How to grow a super-athlete, a visit to the Spartak Academy in Moscow with Dementieva -
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How to grow a super-athlete, a visit to the Spartak Academy in Moscow with Dementieva

Such an interesting article from The New York Times, just posted the parts related to tennis. For the full article here's the link:

How to Grow a Super-Athlete

The future of tennis? Spartak's Little Group, ready to impress.

In early December, I traveled to the heart of one of those breeding grounds, the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow. Russia is the birthplace of a group of athletes who have affected the World Tennis Association rankings in the same way that zebra mussels have affected the Great Lakes — which is to say, pretty much clogged them. The invasion happened swiftly: at the end of 2001, Russia had one woman (Elena Dementieva) in the W.T.A. Tour's top 30. By the start of 2007, Russian women accounted for fully half of the top 10 (Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetzova, Nadia Petrova and Dinara Safina) and 12 of the top 50. Not to mention 15-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who was the International Tennis Federation's No. 1-ranked junior and who was joined in the top 500 by five countrywomen also named Anastasia.

Spartak, usually preceded in the tennis press by the word "famous" or "legendary," had produced three of the top six Russians (Dementieva, Safina and Anastasia Myskina), along with Anna Kournikova, now retired.

Tournament pairings regularly became all-Spartak affairs, most memorably the 2004 French Open final, Myskina over Dementieva, the continuation of a rivalry the two began at age 7. To put Spartak's success in talent-map terms: this club, which has one indoor court, has achieved eight year-end top-20 women's rankings over the last three years. During that same period, the entire United States has achieved seven.

"They're like the Russian Army," says Nick Bollettieri, the founder of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and the former coach to Sharapova, Andre Agassi and other top-ranked players. "They just keep on coming."

Getting to Spartak, however, takes more than a talent map; it's not located on any real maps. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of Elena Rybina, a chain-smoking, speed-talking translator who worked part-time for the Russian Tennis Federation and who possessed a fast-alternating combination of film noir toughness and childlike giddiness that I took as the quintessence of modern Russia.

"I learned my English listening to music, like Elton John," she said. " 'Crocodile Rocks'! I love it!"

We rode the subway half an hour northeast to Sokolniki Park and started walking. And walking. Sokolniki is almost twice the size of Central Park, considerably less central and only vaguely parklike. It's basically a huge forest of birch and elm trees filled with a disconcertingly energetic population of stray dogs. We walked past an abandoned chess club, an abandoned amusement park, an abandoned factory and the smashed onion dome of what appeared to be an abandoned church.

"It is very beautiful in summer," Rybina assured me as we passed a pond frosted with green scum. "But Spartak, I must warn you, is not so nice."
"What do you mean?"

Rybina lighted a Davidoff cigarette and raised her eyebrow into a Gothic arch. "Spartak is not exactly like a palace."

We turned a corner, followed a road for a few hundred yards and saw a loose assortment of peaked buildings and shotgun shacks that resembled a dilapidated ski village. Windows were dim cataracts of warped plastic, paint was scabbed and peeling and the buildings were frescoed in a rich coat of grime. A glaze of ice coated the club's 15 outdoor clay courts, as it did for six months of the year. A beat-up 18-wheeler lent the scene a postnuclear, "Mad Max" vibe. The only bright color came from the rainbow sheen of diesel fuel in the puddles.

Rybina shrugged indifferently and lighted another Davidoff. We walked past the inexplicably manned guard post, past an A-frame that appeared to be a storehouse for scrap metal and toward a larger structure that resembled a greenhouse. We ducked through a low door and onto the court. The surface was worn down in frequently trodden spots, like cathedral steps. Two wooden sticks nudged the sagging net futilely toward regulation height. The fluorescent lights buzzed. "We are lucky," Rybina whispered. "The heat is working." When it doesn't, the kids play in their coats.

