It's Grand time to be a Russian in tennis


Find a sport that requires grace, single-mindedness and robotlike dedication to training and practice, then set a Russian to the task and, most of the time, you'll find a champion.

Figure skating, gymnastics, hockey and now tennis.

And yet, not even Russian Maria Sharapova, the No. 4 player in the world, who will meet No. 1 Lindsay Davenport tonight in the Mercantile Tennis Challenge at 1st Mariner Arena, saw the Russian tennis advance coming.

"No, no, I had no idea," said Sharapova, 17. "Before the French Open, we had top 20, top 50 players. But then Anastasia [Myskina] won the French and I got to the quarters and Elena [Dementieva] got to the final. I don't know why this all happened.

"I won Wimbledon and then Svetlana [Kuznetsova] won the U.S. Open. We just seemed to get the momentum and rolled and won the next three Grands [Grand Slam tournaments]."

The Russians are no longer coming. They are here.

Pam Shriver, the mastermind behind tonight's event, which has raised more than $3 million for area children's charities, said the Russians' rise fell just short of a total takeover because it started in the summer, leaving the Australian Open to Justine Henin-Hardenne, a Belgian.

"They got a hat trick with three different players," said Shriver. "I don't remember a country rising to the top so quickly. They had been tiptoeing around toward the Top 10 as a group the last couple years. But then they got the momentum.

"I don't think anyone thought they'd have five Top 10 players and three majors in this one season. No one saw this kind of success."

In fact, Davenport said she was stunned, not only by the Russian success, but also by who among the Russians had it.

"You could see [Nadia] Petrova and [Elena] Bovina had a lot of potential," she said. "And then five others passed them. Last year, you could see Maria was very good, but you didn't think 12 months later she'd win a major."

It seems like the Russian tennis movement happened overnight. But there is generally a long history behind overnight successes.

Tennis historian Bud Collins noted that Russian tennis dates to Leo Tolstoy, who owned one of the first tennis courts in the country and included a tennis scene in Anna Karenina.

Khrushchev anecdote

And there is the story about former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visiting London in 1955 and being asked, "Why don't you have people in Wimbledon?" Khrushchev supposedly replied, "What is Wimbledon?" but, a year later, the first Soviet woman allowed to play outside the country, Anna Dmitrieva, finished second in the Wimbledon junior tournament.

In 1974, Olga Morozova became the first Russian woman to reach a Grand Slam final.

Tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988, reinvigorating the game. In 1989, when the Russian government was helping to finance the sport and taking players' prize money, Natalya Zvereva brazenly displayed her runner-up check of $24,000 at the Family Circle Cup and said, "This is not money; it is paper. I want my money."

Threatening never to play again, she got her money - and so did everyone else, again changing the Russian game.

When Boris Yeltsin became the first democratically elected Russian president, he made tennis a high priority and, in the next few years, stars began to emerge. Anna Kournikova appeared on the world scene in 1995, and on the men's tour, Yevgeny Kafelnikov became the world No. 1 in 1999. Marat Safin won the U.S. Open in 2000.

"Tennis has become popular everywhere in Russia," said Paval Kustou, a Russian translator for the Dutch newspaper De Volkraant and an amateur tennis coach, who spoke by phone from his Moscow home. "It started with the Olympics and then Kafelnikov and Safin and almost everybody knows Sharapova and Myskina. "

To include Sharapova in the Russian movement is in some ways a stretch. At age 8, she came to the United States with her father and grew up playing tennis at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida.

"Is she one of them?" said Davenport. "It's a tough question. I'm not sure I'm the one to answer it. I know the other Russians, and I think they feel they're a very close unit and they want to keep it the same.

"Maria doesn't hang out and practice with them, but both her parents are from Russia and she was born there. But she is very American."

There has been a little friction, with Myskina saying she didn't want to play on the Russian Fed Cup team if Sharapova did because of Sharapova's father.

"Everyone who watches TV and sees Sharapova sees her father, and he is viewed as wild, just throwing his arms and hands," said Kustou.

Yuri Sharapov brought his daughter to the United States to give her the opportunity to make the most of her tennis ability.

Too cold in Nyagan

"Tennis was happening in Moscow, but we didn't live there," said Sharapova, who is from Nyagan, in the Siberian region. "My dad didn't know much about the tennis scene in Moscow. What he knew was where we lived it was cold and indoor courts were very expensive. Basically, you can't play tennis in winter. So he decided we should come to the U.S."

Sharapova enjoys Russian food and said she still speaks Russian very well, "though it is only with my parents," and she also loves to go back to Russia. So if you ask her if she is part of the Russian tennis movement, you will hear her say yes.

As for not being part of the Russian women's clique, her agent writes it off to jealousy, while Sharapova said she believes her lack of inclusion is more about age than anything else.

"I'm 17 years old and have totally different interests from the others, who are 22 and 23," she said.

When it comes to Sharapova, Kustou said tennis fans in Russia do not mind that she was brought up in the United States.

"To the people here, she is just a great Russian player," he said. "Everybody knows her as a very pretty tennis player and thinks she is much nicer than Kournikova. Sharapova plays better and is prettier, and that is the first thing people think."

Kournikova was the first Russian tennis beauty to capture the American eye. She, more than Andre Agassi ever did, proved image is everything. She played for nine years without winning one pro singles title, but was still a top draw wherever she played. She left the tour in May 2003 with a back injury, and though that injury was not thought to be career-ending, she has not played a tour event since.

Sharapova has never enjoyed comparisons to Kournikova. Though she did sign with a modeling agency last year, she chooses to keep her focus primarily on tennis.

"Most of us have a big eagerness to be the best," she said of herself and her Russian compatriots. "We're all very hungry and want to do our best. And, you might say, we've had a good day at the office this year."

Is she still hungry after such a great year?

"Starving," she said.

Tennis Challenge

What: Mercantile Tennis Challenge; exhibition matches to raise money for children's charities

When: Today, 7 p.m.

Where: 1st Mariner Arena

Future Legends match: Scoville Jenkins vs. Phillip Simmonds

Feature match: Lindsay Davenport vs. Maria Sharapova

Tickets: $20 to $100, available at Ticketmaster locations or by calling 410-547-SEAT

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