The Russians are coming…

Where in frozen Siberia did these Russians learn how to swing a racket? Svetlana Kuznetsova took the China Open. Dmitry Tursunov (Dmitry who?) beat the best American player, Andy Roddick, to knock the United States out of the Davis Cup. The glamorous Russian teenager Maria Sharapova swept past Belgium’s best, Justine Henin- Hardenne, to win the US Open.

Two decades ago, there were no Russian names among the top 100 players, much less among the glitterati of the sport. Today, Maria Sharapova, pictured, is a trademark, and behind her is a cascade of top-ranked Russians with jaw-challenging names: Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva, Nadia Petrova, Mikhail Youzhny, Nikolai Davydenko, Dmitry Tursunov, Marat Safin.

There is certain temptation to seek a Dostoevskian explanation for the rise of Russian tennis. Are these young stars a post-Soviet reaction to the collective ethic of the Soviet era? Tursunov has admitted in an interview that Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame was a model:

“After tennis, I want to have a big house and wear a velvety robe.”

The fact is that there was always tennis in the Soviet Union, even if it was often on lumpy courts behind high walls. All that changed in 1988, when tennis returned to the Olympics and the Soviet Union began to loosen up. Courts quickly began to sprout across the land.

Then Anna Kournikova showed how a Russian player can become a big bucks marketing star.

Why women’s tennis in particular? Professional sport was one of the few fields where women had a measure of equality in the old USSR. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, women were also freed to plunge into business. And so the two merged, most noticeably in tennis.

Read Serge Schmemann’s article in full by clicking here to visit the International Herald Tribune website.