From Russia with game

A wave of young Russian players has flooded the women's game, laying claim to high rankings and big money. But do any of them have what it takes to win major titles? By JOEL DRUCKER.

THE court for the match has been laid down in the parking lot of the Sunrise Mall, in a suburb north of Sacramento, California. The fans all appear to know one another and are chatting during the points. A pair of local radio DJs from 92.5 KGBY-FM frequently jump in with commentary that ranges from the redundant ("This point's a big one!") to the mildly amusing. In other words, it's a typically freewheeling World Team Tennis match.

Maria Sharapova... already an international sensation. Known for her fierce grunt and scorching ground strokes. — Pics. CLIVE MASON & PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

But the casual atmosphere ends at the sidelines. On court, two Russians are slugging it out. Elena Likhovtseva of the Sacramento Capitals is a 27-year-old veteran. Her opponent, Maria Sharapova of the Newport Beach Breakers, is just 16, but she's already 6 ft 1 inch and an international sensation thanks to her fierce grunt, scorching ground strokes, and a run to quarterfinals at Wimbledon this past summer. She's bombing forehands into the corners and wiping the court with Likhovtseva. As Nick Bollettieri, who helped develop Sharapova at his academy, says, "Maria's lot like Monica (Seles). She'll give you a smile, but then she'll kill you."

"I live for competition," Sharapova says. But at 16 she can only get so much. Sharapova is restricted to competing in 14 tournaments this year because of WTA age-eligibility rules; she can't play a full schedule until 2005. This WTT match, then, isn't just a pleasant interlude from the tour, as it is for other moonlighting pros. Nor does Sharapova treat it as a learning experience. She has the same attitude she took to Wimbledon, where she said, "I'm not here to get my ass kicked. This isn't a dream for me. This is reality."

Sharapova's reality is shared by a growing group of Russian girls and young women. By mid-August, seven were ranked in the WTA's Top 30 and 11 had cracked the Top 80. (Two Russian men are in the ATP Top 30, and only the U.S. has more Top 30 women, with eight.)

Nadia Petrova... a complicated road to stardom. — Pics. CLIVE MASON & PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

A number of factors have made women's tennis popular in Russia, including a Soviet-era legacy of gender equality in sports and, of course, the money that the pro game offers. This trend goes back to the early 1980s, when tennis joined the Olympic Games. Tennis' subsequent leap in status in Russia led to increased government spending on player-development programs. Parents responded, dropping children of 10 and younger onto the game's fast track. The biggest change, though, is this: In the Soviet era, only two players of either gender were allowed to travel the world circuit; today, anyone good enough to go, goes.

No Russian woman has personified the rewards of that changing scenario as Anna Kournikova has. The impact was seismic when, as a 16-year-old, she reached the 1997 Wimbledon semifinals and eventually rose as high as No. 8 in the world. Odd as it may be to think of Kournikova as a pioneer (keeping in mind that Likhovtseva and Tatiana Panova were already developing into Top 20 players when she emerged), she was the one who set the pace for a generation of gifted youngsters.

Yet even while Kournikova was getting all the attention, other talented Russians were emerging. In December 1998, Elena Dementieva (now age 22 and ranked No. 12) and Nadia Petrova (21 years old and No. 20) became the first Russian girls to contest the final of the Orange Bowl, an important junior tournament. In less than two years, Dementieva reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open and finished 2000 ranked No. 12. Injuries, as well as a shaky serve and awkward forehand, have hampered her progress, but she beat Justine Henin-Hardenne and Lindsay Davenport at Amelia Island earlier this year to win her first pro title.

The 5 ft 10 inch Petrova's road to stardom was more complicated and perhaps more representative of the challenges facing the typical Russian player, even one with a world-class athletic pedigree. Petrova's father, Victor, was a top hammer thrower. Her mother, Nadejda Ilina, was a bronze medallist in the 4 x 400m relay at the 1976 Olympics. Petrova learned the game in Egypt, but her parents, though employed there as national-level track-and-field coaches, couldn't earn enough to give their daughter top-flight tennis training. So Petrova turned to a sponsor, flying to Poland to audition her game for a wealthy businessman who would become her backer, Andrei Glinski.

Petrova began working with Glen Schaap, a Dutch coach who was impressed by her athleticism, desire, and intelligence, but who also understood that she needed to incorporate topspin and net play into a one-dimensional game based on hard, flat, baseline hitting. "It was difficult for me to take in all this information and start doing new things," Petrova says. "I was losing easy matches, but I love digging and fighting, I have that spirit, so we just kept working and now it's OK."

