendary Martina Navratilova has replaced Jana Novotna in the Legends Exhibition event at Eastbourne between 12-13 June. Navratilova (pictured) triumphed in 11 singles titles at Devonshire Park, and joins Spaniard Conchita Martinez and Swiss Martina Hingis in the event that includes Holland’s Wimbledon winner Richard Kraijeck, French flair master Henri Leconte and former British no1 Greg Rusedski.
King is coming | Two-time Grand Slam Doubles champion Vania King (pictured) will make her Eastbourne debut after Russian Alisa Kleybanova withdrew from the tournament and Wimbledon.
The American Fed Cup player, who followed German Julia Goerges into Eastbourne on June 9, joins her high-profile compatriots Serena and Venus Williams in the most competitive tournament ever seen at Devonshire Park but has to go through qualifying.
King said: “I’m looking forward to the challenge, but Eastbourne’s cold and windy. I can’t go out and rely on hitting a serve or a big shot as I’m only 5’5”, so I have to be creative. I can still improve on a lot of things, including my movement, but I look forward to playing.
Kanepi’s warm-up killed | Kaia Kanepi was upstaged by Russian qualifier Arina Rodionova 6-4 6-2 at Birmingham’s AEGON Classic as top seed.
The Estonian world no17 said: “Last year when I played in qualifying it was much easier for me in the main draw, I didn’t move her around and it’s pretty difficult to have a ‘Plan B’ on grass if your game’s not working.”
Serena eager for Eastbourne | Four-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams (pictured) will make her Eastbourne debut as a wildcard. The 13-Grand Slam winner joins her sister Venus in the main draw on their competitive comeback,
Serena said: “Serena’s back! I’m excited to be healthy enough to compete, as these past 12 months have been extremely tough and character-building. I’m thankful to my family, friends and fans for their support and really looking to playing on grass again.”
Serena watched Venus from the sidelines at the 1998 event at Devonshire Park, where Venus won two matches but fell in the third – more distracted my her falling beads onto the grass courts than her opponent.
French Open champs set for Eastbourne | China’s Li Na, crowned as Asia’s first ever Grand Slam singles champion at Roland Garros, is likely to skip Birmingham and concentrate on warming up for Wimbledon by competing at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park.
The classic French Open never materialised as powerhouse Li staved off a set point to beat defending French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, an Eastbourne regular, 6-4 7-6. Li is set to move up to world no4 and is the probable top seed for the 2011 AEGON International.
All that glistens is not gold | Many local residents are fuming with the LTA over their latest tennis posters and flyers that airbrushes all the stones from its beach and replaces them with golden sands.
Eastbourne councillor David Elkin explained: “The shingle is an iconic part of Eastbourne.” And an LTA spokesman admitted: “We wanted to create a buzz and it appears that we’ve done so.”
Our team at EastbourneTennis.com have had to answer emails and texts asking whether the beach (pictured) is now sandy as they would holiday at the seaside resort rather than just turn up for the day.
Sharapova still yet to make debut | Russian beauty Maria Sharapova sensationally withdrew from the AEGON Classic at Edgbaston’s Priory Club, her usual haunt as a Wimbledon warm-up, with an illness sustained during her semi-final defeat at the French Open. Although the ex-Wimbledon champion has never played at Eastbourne, it was hoped that she may opt for a wildcard entry for Devonshire Park this year.
Venus’ star turn | Venus Williams will compete at Eastbourne for the first time since 1998. The 30-year-old (right) usually returns to her Florida base to prepare for Wimbledon after Roland Garros. But the five-time Wimbledon champion hasn’t played on the WTA Tour since the 2011 Australian Open, where she retired because of a hip injury in the third round.
She has signed up with her sister Serena to play in July’s World Team Tennis League in America, a nine-game event devised by ex-professional Billie Jean-King straight after playing Wimbledon.
