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Russian women rise to the top of tennis despite lack of facilities, support

Many young Russian girls have been driven to pick up rackets by the success of megastars such as Maria Sharapova, above.
Many young Russian girls have been driven to pick up rackets by the success of megastars such as Maria Sharapova, above. (Chris Carlson - AP)

Russia has not traditionally been a tennis nation, but the inclusion of the sport on the Olympic program at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul after a 64-year absence brought a shift in attention. An even more forceful boost came early in the millennium through Yeltsin's three-times-per-week tennis habit and his endearing enthusiasm for the game. Yeltsin's influence continues even now, players say, as youngsters flock to group lessons on the myriad courts constructed between 2000 and 2004.

"Boris Yeltsin really helped the game," Dementieva said. "He was the biggest fan. He started developing tennis facilities in Moscow and around the country . . . It changed a lot. Tennis really became a huge sport in Russia."

Tennis's popularity did not, however, stave off the problems that have beset other sports since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of the nation's most successful pros began their careers at the decidedly unglamorous training facility called Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, or at other run-down, decrepit clubs.

Yeltsin's cheerleading brought new courts and tournaments to Russia, but it did not offer the sustained funding necessary to keep all of the nation's courts in mint condition, nor did it ensure ready or affordable access to top facilities for working-class Russians. Yet the difficult conditions, many players say, helped build the current generation of determined, unrelenting, hard-nosed stars.

"They use this as a way to get a better life," said Simon Serges, an Italian coach and husband of Regina Kulikova, the world's 71st-ranked woman.

Said Kulikova: "We are really much stronger mentally than other countries. . . . We are fighting like crazy. We really want to win and to improve."

When skills develop to the point that young players require elite, individualized training, some decide opportunities are better outside their home nation -- and so they leave.

Kournikova and Sharapova moved to Bradenton, Fla., to attend the Bollettieri Tennis Academy as youngsters; Kuznetsova left for Spain; No. 18 Nadia Petrova went to Egypt; 35th-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova trains in France; and Kulikova moved to Italy, and then Switzerland.

"The paradox is, we have so many good tennis players, especially girls, but the system is not very good," said Kudryavtseva. "I'm sorry to say, my federation is not really doing a fantastic job. The job is mostly done by parents."

Parents have provided the push, funding and, in many cases, superb genes. A generation removed from the old Soviet sports machine, many of Russia's top female players seem to have derived significant benefits from that legendary era.

Kournikova is the daughter of a Greco-Roman wrestler and a 400-meter runner. Many in the current crop of top players descend from parents with similarly impressive résumés: One dad won a world championship in wrestling; a mother was a six-time world champion cyclist; another parent played professional basketball; another competed in the hammer throw; two others won Olympic bronze medals, one in sprinting and another in field hockey; several were tennis instructors.

"It's just in our blood," said Kulikova, whose father, Alexander, played pro basketball.

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