The payoff came this spring when Petrova upset Jennifer Capriati at Roland Garros and reached the semifinals. In the quarters, Petrova won a three-setter over 18-year-old Vera Zvonareva, a young Russian, who had pulled off an upset of her own the round before by defeating Venus Williams.

Not to be outdone, yet another promising Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon just days after turning 18, and she played doubles with Martina Navratilova. "There's nothing flashy about Svetlana," Navratilova says, "but she's solid and has a great base to keep improving." That she probably will do: Kuznetsova, like most of her peers, has an appetite for work. "It is our mentality in Russia," she says. "We fight every day because the life is so tough."

But a willingness to work hard and an openness to changing your game don't always go hand-in-hand. Elena Bovina, 6 ft 2 inch and once touted as a more mobile version of Lindsay Davenport, is a testament to that. Relying on tenacity and a big backhand, the 20-year-old from Moscow cracked the Top 20 earlier this year. But her failure to vault to the next level led her to fire and then rehire her coach, Joe Giuliano. "It's one thing to be the hunter," Giuliano says, "but when you reach the Top 20 you become the hunted. You've got to keep trying to improve, instead of expecting the opponent to hand it to you. It worries me when players and parents react to a challenge by pushing the panic button rather than looking at their game and trying to build the best one possible."

The top cat among the young Russians faces a similar dilemma. Anastasia Myskina, 22, who improved her ranking from No. 58 at the end of 2001 to No. 11 at the start of 2003, vaulted to the head of the class with speed and a cagey counter-punching style. At the Australian Open in January, she reached the quarterfinals of a major for the first time. But her coach, Robert Lansdorp, who has worked with Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras, and Davenport, believes Myskina is too easily overpowered. He flatly predicts, "She'll never be a Top 5 player until she learns to stand closer to the baseline and hit the ball harder."

Vera Zvonareva... has a victory over Venus Williams to her credit. — Pic. CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES-

Sharapova walks into the lobby of the Sacramento Marriott Rancho Cordova with her father, Yuri. She's in hip-hugger blue jeans and a sleeveless brown top, and her long blond hair obscures her eyes.

After Wimbledon, she says, she had to catch up on a lot of homework. Sharapova is being "home-schooled" via the Internet, and indeed, the young Russians make their homes all over the world. Petrova spends most of her off-court time with Schaap in Amsterdam, Kuznetsova works with former pro Emilio Sanchez in Barcelona, and Myskina zips in and out of Los Angeles to train with Lansdorp. Sharapova was given a racquet at age 4, and by the time she was 6 the family had moved to Florida and accepted a scholarship at Bollettieri's academy for Maria. By age 11 she was splitting time between her home near Bollettieri's, just outside Tampa, Fla., and the L.A. base of Lansdorp, who she now identifies as her primary coach.

Elena Bovina... has the willingness to work hard. — Pic. IAN WALTON/GETTY IMAGES-

Sharapova sees nothing extraordinary about her life. "I'm just like every 16-year-old girl who likes to shop, likes to look good, likes to spend time with friends," she says.

Nor does Sharapova appear fazed by her breakout performance at Wimbledon and the publicity that came with it. "I win a couple of matches and suddenly there's my picture everywhere," she says. "It was pretty wild to have all those cameras around me."

While her marketing agency, IMG, seems eager to strike while the iron is hot and showcase Sharapova as a fashion plate in the mould of Kournikova, the question within the tennis community is when Sharapova or another young Russian will accomplish what Kournikova will likely never do: become a Grand Slam champion.

Will it be one of the players already on the radar, or the next in a seemingly endless wave of newcomers? Lina Krasnoroutskaya, just 19 but a Roland Garros quarterfinalist two years ago? Dinara Safina, 17, who's won two WTA tournaments and appears considerably more level-headed about her career than her brother, Marat? How about 17-year-old Vera Douchevina and 16-year-old Maria Kirilenko, who in 2002 won the junior Wimbledon and the junior U.S. Open, respectively, or 14-year-old Alisa Kleybanova, already the No. 4 junior in the world?

One thing is certain: This is a generation looking for the stamp of legitimacy. Perhaps one of these contenders has already heeded the observation of Navratilova, who offers this prescription for Grand Slam success: "You need the right people around you to kick your butt so you can at least try and reach the top. And you need to make the right choices."

As citizens of a nation where choice itself is a relatively new concept, Russian women face a doubly formidable challenge.

From Tennis Magazine @ 2003 By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate Internatioanl.