The class, called the Little Group, had already arrived. They wore heavy coats and toted their tennis rackets in backpacks, sports duffels and plastic grocery bags. At first glance, they looked like a standard-issue assortment of 5- to 7-year-olds: there was Denis, the handsome blond in the blue turtleneck; Alexandra, the lanky towhead in the green T-shirt; Gunda, the smiley ponytailed girl in the silver shoes; and Vova, the revved-up boy with the Asiatic eyes who was the class's only 4-year-old. There were 12 students in all. They had been coming to Spartak three times a week since September; by now they'd been on the court perhaps 40 times. As the lesson began, a few of them made their final preparations, reaching into their bags for what appeared to be their good luck charms: a tidy gallery of stuffed dinosaurs, bunnies and pandas formed on the wall behind the base line.

The coach, 77-year-old Larisa Preobrazhenskaya (pronounced pray-oh-brah-ZHEN-skya), stood at the sideline, watching. She wore a red-and-white tracksuit and a knowing, amused expression. Preobrazhenskaya was Spartak's most renowned youth coach, but she wore her authority lightly, radiating a grandmotherly twinkle behind hooded eyes. She'd been quite a player in her day, the 1955 Soviet singles champion. She still looked athletic, sauntering around the court with a John Wayne limp caused by a sore hip. The parents huddled by the door, watchful and silent.

The students formed a circle on one side of the net and started to stretch. I watched, scoping for telltale signs of überkinder superiority, but saw nothing of the sort. The Little Group proceeded to hustle energetically through a 15-minute set of calisthenics worthy of Jack LaLanne: jumping jacks, hops, crab walking, bear walking, skipping, sidestepping, zigzagging through a line of orange cones. I was half expecting them to pull out medicine balls, when they actually did pull out medicine balls, passing them back and forth earnestly like so many extras in a Rocky movie.

"All the motions," Preobrazhenskaya would tell me. "It is important to do everything, every practice."

The Little Group paired off with rackets and began imitatsiya — rallying with an imaginary ball. They bounced lightly from foot to foot, they turned, they swung, the invisible balls flew. Preobrazhenskaya roamed the court like a garage mechanic tuning an oversize engine: realigning a piston here, tightening a flywheel there. Several times, she grasped their small arms and piloted their bodies through the stroke. Thus the lesson began, and with it the unspoken implication: the great, rusty Spartak machine was coming to life, carrying its cargo of mini-geniuses another step closer toward inevitable glory.

As I pictured the scale of the David and Goliath phenomenon this unlikely scene embodied, the question arose: how does Spartak do it?

"Technique is Everything" Larisa Preobrazhenskaya won't let her students compete until they've had three years of training.

Six-year-old Gunda Arzhba myelinates her backhand with a Spartak coach.

Explanations were not in short supply. I'd heard plenty from American tennis coaches, a nicely bulleted list that included a Slavic gene pool that produces a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tall, fast, strong kids; the economic and cultural gateway that opened with the 1991 collapse of the Communist government; the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's enthusiastic (if at times klutzy) love for the sport; and the potent catnip effect of Kournikova, the former top 10 player who, though she never won a singles tournament, provided an escape-hungry generation of girls (and, more important, their parents) with vivid proof that tennis success equaled glamour, fortune, fame.

The Russians, when I asked them, chimed in with explanations of their own, including the lifelong commitment of coaches like Preobrazhenskaya; the superior biomechanical techniques taught at the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture, where many of Russia's top coaches train; and (in a nostalgic burst of cold war trash talking) the intrinsic softness of the West.

Watching the Little Group play, I, too, felt a strong urge to bellow my share of theories: it must be the medicine balls! The discipline! The lack of Game Boys! I was particularly struck by the kids' obvious enjoyment of the lesson. One of the mothers told Preobrazhenskaya that her daughter, Gunda, had awakened early that day, unable to sleep. "Today is my day with Larisa Dmitrievna!" Gunda had said. "It is today!"

In sum, there are a lot of explanations, some better than others. For instance, is the Russian gene pool really that innately superior to that of Ukraine or Slovenia or Southern California? If Kournikova inspired so many Russians, then where were the German stars inspired by Steffi Graf? But ultimately the theories fall short because they don't explain the principles underpinning Spartak's success. Indeed, seeing the place up close made me wonder if there were any principles. Spartak radiates the glow of happenstance, the diamond in the trash heap. (This impression is apparently shared by the Russian Tennis Federation, which has been content to allow Spartak to remain with its single indoor court.)

