MOSCOW: The recent success of Russian women at Wimbledon and Roland Garros has turned tennis into the latest fashion here, as parents storm tennis schools with the hope of one day seeing their offspring win big.
“Our players' success turns parents' heads. They think all it takes is their child swinging a racket and a million dollars will be as good as in their pockets,” sighed Vladimir Kamelzon, chief of the Russian Tennis Federation's trainers' council and director of a private tennis school in Moscow.
The tennis craze got a major boost after Anastasia Myskina won this year at Roland Garros and Maria Sharapova became the first Russian woman to win Wimbledon, prompting the media to trumpet a “Russian invasion” of the sport.
Shunned in the Soviet times as an individualist sport little suited to collective spirit, tennis bounced back during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, a passionate tennis fan undaunted even by failing health.
It was Yevgeny Kafelnikov who first brought Russia tennis glory, first winning Roland Garros in 1996, then the Australian Open in 1999 and the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.
Marat Safin was not far behind, with his stunning victory at the US Open in 2000. Two years later, Russia won its first Davis Cup.
The seductive Anna Kournikova, who had never won a title and was known more for her looks, nevertheless also whetted public taste for tennis with her early promise.
Nowadays, Russian women players are all the rage.
“They are more disciplined, they mature more quickly and show results earlier,” Kamelzon explained, while watching a 12-year-old girl energetically return a serve by a boy peer.
“At 15 years old, boys have many temptations – alcohol, cigarettes, girls – but girls concentrate more on their professional objectives,” he said.
“There are many talents in Russia, but hundreds of youngsters go to study abroad, where conditions are better. And they stay there, like Tatyana Golovin who now plays for France,” Kamelzon said.
Trainers deplore the insufficiency and poor state of tennis courts in Russia, whose harsh climate does not allow open courts to be used before May and after September, thus raising rent prices.
Russia's newest star, Wimbledon winner Sharapova, left Russia at the age of seven to train in Florida, in Nick Bollettieri's famed Tennis Academy.
The teenager – who speaks English without an accent but talks in her native tongue with a distinctive foreign twang – often points out in her interviews that she considers herself Russian and that she “dedicates all her victories” to the land where she was born. – AFP