September 20, 2007
Russian Ladies: Debutantes of the Ball
By Robert Bridge
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 16 years ago, Russia continues to shock the world with its ability to bounce back from a level of adversity that would bring other nations to their knees - or at least to the nearest drugstore for some pain reliever. And nowhere is this bounce more telling than on the ladies tennis court.
First, a brief tennis primer: Russia's snowballing tennis empire did not begin with player-turnedendorsement queen Anna Kournikova, the titleless starlet who captivates hearts with her six-pack abs, blonde locks and Slavic a--, uh, cheekbones, but with Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin.
Although memories of Mr.Yeltsin fail to inspire images of a healthy, sober lifestyle, the man was a tennis fanatic and even a respectable player himself. He was a familiar fixture at every Davis and Federation Cup tournament in Moscow, and was usually the first person on the court to congratulate the players after a victory. With traditional Russian perseverance, Yeltsin fueled Russia's interest in the traditionally western sport by providing state funding for clubs and constructing public courts. The results were quickly apparent, as Russians - particularly the females - stormed the international rankings.
Today, Russia does not have to hedge all its bets on one Kournikova to bring home the bacon. However, as much as the man deserves applause for his contributions to the world of sports, this column is not about Yeltsin. Rather, this column asks the simple question: How did the Russian girls chalk up such resounding triumphs on the tennis court in such a brief period?
Empirical observation suggests to this stranger in a strange land that the Russian people have achieved a natural balance in their lives that other nations have simply lost, forgotten or neglected. First, let me acknowledge that I have seen the statistics; Russia has not slain all of its demons. Not by a long shot. Beyond the modern metropolis's, death rates remain high; birthrates, while slowly rising, are still in the basement.Meanwhile, drug abuse, AIDS, poverty and alcoholism are rampant issues that Russia ignores at its own risk. But behind this black shroud of gloom and doom lies, yes, a tennis court.Granted, a tennis victory a viable society does not make, agreed. But there is something going on here that definitely deserves a closer look. And I'm not just talking about Sharapova's legs. Before I alienate those readers who are still following, allow me to cite an article by Le Figaro magazine, which ran an article on this very subject last year.
In an effort to explain how the Russians won the French Open in 2000, 2004 and 2005 (the Yugoslavians won in 2001), and why former Eastern bloc players dominate in the WTA rankings, they decided to do a bit of research on what makes the Russian players so formidable. The magazine discovered that the average height of female tennis players from the East is 175 cm; the average height of the Western female tennis players is 171 cm. The figures go off the charts with regard to the Russian players' average height at 177 cm.
"As far as their physical characteristics are concerned," Le Figaro said, "the girls from the East stand out among the other participants." It is important to note that scientists can determine the health of a nation by the total height of its inhabitants. Strangely, despite some tough domestic problems, Russians are still healthy.
At this point, the argument could veer off in any direction: Some would argue that only tall girls were chosen to compete in the first place. Or that Russian tennis players owe their success to the Florida sun, where many train. Meanwhile, some of the best players, like Justin Henin, are not tall. However, Le Figaro is at pains to explain the "giants from Eastern Europe" who regularly descend on the French city of Tarbes for play. It is difficult to ignore some conspicuous physical attributes about the Russian people.
First, obesity is practically nonexistent.Compare this to the U.S. where almost 40 percent of kids are overweight, and the average height of U.S. citizens is on the decline (see "America's Growing Problem," ABC News, July); everything from fast food to the cutthroat culture of capitalism is blamed. If an American wants to get in shape, it must be a radical 'lifestyle choice,' complete with gym membership, the latest diet fad and much suffering; a healthy lifestyle is not natural.
For Russians, good health comes naturally. Unlike in the West,where food is saturated, sodium-laced and artificially preserved for long shelf life, Russians think about what goes into their products, not to mention their bodies.Why do you think they keep rejecting our chickens? Meanwhile, they have not lost a real connection to nature. Russians could (and do) live happily for weeks at the dacha on fruit and vegetables from the garden, borscht soup made with organic produce, and mushrooms from the nearby forest.
Could this explain Russia's surge of female tennis stars? I'd be willing to bet a Big Mac it does.