Times article - Hunger driving the Russian revolution
Hunger driving the Russian revolution
BARRY FLATMAN IN MOSCOW
At the age of 5¼, Oxana Tesmanova has never heard of Wimbledon or Roland Garros. She hardly even knows there is a sport called tennis, except that it is the name given to the class her parents take her to three times a week at the Chaika club, 100 yards from the banks of the Moskva River. Oxana is happy. She likes to run up and down, to prove she is quicker than her classmates. For some of the other girls, the exercises aren’t as easy — they can’t quite bend their young bodies with the same flexibility. Best of all, Oxana likes to hit the furry yellow balls, although sometimes she cries when the coach tells her to hand over her racket, because she’s having so much fun and she doesn’t want to go home.
She doesn’t hear what the adults who teach her are saying. Even if she did, she wouldn’t understand. Words such as “potential” and “desire” and “co-ordination” mean nothing to her. But to Oxana’s mother and father, who are investing much of their meagre income in this sporting education, her potential with a tennis racket means a great deal more. Like any parents, they claim that all they want is for Oxana to be healthy and happy, but they dream of her becoming a tennis star: an extremely rich one. That is why they make the sacrifices, why they make do with the aged, rattling Lada that transports their daughter to this special place where tennis stars are made. The Chaika club stands in one of Moscow’s more salubrious, though still nondescript, inner-city areas. The Kremlin is two miles distant, but this isn’t a place for sightseeing. The aroma of chlorine from the swimming pool a floor below permeates the sole tennis court, and the carpeted floor is beginning to show its age. Yet seven days a week a succession of classes are packed with youngsters from the age of four upwards, funded by their hopeful parents at a cost of 3,500 roubles (£68) a month to learn the game under the tutelage of Ekaterina Krjuchova. Thirteen years ago, two other Muscovite children, Vera Zvonareva and Elena Bovina, were taken to Krjuchova for their first tennis lessons. Zvonareva is still in her teens, Bovina is barely 21, and both have already topped the $1m mark in prize-money. Tomorrow they will form part of the eight-woman Russian contingent seeded for the French Open in Paris. No nation can match Russia in terms of numbers at the top end of women’s tennis. Not the Belgians. They boast the world’s top two, with defending Roland Garros champion Justine Henin- Hardenne and the sidelined Kim Clijsters, but have to look as low as 81st spot for their third-best player and 316th for their fourth. Not the French, the Spanish or the Americans, and certainly not the British, whose leading player, Anne Keothavong, is ranked 176th. No less a judge than Chris Evert, well versed in the requirements of Grand Slam success, with 18 titles to her name, observes: “In all my years of following tennis, I can’t remember a group of talented players from one country flooding the ranks of the women’s tour quite like the current crop of Russians.” Why so many? For a start, there is their inbred resilience, work ethic and determination to succeed. Peer pressure is another factor: with so many contesting in the same arena, they constantly aspire to outdo their friends and rivals. And as Larissa Savchenko, a former French Open doubles champion and Russia’s current Fed Cup coach, theorises: “We are just generally better at sports. We have stronger genes because so many tough cultures have been mixed together.” No Russian woman has yet won a major title, but that seems only a matter of time. Last year Zvonareva produced the shock of the French Open by eliminating Venus Williams in the fourth round. More recently, Roland Garros semi- finalist Nadia Petrova humiliated Serena Williams in straight sets on the American clay of Amelia Island. A week earlier Elena Dementieva had reached the final of March’s Nasdaq-100 in Miami, and last October Anatasia Myskina’s triumph in the Kremlin Cup caused former president Boris Yeltsin to deliriously race out of the crowd and embrace her. While Zvonareva and Bovina are Chaika products, the talents of the higher-ranked duo of Myskina and Dementieva were nurtured at the starkly contrasting Spartak club, situated on the northern wooded edge of the city. While laughter rings out from the Chaika court, Spartak is a sad, silent, almost derelict place. Somebody has spray-painted a hammer and sickle on the entrance gates. Inside, stray dogs roam around the piles of abandoned bricks, breeze blocks and litter, interspersed between a collection of clay courts in dire need of layers of top-dressing. Once there were several indoor courts. Now only one is usable. But it was here, often on sub-zero winter mornings at five o’clock, that Myskina and Dementieva learnt to love the game under the forbidding countenance of coach Raouza Safina. Nowadays Safina travels the world, monitoring the performances of her own children — Marat, the 2000 US Open champion, and Dinara, the latest addition to the top echelon of Russian girls. A decade ago, Safina was a Spartak fixture, relentlessly drilling her charges, expecting only total commitment. “It is hard to explain why the girls were prepared to put up with the hardship, but it is all part of the Russian nature,” says Safina, whose disagreements with her supremely talented son eventually saw him exiled to Spain to complete his tennis education. “It was extremely tough for them over a number of years, but both girls (Myskina and Dementieva) had parents that were prepared to make any sacrifice if it contributed to their