Back at Spartak, the Little Group lined up outside the service box, rackets at the ready. Preobrazhenskaya stood at the net, a shopping cart of balls at her hip. She waited for silence, then started: forehand, backhand, back to the end of the line. One by one, the kids took their swings — to my eye, pretty nice-looking swings. But not to hers. Preobrazhenskaya frequently stopped them, had them do it over. More follow-through. More turn. Watch. Feel.
Pravil'no, she said. Correct.

Molodets. Good job.

If Preobrazhenskaya's approach were boiled down to one word (and it frequently was), that word would be tekhnika — technique. This is enforced by iron decree: none of her students are permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of study. It's a notion that I don't imagine would fly with American parents, but none of the Russian parents questioned it for a second. "Technique is everything," Preobrazhenskaya told me later, smacking a table with Khrushchev-like emphasis, causing me to jump and reconsider my twinkly-grandma impression of her. "If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!"

The most impressive myelin collection I encountered during my Moscow trip belonged to a woman encased in a sheepskin coat, fur-trimmed boots and a fuzzy white hat. Elena Dementieva, 25, represented the acme of the Spartak product. She stood 5-foot-11, weighed 141 pounds and emanated a vibration of such unearthly physical perfection that crowds parted as she moved down the sidewalk. Seeing Dementieva walk into the Russian Army sports club, where she trains between tournaments, I flashed to an image of the Spartak kids and felt a brief parental pang of disbelief. Such a transformation seemed impossible.

Sitting down on a set of courtside bleachers (level gaze, warm laugh, no hint of divahood), Dementieva told her story. Surprisingly, she had been rejected by several other clubs as too slow before landing at Spartak. She spoke fondly, if a little vaguely, of her days at the club: dodging stray dogs, washing dirty tennis balls in the sink, doing homework on the long subway ride. Her first instructor was the renowned Rausa Islanova (the mother of Dinara Safina and of the men's 2000 United States Open winner, Marat Safin), who was known for her strictness and her elimination system in which students competed for a constantly shrinking number of slots. Dementieva's group started with 25 students; within a year it was down to 7. Of those 7 kids, 4 became world-class players (Myskina, Kournikova and Safin were the other 3).

"Spartak was good for me, I think," Dementieva said, squinting as if she were peering into her hazy past. "I always had a feeling that I was going forward, getting better technique."

When Dementieva took the court to practice, she began with a set of those Jack LaLanne-style warm-ups — sidesteps, jumping jacks, high steps. She looked as if she were still a member of the Little Group, so much so that, watching from the bleachers, I was momentarily unsure whether it was her or some beginner. Dementieva did imitatsiya; she practiced each stroke in slow motion. Then, when her male sparring partner showed up, she proceeded to hit the ball so hard, accurately and consistently that it seemed she was playing a sport I'd never seen before. Again and again, her body rose to the ball in a twist of ballistic force, the power betrayed only by the snakelike rise of her thick blond braid. The ball hissed.

So let's return to the initial question: how does Spartak do it? Four factors stand above the rest:

1. Driven Parents. The hunger and ambition of Russian parents is uniquely strong, particularly when one considers how hard life is in Russia right now and also that the patron saint of Russian tennis parents is the ex-Siberian oil-field worker Yuri Sharapov, who came to America with less than $1,000 and his 7-year-old daughter, Maria, who now earns an estimated $30 million a year in endorsements. On the other hand, while they are intense, Russian parents aren't all that different a group from the parents in Serbia, the Czech Republic or Mission Viejo, Calif.

2. Early Starts. The kids here start young and specialize early. They are tennis players, and not much else competes for their attention (only a handful owned video games, according to my informal poll), and they also benefit from a Russian culture that's built to select athletes and shield them from academic pressures. Incidentally, there were indeed elite athletic genes floating around at Spartak: Alexandra's parents were famous figure skaters, and another kid was Myskina's cousin. So good genes probably play a role, or (just as likely, to my mind) there's a beneficial effect to growing up in an environment of working athletes.

