Chips Off the Old Bloc
A new breed of Eastern Europeans is charting its own course on courts.
By Lisa Dillman, Times Staff Writer
Anastasia Myskina doesn't want to be like Anna Kournikova.
Taking it one step further, 15-year-old Maria Sharapova doesn't want to be like Kournikova or Myskina.
And 14-year-old Karina Poruskevich, born in Ukraine and living in Woodland Hills, doesn't want to be like Sharapova or Myskina. Lessons were beckoning so there wasn't a chance to ask the teenager about Kournikova, but it's an educated guess Poruskevich doesn't want to be like her either.
The New Russians don't want to be like the Old(er) Russians. The New Ukrainians don't want to be like the New Russians or the Old Ukrainians.
These suspicions were confirmed during an afternoon visit to the South Bay Tennis Center in Torrance, where legendary coach Robert Lansdorp conducted consecutive lessons with Sharapova, Myskina and Porushkevich.
Someone made a casual remark to Poruskevich — who has been ranked among the top dozen players in the USTA's 14-and-under division — about being around the likes of Myskina and Sharapova. What's it like? Inspiring?
"I'm just my own player," she said.
Lansdorp picked up on that.
"They might respect them, but they don't want to be like them," he said. "It's interesting how quickly she said, 'I want to be myself.' They all do that. They never want to be compared. They want everyone else to say, 'Oh yeah, I want to be like her, like Karina or Maria.' "
The internal competition is sometimes as fascinating as the external. Sharapova appeared distracted during her brief interview next to the tennis court during Myskina's lesson with Lansdorp. Though she was answering questions, she could hear his loud voice, counting the number of targets that Myskina was striking.
"Four out of four. Five out of five."
Hmm. Was her South Bay Tennis Center record really in danger? Suddenly, Sharapova realized what the intrepid coach was doing, teasing her on purpose. She turned toward him and started giggling, saying: "Oh Robert, I'm counting!"
Becoming a New Russian or a Newer Russian isn't such a terrible aspiration.
Two 21-year-old Russians qualified for the 16-player singles field in the season-ending WTA Championships at Staples Center, which start Wednesday. Elena Dementieva, a semifinalist in 2000, and Myskina earned spots in the $3-million, single-elimination event. A third Russian player, Elena Likhovtseva, 27, is playing doubles with Cara Black of Zimbabwe. There was a chance Kournikova could have played doubles but her partner Martina Hingis withdrew because of injuries.
If Olga Morozova, who reached the Wimbledon and French Open finals in 1974, is the grandmother of Russian tennis, then Kournikova, 21, is the older sister of the family. Call her the Russian Marcia Brady, wildly popular and the envy of the younger sisters.
In this case, the Russian sisterhood is a fairly large group. There are eight Russian female players ranked in the top 50 in the world and 10 in the top 100. Last year, there were eight in the top 100. Myskina finished 2001 ranked 59th, and she is 11th this week, having won a tournament in Bahia, Brazil, in September and reached consecutive grass-court finals, at Birmingham and Eastbourne, in the lead-up to Wimbledon.
That hasn't been the most dramatic Russian leap forward, however.
Teenager Vera Zvonareva, as a qualifier, reached the fourth round at the French Open and won the first set against eventual champion Serena Williams. Zvonareva went from 371 last year to 45, and Dinara Safin, younger sister of 2000 U.S. Open men's champion Marat Safin, went from 394 in 2001 to 68. Sharapova, who made her WTA debut at Indian Wells, is 231.
For the sake of comparison, the United States has 11 players ranked in the top 50 and 16 in the top 100. Traditional powers such as Spain (seven in top 100), France (seven in top 100) and Germany (six in top 100) lag behind the U.S. and Russia.
In 1990, the Soviet Union had five players ranked among the top 100, but breaking it down in post-breakup terms, three were from Ukraine, one from Belarus and the other from Georgia.
"It's not necessarily a jealousy, but they are competing with each other without playing each other," Lansdorp said. "Myskina couldn't wait to be No. 1 in Russia. On Sept. 3 finally she became No. 1 in Russia [passing Dementieva]. It was a big thing to her. Nobody wants to be compared to Kournikova."
Myskina and Kournikova were once close, having played together at the famous Moscow Spartak club. Despite frequent trips to train with Lansdorp, Myskina has retained her Russian roots, while Kournikova long ago left Moscow for Florida.
"If you ask if we compare with her on the court, I don't think so right now," Myskina said. "She's not really good right now. She was injured, and of course, I was injured too and it's real difficult to be back. It's hard. For her, I think she's tired of all this.
"We put pressure on her because a lot of good Russian players right now play. I think it's a lot of pressure. It's hard for her more than anyone. I feel sorry for her sometimes. I can say nothing bad about her."
Myskina's father and trainer, Andrey, was the one who sought out Lansdorp and their association quickly paid off with improved results. ("I'm better known in Moscow than Palos Verdes," Lansdorp said, joking.) He added power to her groundstrokes, worked on her serve and volleys, and is thrilled with her backhand down the line, calling it "a thing of beauty."
Myskina's fans were saying the same thing when she recently posed for GQ magazine. Although Dementieva and Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia looked provocative in their shots, Myskina was the one who got most of the attention. Maybe it had something to do with the Lady Godiva look, as she appeared to be naked on a horse.
She liked the final result, as did her boyfriend and coach, Jens Gerlach. "It's nothing that bad," she said. "It's not Playboy."
Galina Myskina had a different reaction.
"My mom was looking a half-minute and then she says, 'Put this magazine away. I have to think,' " Myskina said. "That's what she says. My father was more nice. My boyfriend was with me, so it was more easy. He liked [it] a lot."
The other players had some questions for her at the next tour stop in Brazil, Myskina said.
"Kim Clijsters came to me, 'Are you naked on the horse?' " Myskina said. "I'm like, 'No, I wasn't naked. I was with underwear.' She said, 'We couldn't see.' There still was underwear there. She's like, 'OK that's cool.'
"Actually boys [reacted] more. I know why. A lot of guys send me e-mails, saying, 'That was good. That was incredible.' Lot of mail, for me, that's funny."
Internet recognition was one thing. Myskina won the event in Bahia that week, the second title of her career, and is close to cracking the top 10 for the first time.
She was asked about the implications for her country if a Russian woman became No. 1 or won a Grand Slam tournament.
"I hope it means a lot for Russia," Myskina said. "We try to represent our country in a good way because I don't think a lot of people believe Russia is a nice country, especially after a couple of things that happened there. I really worry about Russia. That's one thing.
"I always try to say something good. That it's really nice there. [People] are scared to go there, for sure. But I can tell you it's nothing scary.
"We're all working hard because we just try to be better than anyone. I know Maria because she practices hard and she wants to play good because we are in the top, so she wants to compete with us. She is good and wants to be better."