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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Humble Birthplace of the Stars
A shabby tennis school just outside the center of Moscow is an unlikely training ground for the Russian tennis queens of today and tomorrow.
By Daniel McLaughlin
Photographs by Luke Tchalenko and Paul Zimmer

It is emerging as one of the world’s premiere tennis schools, yet Moscow’s Spartak training center still has the air of a Soviet summer camp.

Tattered flags flutter above the cabins that dot this wooded swathe of Sokolniki Park, and leaves spiral unhindered onto the sun-dappled courts below. It would be an idyllic corner of northeast Moscow, if not for the sobs and screams of young tennis hopefuls trying to burst into Russia’s growing galaxy of stars.

There is no fancy equipment here, no world-class gym or carefully groomed courts. Yet Spartak has quietly honed the skills of a peerless generation of female talent, laying the groundwork for this year’s spectacular run of Russian success. Three of the four women’s Grand Slams in 2004 have been won by young Russians, and another Spartak graduate was the runner-up in two of those.

“I feel very proud for Russian girls and for Russian tennis,” said Spartak alum Elena Dementyeva after losing the finals at the U.S. Open. “It’s a miracle to me that three Russian girls won three Grand Slams and I was in two finals.”

There were nine Russian women among the 32 seeds for the U.S. Open, more than from any other single country and, with youth on their side, they look set to be a force in the game for years to come. Tennis experts agree that their emergence, not to mention that of the woman who blazed the Russian trail, Anna Kournikova, springs from a Soviet system predicated on discipline and an almost ruthless drive to succeed.

“The roots of today’s system are still in the Soviet one,” says Konstantin Bogoroditsky, who spent 20 years coaching the Soviet and Russian women’s tennis teams. “Unlike in the West, we make children specialize very quickly in sport. By 10 or 11, children already concentrate on just one sport, to try and make them into champions. And it is easier with the women than the men. The men’s game is tougher, and the competition more fierce, and it takes them longer to come through, demanding more cash and more patience.”

Svyatoslav Mirza, a trainer for 30 years, and colleague Elena Nikishikhina are two of the few who know how Russia’s women have managed to amaze the world. Under the shady trees at Spartak, putting their latest charges through their paces, they share their impressions of two Spartak alumni, Dementyeva and Anastasia Myskina, who fought out the French Open final in Paris this year.

“Nastya was always sharp, supple, and quick, but you couldn’t tell quite how far she’d go,” Mirza said of Myskina, who ultimately beat Dementyeva with some ease at Roland Garros.

“They were very different girls,” recalled Nikishikhina of the two players, who practiced and competed together as children along with Kournikova. “People said you could lock Dementyeva in the practice hall and she’d just get on with what you’d told her to do. She was always good, always dedicated and hardworking. “Myskina was different: she sees the court so well, but is sometimes up and sometimes down; she was superb in Paris, though.”

But despite the success and growing fame of Spartak – where the nation’s topranked male player Marat Safin still occasionally practices and his sister, Dinara, works out with their mother, a leading coach – Russia still lacks a defined career path for young players.

Russia’s Golden Girls

Anastasia Myskina
Current World Ranking: 2
2003 Kremlin Cup Champion
2004 French Open Champion

Svetlana Kuznetsova
Current World Ranking: 5
2003 Canadian Open doubles winner with Martina Navratilova
2004 US Open Champion

Elena Dementyeva
Current World Ranking: 6
Silver medalist at 2000 Olympic
2004 French Open Runner-up
2004 U.S. Open Runner-up

Maria Sharapova
Current World Ranking: 9
2004 Wimbledon Champion

“Russia is still without a system of finding the best talent, bringing it together and using the best trainers and facilities to develop it,” Mirza said. “In the Soviet days we used to go to schools looking for the best players, but not any more. Now it is up to parents and trainers to find funding for their child.” In this huge country that means getting young players to Moscow fast and tapping into the massive wealth concentrated here.

“After the Soviet Union collapsed, people realized they would get little state help and that sport could perhaps be profitable,” says Alexei Nikolayev of sports management firm SFX. “Parents started to push their kids through and many invested everything in their children’s talent. It was like their last hope. But for someone outside Moscow with talent there can be huge problems, and it is very hard to build a career. Nine out of 10 promising players are probably lost in the provinces,” said Nikolayev, who works with Vera Zvonareva, the world No. 14. “We only see the results of those that come through, and they are pretty amazing – you can only imagine what we could do with a proper system.”

If a young player’s parents can’t find them a sponsor at home, then the lack of a centrally funded and controlled system forces them to seek opportunities abroad. It is a deeply risky business but, as Russia’s two most recent Grand Slam champions can attest, it is one that can pay off in spectacular fashion. U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova went to Spain at the age of 14 to further her game, training at a school run by former leading players Emilio Sanchez and his sister, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

“At first we thought I’d started really late but it worked out well and my father and mother helped out. All that I have and what I am now is all from my mum,” Kuznetsova said after her U.S. Open victory. “If I didn’t have her looking after me so much I wouldn’t be here. She was pulling me forward all the time when I was young. At the time I didn’t realize it would end up being my future.”

Maria Sharapova, the six-foot blonde who, at the age of 17, stunned defending champion Serena Williams to take the Wimbledon title in July, is another who was forced to go abroad to realize her dream.

Her father took her from Siberia to Florida when she was just seven, and found work to help fund her training at Nick Bollettieri’s renowned tennis factory. “There were a lot of sacrifices, just going to the United States when I was seven, not being able to see my mom for two years, being away from my dad for one year because he had to find work. And then developing my career and working hard, trying to achieve this,” she said after demolishing the younger Williams sister.

Now, despite railing against media attempts to tag her “the new Kournikova,” Sharapova is benefiting from the kind of lucrative marketing and modeling deals that Kournikova enjoyed and which the trainees at Spartak – and their nervously watching parents – desperately crave.

Today a new generation of would-be tennis divas is honing its strokes at shabby clubs like Spartak while others are training abroad, all with the hope of making it into the professional ranks.

It’s anyone’s guess who might be the next young woman to hoist the champion’s trophy at a major tournament, or what path they might have traveled to get to center court. But the odds are good that the winner at this month’s Kremlin Cup will be crediting "home court advantage" as a source of her divine inspiration – and that the next generation of young Russian hopefuls will be there to cheer her on.

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