With one taste of Anastasia Myskina's shy, halting, honey-sweet tones, it is instantly obvious why the French Open champion has lagged behind teen sensation Maria Sharapova in the publicity race despite a higher ranking and more career titles.
Even though she can talk with the petulance of a 17-year-old, Wimbledon winner Sharapova combines the beauty, youth and exoticism of Anna Kournikova with a distinctly American flavor -- and results, of course. Just a whisper of an accent can be detected behind Sharapova's colloquialisms, enough to remind an adoring public of her Siberian birthplace.
But Sharapova and Myskina, Russia's first two female Grand Slam winners, are just part of the women's tennis movement for a nation that, until recently, had been known only peripherally on the WTA Tour. With the U.S. Open set to start Monday in New York, five Russians rank in the top 10, with Myskina leading the way at No. 3.
This current crop of Russians has some of the same catty and controversial qualities for which Kournikova was known -- some have sniped at Sharapova's connection to her native country -- but have also followed Kournikova's marketing lead to magazine covers and Web sites, gossip columns and commercial endorsements. For a country with a relatively short history in women's tennis, and in a sport looking to fill a void during what seems to be an increasingly frequent number events skipped by the Williams sisters, these players have put Russia on the tennis map.
Since the beginning of the year, the soft-spoken Myskina, 23, has quietly emerged from the nest of Russian tennis talents, breaking through to become the country's first woman to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open. But despite a lawsuit against GQ Magazine involving topless pictures that appeared last month in a Russian magazine, Myskina nearly became a footnote when Sharapova shrieked her way onto the scene with a surprise victory at Wimbledon.
Yet the blond, blue-eyed Sharapova -- she includes a deal with IMG models on her resume -- has led the way in ink, counting a Sports Illustrated cover and a reported mid-seven figure sponsorship deal with Motorola.
"I've never seen so much mania over one player who's brand new to the top 10 in my 23 years," said Anne Worcester, director of the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Conn., a U.S. Open tuneup event in which Sharapova was upset in her first match.
When Sharapova was 7, she and her father emigrated to the United States with the family's life savings -- $700 -- with hopes of attending the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Two years later, she gained a scholarship and was on her way to the top 10 in the women's game.
A decade after she first came to the United States, Sharapova and her agent, Max Eisenbud, have placed the prodigy in a tenuous situation. Forced to defend her attachment to her homeland by other Russian pros, she simultaneously continues to hold the rest of her countrywomen at arm's length.
But now, her camp asks that she be considered as an individual -- she did win a Grand Slam, after all.
Myskina, on the other hand, while being swept into the crush of newly minted Russian stars, says she has no qualms about her position on the international stage.
"That wasn't my goal," Myskina said. "I get enough attention in my country. Sometimes I don't want even that. I guess my goal is just to play and do my best on the court."
But, as Kournikova proved, results on the court sometimes have very little to do with celebrity off it. Sharapova -- with three career titles in addition to the Wimbledon victory -- has already surpassed her predecessor, though she has also managed to run into controversy.
During a tournament late last month, other Russian players, notably Myskina and No. 6 Elena Dementieva, allowed the public to view a division in their ranks. Myskina and Dementieva, both of whom still train in Russia, made accusations during the tournament about Sharapova's connection to her native land.
While Myskina backtracked from her reported comments -- "We never said we feel that she's American" -- Dementieva brashly defended her assertion that Sharapova is "not really Russian."
"That's the way I feel," Dementieva said. "I don't really know her. Because I think she speaks English with her father. . . . She spends most of her time in the U.S. She was playing tennis since 6 or 5 that she came to the U.S. I think she started here, spent all her life here."
Sharapova responded by reaffirming her Russian heritage, despite the doubters: "You know, it really doesn't matter because inside of me, that's what matters the most. I know where I'm from and I know where I was born. I know what feels more comfortable."
Fifteenth-ranked Nadia Petrova acknowledged that she also hasn't had a smooth road in relating to her countrywomen, citing the fact that many Russians have begun to train in other nations.
"I left Russia when I was 12, so I had not much connection with Russian girls," Petrova said. "And it's still not on the perfect level with me and them because I have a big hole, you know. It's really hard."
Most of the Russian players simply say that they barely know Sharapova. For one thing, there's generally a three- to six-year age gap between her and almost all of the top older Russians. Another issue has been Sharapova's tendency to spend much of her time with her father, isolating herself from the others' mostly tight-knit circle.
By taking two of the first three Grand Slams of the year -- the Australian Open was won by Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium -- Russians have inserted themselves into the sport of tennis, at least on the women's side, with a vengeance. On the men's side, on the other hand, just one Russian -- No. 8 Marat Safin, who won the U.S. Open in 2000 -- sits in the top 30.
Three of the biggest turning points for Russian tennis were the addition of the women's game to the Olympics in 1988, the fall of the Soviet Union and its attendant restrictions on movement, and former president Boris Yeltsin's affection for the sport.
Brief breakthroughs by Olga Morozova (1974 French Open and Wimbledon finalist) and Natasha Zvereva (1988 French Open finalist) summed up much of the nation's women's tennis history.
"It's pretty amazing," said Martina Navratilova, a Czech by birth who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles. "But I think there's not that much to do [in Russia] for women athletes. There is not that many opportunities, as many as we have here, for them to make a living or get a scholarship or make a life out of a sport. So most of the good athletes play tennis. It's a great way for them to get out of the country, travel and make money."
Oh, and then there's Kournikova, who shot to prominence in 1997 with a run to the semifinals in her Wimbledon debut when she was just 16. Now known more for her celebrity gallivanting, Kournikova showed Russian players what was possible.
"I think she showed that we can play at the same level," Myskina said. "We can be there, do maybe the same thing. Now we do even better. She showed that we should believe in ourselves and do our best on the court."
Despite the gains she made for Russians in women's tennis, Kournikova, whose ranking peaked at No. 8, fell prey to injuries and bright lights. While the same is not expected of either Sharapova or Myskina, another player lends a cautionary tale.
Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova, the "next Anna" before Sharapova, tumbled from a career-high ranking of No. 5 during a slump last year. Hantuchova warned of the dangers of expectations coming too quickly, too soon.
"It's quite tough, I have to tell you that," she said. "It's not easy; whenever you go, there are people around, watching everything you do. Especially when you don't do well, then it becomes even tougher. I think only the experience can help to deal with that."
Since her takeover at Wimbledon, Sharapova hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboards. In addition to her first-round exit at the Pilot Pen, she lost in her second match in Montreal earlier this month, bowing to countrywoman Vera Zvonareva. As she said after her loss in New Haven, "You know, I can't be perfect all the time."
In the end, the minor feud between Myskina and Sharapova may give way to an important rivalry in the women's game, as many of the Russian players already have acknowledged how key competition has been to their surge. One-sided so far, Myskina has taken all three of the players' matches, including knocking Sharapova out of the 2004 Australian Open in the round of 32.
While not probable, the two stars could next meet in a semifinal of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. But Sharapova said she isn't focused on such predictions.
"I don't really have an expectation," Sharapova said. "To me, I don't have anything to prove to anybody and I never did. I play because I love the sport. I'm 17 years old and I have so many years ahead. If I don't win the U.S. Open this year, it's not going to be a disaster in my life."