children’s future.” These days Dementieva says she would do the same for any child of her own. Five days a week she made the hour-long journey across the city. Initially there were more than 30 in her class and she was not the star pupil, but her mother was insistent. Often there were not enough rackets to go round, but she always returned next time. “I remember when my mother bought me my very own racket,” Dementieva says. “I was nine, and at first I thought I could not hit with it because it was so precious. Ever since then, I’ve really looked after my rackets and when I see people throw or even break them, it makes me so annoyed.” The conveyor belt of tennis talent is a lucrative business. That suits Krjuchova and her husband, Yuri, a veteran of 25 years’ service as a Red Army physical instructor, who run the Chaika academy. The success of their business embodies the privatisation ethic of the new Russia. In the days of communist rule, the vast Spartak sporting combine was funded by the state, and even though tennis did not figure high in the list of priorities, there was sufficient money to maintain standards. Now that funding has ceased, Spartak has withered, while concerns such as Chaika thrive. For 11 years of Zvonareva’s development from an eager child at Chaika into a potential champion, she was almost like a daughter to her coaches. Yet for every success story like this, there are thousands of disappointments. A ruthless vetting process means that only the very best are invited to continue, and the tough decisions are made when children are still at an early age. “We bring them in as young as four,” says Krjuchova. “Girls tend to be more receptive than boys because they develop earlier and are better disciplined, so they listen to the coaches more. They are prepared to train harder at a younger age, and more of them are brought along. “So many parents want their children to become tennis players because there are opportunities now that they never had in the days of the Soviet Union. But we can only progress with a few, because we are a private enterprise and have only one court. We have established a good name, however, because of the players we produce.” Tennis technicalities such as drilling a perfect double-fisted backhand and manufacturing a forceful serve are not on the initial agenda. “First, we just study the youngsters to see what their physical potential might be,” says Krjuchova. “We watch them run, skip with ropes, bend, stretch and play other games. We see if their body is properly co-ordinated for tennis and how their eyes react to a moving ball. But most of all we look for the right attitude. You can tell a lot from the reaction of very young children. Some are lively . Some are content to do just enough, and some always want to do more. “Those are the good things about what we do. The most difficult is to tell parents their child is never going to be good enough. If I had many courts, I would never want anybody to leave, but we must be stern. Nowadays there are so many parents that want their children to be top tennis players. To satisfy all would be impossible.” Little more than a decade ago, Russian tennis was not regarded as a prime sport for children. In the days of the Soviet Union, it was perceived as decadent and western. There were only 94 indoor courts in the whole of Russia, and just 120 junior competitions. Then, just as the political structure of the country underwent momentous change, so did the Russians’ attitude towards tennis. Nowadays both figures can be multiplied several times over. The 1988 re-adoption of tennis as an Olympic sport after a 64-year gap was also a catalyst; so was the series of historic reforms that began in the mid-1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced words such as perestroika and glasnost to the global dictionary. However, the politician who really legitimised the game was Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, who appointed the long-serving USSR Davis Cup captain, Shamil Tarpischev, as his personal tennis coach, also installing him in a Kremlin office and appointing him Russia’s minister of sport. Tarpischev made sure the population was exposed to tennis, with extensive coverage of the sport on two of the state television channels. Gradually more Russian players began to move on to the world circuit, in contrast to the Soviet era, when only two players of either gender were allowed to travel abroad. Nowadays some describe Tarpischev as the dictatorial czar of Russian tennis. Apart from being president of the Russian Tennis Federation, he is still both Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain. Frugality with funds means he is not popular at the grassroots level. Krjuchova’s husband, Yuri, a man of few words, insists: “The Russian girls coming through are not doing it because of everything in the system, but despite of everything.” Whatever the truth about the minister’s effectiveness or lack of it, proof that the Russian girls have never been better will not be hard to come by in Paris this week. Meanwhile, the ones for the future are in capable hands. Krjuchova’s satisfaction is obvious as she points towards Oxana, the tiny figure in a pink T-shirt and shorts, her face a study in concentration. “Look at the reaction of that little girl,” she says. “She wants to do more, she yearns to hit just a few more shots with her racket. She has a natural love for what she is doing. She has the same look in her eye that I saw in the eyes of a young Zvonareva all those years ago. I could tell that Vera was going to be a top player; I get the same feeling about this girl. I believe she will progress through the system we have developed.”