Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#9 - JRL 7242
The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
June 27, 2003
Russia red-hot generation launch invasion of SW19
By Andrew Baker 

Wimbledon resembled the ladies' loos at the Kremlin yesterday: Russian women everywhere you looked. There were three of them on Court Three, two on Court 18, and two others on Courts 13 and Five respectively. All engaged in the women's singles, in which no fewer than nine Russian women took part in the third round. That, as we hardly need reminding, is nine more than the number of British women who made it through the first round.

This sad fact caused one or two native spectators to change their allegiances, like the young man in the England rugby shirt watching Elena Dementieva demolish Spain's Arantxa Parra on Court Three. "Come on, Elena!" he yelled, then explained: "I'm half-Polish, and that's close enough to Russia. Come on Elena! It is Elena, isn't it?"

It was, and the statuesque blonde Dementieva provided an ideal example of the 21st century Russian player. Tall and muscular, with an efficient serve and a powerful forehand, the 21-year-old Muscovite made short work of Parra and then proved equally proficient in the art of the interview. She is fluent in French and English as well as her native tongue, and plays a mean game of chess. The 'Kournikova Factory', as the Russian tennis production line has become known, turns out a very efficient product.

Dementieva had been preceded on to Court Three by two compatriots, Anastasia Myskina and Lina Krasnoroutskaya, the former a slender brunette, the latter a raven-haired powerhouse. Myskina, the highest ranked of the Russian horde at 10 in the world, prevailed here: two Russian wins before the ice had melted in the Pimm's.

British fans newly converted to Russian followers could then enjoy a short and rare break while, extraordinarily, there were no female Russians involved in singles matches. If they felt deprived they could of course have watched any of several doubles matches involving Russians, but perhaps the interval might have been better passed in contemplating how this extraordinary crop of talent has been reared.

The obvious inspiration is Anna Kournikova, the photogenic but professionally unfulfilled icon who first made tennis in Russia seem glamorous. But most of the current generation of Russian players were well into their teens when Kournikova first hit the headlines at Wimbledon in 1997, and they had first picked up rackets years earlier.

The real genesis of the golden horde was, like so much else in post-Communist Russia, political. The then-Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, took up the sport to combat stress, and appointed the head of the Russian tennis federation, Shamil Tarpischev, as his personal coach. Generous funding followed this patronage, and was channelled in particular to the Spartak Club in Moscow, eventually to become known as the 'Kournikova Factory'.

The Russian revolution

Anastasia Myskina, age 21, world ranking 10

Elena Dementieva, age 21, world ranking 16

Elena Bovina, age 20, world ranking 22

Elena Likhovtseva, age 27, world ranking 33

Svetlana Kuznetsova, age 18, world ranking 34

Lina Krasnoroutskaya, age 19, world ranking 44

Maria Sharapova, age 16, world ranking 88

Enough rumination: more Russians were heading for the courts. There was Svetlana Kuznetsova on Court Five, a chunky blonde teenager based in Spain, who has been zooming up the rankings. She played Joon Jeong Cho, of South Korea, who was similarly short but less chunky and capitulated in straight sets.

Nearby, on Court 13, Elena Likhovtseva was playing Alicia Molik, of Australia. This Russian has been around longer than Kournikova, and is a better player, having actually won tournaments on the tour. But her best years are probably behind her, and she could not keep pace with Molik.

No matter. Newly converted Russian fans could instead head for Court 18 and the most anticipated match of their day, between Elena Bovina and Maria Sharapova: the battle of the Russian dolls. There were sound tennis reasons for wishing to take in the match, since both girls are talented and improving, and it was surely this, rather than the fact that both are preposterously leggy blondes, that ensured that the court was full to bursting before the players even warmed up.

But those who could not find seats need not have missed out on the action: they could always listen. Sharapova and Bovina are grunters, the former at a noticeably higher pitch than the latter. So while the contest looked like a game of tennis between two attractive and athletic women, it sounded like a boxing match between a dachshund and a beagle.

Sharapova is the heiress to Kournikova's legacy of hype, and her every shot was accompanied by the chattering of camera shutters. But she seems a level-headed individual, quite able to cope with the attention she attracts, and she gave her higher-ranked compatriot a rapid lesson in powerful and accurate hitting.

Bovina actually seemed the more psychologically fragile, scattering break points like confetti. Sharapova plays Jelena Dokic in the third round, which should keep the photographers busy.

So, from seven Russian candidates yesterday, four progressed to join Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova, already through to the third round. Their new fans will still have some complex scheduling to do.

But if Britain is ever to have a similar representation at Wimbledon, we can only hope that, during the current State visit, the appointment of a British tennis coach for President Putin has been high on the Queen's conversational agenda.

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