3. Powerful, Consistent Coaches. Most tennis coaches I saw were treated with a respect reserved for university professors. The tennis clubs I visited were patrolled by a squad of Brezhnev lookalikes who offered advice that seemed hewed from stone. Their institutional specialty is biomechanics, but the point is perhaps not so much in the details of that coaching, but rather in the passion, rigor and uniformity with which that coaching is delivered. This, incidentally, is the opposite of the entrepreneurial system in which many American tennis coaches operate, as they often compete with one another, relying on their ability to sell their services to sometimes anxious parents. American coaches have to be unique to survive; Russian coaches are mostly the same.

4. Cultural Toughness. As poets have pointed out, the intrinsic hardiness of the Russian woman is legendary. Historically, this might have something to do with the hardships of life under Communism and the loss of 11 million soldiers in World War II. Whatever the cause, the immediate effect is a tangible mental toughness and a work ethic second to none. After all, at Spartak, they don't speak of "playing" tennis. The verb they like to use is borot'sya — to struggle.

The Little Group was smacking it now, the balls zipping over the net and ricocheting off the far wall. Preobrazhenskaya, the gardener, watched with a smile, occasionally correcting a backswing or a grip, nudging the kids on with a murmur of praise and instruction: "Clever boy." "Good girl." "No." "Correct." "Not there." "That's it."

On my last day at Spartak, I met one more player. Her name was Kseniya; she was 5, and she'd come for a tryout. Her parents, an upscale pair, ducked through the low door and asked Larisa Dmitrievna if she might have a moment. Kseniya had black pigtails held in place with pink ribbons. She wore new silver tennis shoes. She walked solemnly, one step behind her parents, carrying a tiny pink racket. Something in the precision of her walk, in her air of self-possession, reminded me of my daughter Zoe.

Preobrazhenskaya put her arm on Kseniya's shoulder and walked her to the corner of the court, out of the parents' earshot. The girl looked up into the coach's face. "She has good eyes," Preobrazhenskaya said later.

Preobrazhenskaya rotated Kseniya's arms in a wide circle, feeling for looseness in her muscles, which she regarded as a good sign.

Preobrazhenskaya then showed Kseniya a new tennis ball, and told her what was about to happen. Kseniya listened closely, and nodded. Then the coach tossed the ball lightly, and Kseniya, her small body coming alive at once, ran to catch it.

* In September, as part of an ongoing effort to revive American tennis, the United States Tennis Association plans to centralize its player development program at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., a new complex that will feature 23 courts (14 lighted), dormitories, a state-of-theart video lounge and a staff of 30, including a mental-conditioning coach. Tuition with room and board will cost as much as $42,000 a year. By comparison, the Russian Tennis Federation's total youth-development budget is estimated to be between $300,000 and $400,000.

* Replicating the Spartak system in the United States (or, for that matter, installing Dominican-style baseball academies or forcing young golfers to practice only at driving ranges) would likely not create a sudden wellspring of stars. The reasons that the United States is losing ground on the talent map have less to do with training mechanisms and more to do with bigger factors: a highly distractive youth culture, a focus on the glamour of winning rather than on the brickwork of building technique and a sporting environment that is gentler than those found in many of the world's harder corners.

"You can't keep breast-feeding them all the time," Robert Lansdorp, a tennis coach in Los Angeles, told me. "You've got to make them an independent thinker." Lansdorp, who is in his 60s, has coached Sharapova, along with the former No. 1-ranked players Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport, all three of whom grew up in the same area and played at the same run-of-the-mill tennis clubs near Los Angeles. "You don't need a fancy academy," he said. "You need fundamentals and discipline, and in this country nobody gives a damn about fundamentals and discipline." Lansdorp also mentioned that he'd visited Spartak last year to teach a clinic. "It was a pretty different place," he said. "But that Larisa, she sure knows her stuff."

But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
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