Getting the world to work for them

The Russian Tennis Federation is smart enough not to sulk at those seeking outside help in succeeding. What matters is winning, and when it mattered, they did just that, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Rankings have as much relevance in Davis Cup deciders as wooden rackets in the21st century power hitting game. The occasion and the stakes strip most off the security of numbers, and the cushion of treating a loss, as merely an individual loss, disappears. To eventually succeed, it matters little if you alone have the desire and the skill to win. What matters is that the team as a whole should feel the same way. In tennis, a team event like the Davis Cup showcases how much its roots have spread, and going by that, Russia's expansion is massive.

But this is no recent phenomenon. Ever since Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Anastasia Myskina became Russia's first male and female singles Grand Slam winners respectively, the winners have sprung from the then burgeoning Russian empire with surprising regularity. The sudden surge in numbers is not merely a coincidence, but a result of individual bloody-mindedness.

Most Russian success stories start with little kids, tall ambitions and pushy parents who push their children to countries like the USA, Spain and France, which have top-notch facilities. There are not many players in the tennis world who have the attitudes to match the demonic desire and the workhorse temperament of the former Soviet nation.

Russia's Davis Cup captain Shamil Tarpishchev, labelled a "tennis genius" by coaches, supports the need to move out. "If a player is good and stays here after 14, the next kid coming up doesn't have room to play and develop, so I have urged them to go," he said. "That way, we get the world to work for us," he told New York Times.

It worked very well for the 2006 Davis Cup hero Marat Safin's career that often involves winning tough matches and gifting away the easy ones. But he did win when it mattered, and in hindsight, Tarpishchev got it spot on when he chose Safin for the mercurial Davis Cup final match, against Argentina, instead of semifinal hero Dmitry Tursunov. No one had a better chance of winning it than Safin, despite the equal possibility of no one having a better chance of losing it than the Muscovite himself.

The 26-year-old moved to Valencia, Spain, as a 14-year-old, in order to gain access to infrastructure that was not available in his country. Two Slams and two Davis Cup wins later, he could have been labelled a big success, if it wasn't for the gap between talent and achievement.

Safin's decision to move out is the norm and not the exception. Though not as generously gifted and flamboyant as Safin, Nikolay Davydenko's stunning rise is no surprise, considering the massive improvement he's made to his game.

The Ukraine-born Davydenko, who showed glimpses of the Andre Agassi of yore in his taking-the-ball-early-and-hard-hitting-game, had his tennis education in Germany, after a brief stint in Russia.

Tennis player cum blogger Dmitry Tursunov is more at home in the Californian beaches than in the refrigerated `warmth' of his home country. Despite where they hone their skills, these players still choose to represent Russia. "When you play for your own country, it feels really great," said Safin. "I did not want to lose the Cup," he added. This, coming from someone who was fined once for not trying hard enough, says something about what Davis Cup does to the players.

With landmark moments like these, the sport, which started off as an escape route for the Russians from suppression and hardships, has now opened avenues for success, glamour and fame; and former president Boris Yelstin's wild celebrations after every win only helps in putting the sport under the national spotlight.

Most importantly for the players, the Russian Tennis Federation is smart enough not to sulk at those seeking outside help in succeeding. What matters is winning, and when it mattered, they did just that.

THE SCORES Davis Cup final, at Moscow

Russia bt Argentina 3-2 (Nikolay Davydenko (Rus) bt Juan Ignacio Chela (Arg) 6-1,6-2, 5-7, 6-4;

Marat Safin (Rus) lost to David Nalbandian (Arg) 4-6,4-6, 4-6;

Marat Safin-Dmitry Tursunov (Rus) bt Agustin Calleri (Arg)-David Nalbandian 6-2,6-3, 6-4;

Nikolay Davydenko lost to David Nalbandian 2-6, 2-6,6-4, 4-6;

Marat Safin bt Jose Acasuso (Arg) 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5)

What's most remarkable about Russian tennis is its success on both sides. Unlike Spain (No great women players) and Belgium (No great men competitors), Russian women are bettering the men in adding on the numbers. For starters, the top-10 has four Russians, which says something.

The trend is no longer a surprise, nor is there anything sinister about it.

"Obviously there is no secret and everyone has a different story to tell, but we are all very well-motivated and our parents were really involved in our tennis lives," Elena Dementieva told `The Scotsman,' on the Russian success story.

Nadia Petrova adds that the sport gives them the opportunities. "Why do we dominate? Well, it's partly down to the size of the country and how many talents there are. But it is also because many players start with nothing at all and tennis can give them opportunities," she said.

Tennis is arguably the only globally popular sport where the gap between the men and the women isn't too big, as far as viewership and opportunities go, which has given the girls confidence that they can succeed in a big way.

And like the men, team sports matter to them too. "There's no doubt about it," said Anastasia Myskina. "No matches have ever mattered to us more than these," she told Guardian about the Fed Cup.

Things don't look like changing, with tongue-twisters in the WTA list on the rise. From Anna Kournikova's role in glamourising women's tennis worldwide and bringing in the megabucks, to Maria Sharapova's irresistible looks-and-success combination, the scene is only improving.

Petrova adds, "there is a generation that grew up and competed together and pushed each other on. We all grew up differently and have our own style, but physically we are all strongly built, with a winning spirit and character." Eventually, those are all that matter.