#14 - JRL 7219
FEATURE - Tennis - Russian women on the rise on WTA Tour
By Gennady Fyodorov
MOSCOW, June 11 (Reuters) - Not so long ago Anna Kournikova was probably the only Russian woman tennis player most international fans had heard of.
Famous for her glamorous looks rather than her winning power -- she has never won a WTA tour singles title -- Kournikova was Russia's only top-10 representative when she hit a career high of eighth in the world in 2000.
But now there are three Russian women in the world's top 20, five more have made it into the top 40 and others are on the rise as tennis reaches new heights in a country where it was considered a bourgeois sport just over a decade ago.
Rarely a week goes by without one of Russia's legion of talented young women making a splash at a tournament somewhere.
Nadia Petrova was the latest to take the spotlight last week when she became the first Russian woman in 28 years to reach the French Open semi-finals.
The 20-year-old Muscovite knocked out two former world number ones, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, on her way to the last four.
The 18-year-old Vera Zvonareva also left her mark at Roland Garros by shocking third seed Venus Williams in the fourth round before bowing out to Petrova in the quarter-finals.
Zvonareva moved up one place to 20th in the WTA Tour rankings this week, while Petrova leapt 47 places to 29th.
The results in Paris were no surprise to Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpishchev.
"We have high hopes for many of our young female players," Tarpishchev told Reuters in an interview.
"I wasn't surprised by their achievements at all. We have so many good young girls on their way up at the moment that any one of them is capable of doing well, even in grand slams."
Tarpishchev had been predicting that Russia would be a dominant force in tennis long before he led his country as team captain to their first Davis Cup title last year.
"I said that years ago. In fact, I thought our women would achieve their success much sooner than our men," he said.
"It's great that on the men's side we have players like (Marat) Safin and (Yevgeny) Kafelnikov, who paved the way for our Davis Cup victory, and also guys like (Mikhail) Youzhny and (Nikolay) Davydenko, who made an important contribution when we needed it.
"But after them there is a huge gap, whereas in the women's game we have enough players for two or even three teams, good enough to challenge for the Fed Cup title."
Certainly the days when the Russians had to rely primarily on the mood and physical condition of the U.S.-based Kournikova for their Fed Cup success have long gone.
"I think we're already among the top three or four teams in the world, maybe just behind the U.S. and Belgium," said Tarpishchev, who is also Russia's Fed Cup captain.
"Just give us a few more years and we'll be a dominant force, especially in the women's game," he said. "We always had a solid, scientific approach and good coaching, now we've added the infrastructure -- courts, training centres, etc., so it's just a matter of time before we reap the results of our labour."
Tarpishchev named both Petrova and Zvonareva along with Elena Bovina, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina as the players to watch.
"If you're talking about Russian players who made themselves known on the Tour in the past 12 months, then these five certainly stand out," he said.
"All of them have done well recently. Now they have to make the next big step, which is winning a big one, a grand slam."
Tarpishchev said Russia's already established players Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva, respectively 10th and 15th in the rankings, were coming under pressure from the younger women.
"Unfortunately, our top two players, Dementieva and Myskina, have stalled a bit in their development at the moment," he said. "Both of them need to work harder on some technical aspects of their game, especially their serve."
"No doubt they're feeling the pressure from the next group of players. Then, there is another wave of even younger ones, still in junior ranks, who are very capable of achieving top results in the future."
Last year, Russians took two of the four junior grand slam titles with Vera Dushevina winning Wimbledon and Maria Kirilenko the U.S. Open, while Maria Sharapova reached the Australian Open and Wimbledon finals. Dushevina also made the French Open girls' final this year.
"Certainly, our tennis future looks bright," said Tarpishchev. "Winning a grand slam makes good players into great players. We're on the way for that big win, we're coming, it's all just a matter of time."