Elena Dementieva was probably the unluckiest of the Russian stars as she retired without a single grand slam title. Source: RIA Novosti / Grigory Sysoev
Russian hopes at the US Open tennis championships that kicked off yesterday were virtually dashed even before the tournament began as Maria Sharapova withdrew because of an injury. A look at the latest WTA rankings shows that the only Russian player in the top 20 besides Sharapova is Maria Kirilenko, who is ranked number 17 in the world. In the top 32, there are only 4 others: Nadia Petrova, Elena Vesnina, Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznestova, whose best days are clearly behind her. Whatever happened to the Russian women’s tennis revolution?
The so-called tennis revolution started in the late-1990s when Anna Kournikova broke into the scene. While the glamour girl didn’t win a single grand slam, her initially promising play was a sign of things to come. 2004 was the real breakthrough year for Russian women’s tennis. It started with the all women’s final between Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva at Roland Garros. Myskina became the first Russian woman to win a grand slam when she defeated her compatriot in Paris.
That year, Maria Sharapova won her first and only Wimbledon title hammering a stunned Serena Williams. A Russian grand slam hat trick was completed when Svetlana Kuznetsova won the US Open. The architect of the Russian tennis revolution, Boris Yeltsin was still alive then and got a glimpse of one of his achievements in an otherwise very controversial political career.
After the breakthrough year, there were 5 Russian women in the top 10 and the country went on to dominate the Federation Cup by winning in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008. By the year Russia won the last of its Federation Cups, there were 6 Russians in the WTA Top 10. To add to all this was the Beijing 2008 Olympic gold medal won by Elena Dementieva, who was probably the unluckiest of the Russian stars as she retired without a single grand slam title.
Most countries would be happy with such success in any sport over a given period and Russian hopes still lie with Maria Sharapova, who when healthy can win any of the four grand slams. But there doesn’t seem to be another Russian player at the moment who can compete regularly for a grand slam title.
Why isn’t Russia consistently producing any players in the top 10 rankings in this decade? The answer may actually lay in the fact that there is an overall revival of sports in the country. At the time Boris Yeltsin ushered in the foundation for the Russian tennis revolution, overall funding for sports in the country was at an all time low. The country went from the collapse of the 1991 to the crisis of 1998 and Russia’s performances in international sporting events were consistently on the decline. Tennis may have seemed like the only feasible way to sports stardom in the Yeltsin era when economic prospects weren’t bright.
Vladimir Putin’s presidency brought about a complete change in the state’s attitude towards sports. He spoke at length about sports and fitness being the foundation of a good lifestyle and the baby steps taken from 2000 seem to have ushered in a revival in many sports. Last year’s London Olympics ushered in the era of Russia as a power in judo when Arsen Galstyan, Mansur Isaev and Tagir Khaibulaev won gold medals. Similarly, the authorities have been promoting winter sports among the youth ever since Russian won the right to host the Winter Olympics in 2014. Nothing would make the president happier than to see Russia finish at the top of the medals tally in Sochi next year, although that will not be an easy feat.
Russia’s rise as an economic power has also seen a revival in summer sports. The country performed well in London last year and this year’s IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow saw Russia come out as overall winners, winning the most gold medals.
As Russia continues to rise as a sporting power, tennis is no longer the only sport that can catapult an athlete to fame in the country. For Russian women to scale new heights in tennis, retired greats like Dementieva and Myskina may need to actively promote the sport and maybe even set up academies. Tennis in the country has to compete with several other sports and it won’t be easy to attract the best sporting talent to the tennis court. This could of course change if a new sensation comes out of nowhere and wins a grand slam title and sets an example for a new generation of girls to follow.
Despite being an optimist and a huge fan of Russian tennis, I don’t see Elena Vesnina or Nadia Petrova winning this year’s US Open but some young underdog may just become the toast of Russia by performing well in this year’s last grand slam.
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