Stosur sets goal | Sam Stosur, the 2010 French Open finalist, returns to Devonshire Park having reached the 2010 AEGON International semi-finals. The Australian fell to eventual shock champion Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
Stosur, a favourite at Eastbourne, said: I’m so excited to be returning to Eastbourne and I’m hopeful of going even further this year at Devonshire Park. Andrea Petkovic’s ranking ascension shows no signs of slowing down, as a month after she rose to a career-high No.15, she went up three more spots following her victory in Strasbourg.
Petrovic on the rise | Andreas Petrovic, who cracked the world’s top 25 at the start of this season, is edging ever closer to becoming the first German on the WTA Tour to become a top 10 hit since compatriot Anke Huber in October 2000.
Hingis returns | Former professional Martina Hingis, a five-time Grand Slam champion and a doubles winner at Eastbourne, is set to play in The Legends exhibition event at Devonshire Park on 12-13 June.
The ‘Swiss Miss’ will play in the singles on the opening Sunday and with Boris Becker in the mixed doubles on the Monday.
Hingis said: “I’ve got fond memories of the event as I won the 1999 doubles event with Anna Kournikova, so it’s a delight to be invited back to Eastbourne.”
Wozniacki skips Eastbourne | Caroline Wozniacki is a surprise not to be playing at Eastbourne 2011, having won so spectacularly in 2009. The great Dane and world no1 lacked her usual bite at Devonshire Park last year and will instead play in the UNICEF Open in the Netherlands.
However, rumours are rife that Wozniacki avoided Devonshire Park this year as she did not want to face her nemesis German ace Julia Goerges before Wimbledon. Wozniacki said: “I can’t wait to play the grass season again.”
2010 AEGON International
Pre-tournament news by Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
Caroline Wozniacki has a daunting task ahead if she is to successfully retain her Eastbourne crown, won so spectacularly in 2009.
The great Dane needs as much bite as she can muster with the draw comprising six of the current world’s top 10 players.
And Wozniacki is one of four ex-Eastbourne champions alongside popular Pole Agnieszka Radwanska (2008 winner), Belgian ace Kim Clijsters (2005) and out-of-sorts Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004).
With such a strong field, it has been no surprise that there are some really tough opening round draws that would be worthy of a final at most other events.
Wozniacki faces in-form French star Aravane Rezai, who won the Madrid Masters on clay that allegedly upset compatriot Martoli Bartoli because of all the media attention at the 2010 French Open.
Bartoli has reached three successive semi-finals at Eastbourne, but will need to be back to her best if she is succeed again. While Shahar Peer, tipped by numerous former players as a future Wimbledon champion, is surely due some long overdue success at Devonshire Park.
Clijsters is on the comeback trail and although is a favourite with the fans may not entertain the crowds for long as she has to face Fed Cup team-mate Yanina Wickmayer.
Francesca Schiavone, the newly-crowned French Open champion, may not be a grass court expert but should easily see off Kuznetsova if they both reach the second round. Kuznetsova fell out of the world’s top 10 for the first time in over four years after being bounced out of the French Open early.
Big-serving Sam Stosur, runner-up at Roland Garros, has dramatically improved since the semi-finals at Eastbourne 2008 but her sternest test is likely to be a quarter-final clash against 2010 Australian Open semi-finalist Li Na.
The Chinese ace picked up the grass court title at Birmingham on Sunday with a comfortable win over former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova.
Schiavone inspires Italy
Francesca Schiavone’s surprise victory on the clay courts at Roland Garros has inspired the Italian football team ahead of the FIFA World Cup finals in South Africa.
Milanese ace Schivone became the first woman outside the world’s top10 to win a grand slam singles title since 1933. The 2009 Wimbledon quarter-finalist (left) outplayed Australia Sam Stosur in the final at Paris.
When Schivone was quizzed what makes her game so special, she claimed: “Going over the limits, and being everything you can be in two hours.”
Henin misses Eastbourne
Justine Henin, desperately seeking to win Wimbledon, but has opted to skip 2010 Eastbourne.
The Belgian ace has signed up for the grass court UNICEF Open at Rosmalen in Holland, as she warms up for the only grand slam event to elude her.
