#7 - JRL 7221
June 13, 2003
With capitalism, net gains
Russia: Considered elitist under communism, tennis is growing popular as young players succeed in world competition.
By Sabra Ayres
MOSCOW - Vesna Manasieva was 4 years old when she informed her parents she wanted to play tennis. She had watched the American player Lindsey Davenport on television and was fascinated by the crowd's oohing and ahhing as she dived across the court for the ball.
"I didn't even know what tennis was," says Manasieva, 13, ranked fourth in Europe for players younger than 14 and part of Russia's suddenly serious love affair with the game, "but I knew after seeing Lindsey that I wanted to play."
Russia's intoxication with tennis has intensified as young players such as Manasieva have made a name for themselves in international competitions. Frowned upon as an elitist sport during the oppressive days of the Soviet Union, tennis now hovers close behind soccer, hockey and ice-skating in popularity.
In Soviet times, tennis and golf were considered bourgeois games that went against the egalitarian morals promoted by the communist government. Soviet athletes competed to show the strength of their country; tennis tournaments seemed to be about only prize money, not national pride.
The country also lacked the ingredients for producing world-calls tennis stars: There were few indoor courts for training during the long, harsh winter, and few people could afford rackets and tennis shoes.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Russians rushed to try activities that had been denounced. Russia's young tennis hopefuls train at modern academies with air-conditioned indoor courts. Children's tennis clubs number about 350, and more than 1,000 children's tournaments take place a year, according to the Russian Tennis Federation.
Parents of aspiring young athletes such as Manasieva take their children to lessons in the hope they will learn to play like Olympic Gold Medalist Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 29, or like Marat Safin, 23, ranked 12th in the world. Or like tennis pro-turned-glamour girl Anna Kournikova, ranked 77th.
Recently, Russia's 18-year-old Vera Zvonareva surprised the tennis world by defeating American Venus Williams in the fourth round of the French Open in Paris. Zvonareva's rival and fellow Muscovite, Nadia Petrova, 21, defeated Zvonareva in the next round, before losing in the semifinals to Belgian Kim Clijsters.
Russian men entered the limelight in December, when the national team won its first Davis Cup in a match against France. Former President Boris N. Yeltsin was in Paris cheering from the sidelines, and he is partly responsible for the game's popularity. Though hardly a model of fitness, he played the game regularly when he was president, and his love of tennis had much the same effect on the population as President Vladimir V. Putin's love of judo: Tens of thousands of people suddenly decided the president's favored sport was worth learning.
In the mid-1990s, tennis academies began opening across the country, especially in Moscow. Many of the adult tennis clubs provided a place for the newly wealthy to impress their friends by showing off their clothing and cars.
"At that time, there was a split in the social-economics of the country," says Konstantin Bogorodetski, a former coach for the women's national team, "and rich people appeared on the scene who could put money to the development of tennis."
Bogorodetski began playing tennis in 1963, when he was 21. "Back then, 40 years ago, it was hard to find the right equipment - shoes, rackets and balls," he says. "But we always had a group who wanted to play with what we had."
He coaches 8- to 10-year-olds at the Valery Children's Tennis Academy in northwest Moscow, where Manasieva and other rising young tennis stars train. It was not the first tennis academy, but the plush, private center has the most modern facilities, with 18 indoor and 18 outdoor courts, a weight-training center and a pool. "For us, indoor courts are very important," says Alexander Kalivod of the Russian Tennis Federation. From September to May - when cold temperatures seem without end - indoor courts are needed.
Manasieva has spent most of the past two years training at Valery. She is focused on the game, and her focus has made her more mature than the average 13 year old.
Her daily practice begins at 9 a.m., followed by aerobic and weight training. After lunch, she spends four hours working with a private tutor on history, math, Russian and other lessons.
The game's new fashionableness has led some coaches to switch from training young players to instructing businessmen, who can afford to pay more. Two months ago, Manasieva split from her coach of nine years after he increased his hourly fee.
"Right now, it is hard to find good coaches," she says. "They either want too much money, or they go to coach in other countries."
For the time being, Manasieva's mother, Katya, is her coach. She offers advice from the sidelines as her daughter plays against adults who hire her to challenge their games. She said she has two choices: find a new coach or play for Serbia, her father's birthplace.
"My mom can't be my coach forever; she's not even a tennis player," Manasieva says, pushing new glasses up on her nose. "I don't want to move to Yugoslavia. We are settled here, and my dog is here."
Manasieva will turn 14 this summer and will begin competing in an older age category. It will mark the first time that she'll compete for tournament money and be the next big step toward making tennis her career.
"It will be difficult, but it's better to play with the older girls," she says. "My goal is to be one of the top 100 players in the world in the next few years." If she gets that far, she will join an increasing number of her countrymen on the list.