This will only be Henin’s eighth event since returning to the WTA Tour, following her shock fourth round 2010 French Open exit to Australian Sam Stosur.
I knew that 2010 was going to be difficult, I thought it would be a year of transition. I’m getting used to dealing with situations.
– Justine Henin
Brits back in business
British no1 Elena Baltacha, who warmed up for Eastbourne by winning the AEGON Trophy at Nottingham, has done enough to climb up the world rankings and claim a wildcard entry into the event at Devonshire Park.
And compatriot Anne Keothavong, the ex-British no1 before a long-term injury, has also been handed a wildcard to the event.
Scottish star Baltacha (pictured), plagued by injuries for years, only rejoined the world’s top 100 in early 2010 but she has been cutting her way through the world rankings ever since.
Delighted with her form and playing at Eastbourne, she said: “There’s nothing like playing in front of your home crowd, but like always I’m going to give it everything I have.
“I always join the week as the grass plays similarly to Wimbledon. I’ve got a lot of friends down at Eastbourne, so I always end up staying the whole week.”
Calm Clijsters all clear
Kim Clijsters, the 2009 US Open champion, will be making a return appearance at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park this year despite missing the 2010 French Open with a foot injury.
Clijsters will use Eastbourne to warm-up before competing in the singles and mixed doubles – with compatriot Xavier Malisse – at 2010 Wimbledon.
The former 2005 Eastbourne singles winner briefly left the WTA Tour to have a baby, but has made a dramatic reappearance on the professional circuit.
Eastbourne’s one of my favourite events. I won it in 2005 and I can’t wait to challenge for the title again.
– Kim Clijsters
Kuznetsova’s quick on the draw
Svetlana Kuznetsova has stepped in to replace her injured Russian compatriot Elena Dementieva at the 2010 AEGON International.
The ex-Eastbourne champion, who was knocked out of the third round at Roland Garros while trying to defend her French Open title, is desperate to rediscover her form for Wimbledon after falling out of the world’s top 10 for the first time in a decade.
I’m delighted to have been awarded this wildcard to Eastbourne, it provides excellent preparation for Wimbledon. It brings back good memories after my victory there in 2004. Without playing matches, it’s hard to win.
– Svetlana Kuznetsova
Dementieva down and out
Elena Dementieva, who claimed that she had played at Roland Garros with a torn calf muscle since the second round, retired with the injury at the semi-final stage.
The no5 seed (pictured) in Paris received treatment during her French Open quarter-final victory over compatriot Nadia Petrova, but did not require a physio on the Philippe Chatrier Court against the Italian.
“I’ve a tear in my left calf, so it’s very painful to even walk,” she said. “Today was just a sharp pain and it was a bit too much.”
Peer placed for top 10 hit
Shahar Peer returned to her native Israel for a break before her grass court season kicks off at Eastbourne, where she aims to edge ever closer to being a top 10 player.
Her clay court season displays, including semi-final spots at Madrid and Stuttgart as well the last 16 at the French Open, has lifted her to world no14 going into the 2010 AEGON International.
Coach Pablo Giacopelli said: “Peer will get to the top 10 this year, or at least get very near to it, but the key is about staying there.”
No risk for Robson
Laura Robson has opted to qualify for the Birmingham grass court tournament ahead of Wimbledon, but skips the 2010 AEGON International as she has accepted a wildcard into the WTA Tour event of the Unicef Open in Rosmalen, Holland.
The event in the Netherlands is run by her management company, Octagon, and her coach Martijn Bok is also Dutch.
But the teenager was not a popular player after referring to other WTA Tour players as “sluts”. She later apologised for her jibe.
Great Dane back for third bite
Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish ace, will make it a hat-trick of appearances at Eastbourne by playing at Devonshire Park.
The 2009 US Open runner-up is a grass court expert and relishes the chance to play on the surface prior to The Championships.
“I’m really excited to defend my title,” enthused Wozniacki “And I can’t wait to return to England for the grass court season.”
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