this article i posted in Challengers 2 yrs ago, will post it here
alots changed since
an article that was in the Daily Telegraph Mag section, it took me about an hour to copy up
PHEW, Its long, very long.
its about Belarus tennis, including Vika Azarenka (more on her at end end as well) Enjoy
As tennis prodigies emerge in growing numbers from the old Soviet bloc, Peter Foster finds out what is turning young girls into tennis obsessives – and encouraging their parents to sacrifice everything for their success.
Vika Azarenka is a 13 year old girl who carries herself with an elegance far beyond her years. Her manager believes she is destined to one of the biggest names of world tennis. Another Navratilova. She first picked up the racket aged six and for the past seven years has hardly put it down. Early on, her mother Alla took a job at Belarus’s National Olympic Training Centre for Tennis in Minsk, to encourage her daughter. “Vika has great focus, she has lived on the courts, “ her coach says. “For her, tennis is everything.”
In Belarus, Vika is already in another league. She has a sponsor, BelTech Export, a major arms dealer. They vet all requests to interview or photograph their investment. It might seem odd to regard a 13-year old girl as a commercial property but financial backing is everything. Without it, her parents could never afford for their daughter to travel to Russia. Italy and the United States to play in the big junior tournaments, such as the Kremlin Cup and the Orange Bowl. She has just returned from two months in America. The children at her school read about her performances in the papers. “Sometimes they see me on television,” she adds.
Within the next decade a significant number – perhaps even a majority of women playing at Wimbledon will hail from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It does not take a genius to spot the trend. Just count the number of –ovas and –evas playing in the main draw this year. Obvious, but it indicates the depth of tennis talent now emerging from the region. The Soviet “tennis factories” churned out top players for 40 years, but only a fraction of those made it to the outside world. The rest played mainly among themselves, hidden behind the Iron Curtain.
The William sisters might grab the headlines (and most of the prizes) but there is a healthy living to be made treading water in the middle ranks. A top-50 player who plays doubles can easily pick up £150,000 and then double her money with exhibition matches and sponsorship deals. By the living standards of countries such as Russia, Belarus, Slovenia or Hungary the professional circuit offers the possibility of a whole new life. This might explain why Belarus. A country of just 10 million people, not only won the Junior Fed Cup last year, but also holds the number-one spot for the under-14 boys and girls in the European tennis rankings.
It is the dream of this kind of success
– and Vika Azarenka’s reailty that inspires Violetta Shatalova. She is seven years old and also lives in the capital, Minsk. It might seem a long way in the future, but sometime between 2015 and 2020 she intends to win the Wimbledon Championships and buy her father a new car. And it won’t be a cheap Russian Volga, either. It will be something foreign and silver-sleek, such as a Mercedes. Or maybe an American Chevrolet. Violetta wants the very best for her “Dada”, the owner of a stationery shop. If she wins, Violetta will be a millionaire and maybe the whole family will be able to move to Florida to escape the seven-month Belarus winter.
Violetta’s training has already begun in earnest. Four times a week she attends sessions at the Vimpel Sport Komplex. In truth, “Komplex” is something of an overstatement. The premises might easily be mistaken for an abandoned factory. A gaggle of children is hard at practice in the gymnasium that looks untouched since the 1950’s. A tennis net is attached is anchored to the floor by two wooden chains. Three girls, including Violetta, are rallying with their coaches over the single net while other children – some as young as five – hit balls against the wall.
Violetta seems to stand out from the rest. It is not immediately obvious why. Is it her size ? She is barely tall enough to see over the net. Even aged seven her groundstrokes are recognisable as the real thing – a wide, double-handed take-back and a quick “snap” through the ball. Violetta gives a little grunt as she throws herself into the shot, executing forehands and backhands with ease. From the other side of the net, a female coach issues instructions in Russian – “Bounce! Bounce!” Violetta obeys, skipping from side to side on the balls of her feet, just like the pro she longs to be.
Only gradually does it become clear why Violetta so catches the eye. It is not her tennis skills – extraordinary though they are – but her attitude which marks her out. Already she shows the ability to retreat into that mental limbo that sportmen refer to as “the zone”. Once the hitting begins the transformation is immediate. Violetta seems oblivious to the world around her, wearing a curiously glazed, distant smile. Nick Brown, the English Fed Cup captain, a long-time observer of this extraordinary level of concentration in Eastern European players, says it is exactly this “zoning out” that sets out them apart from, say, Britain’s aspiring athletes. “These kids from Eastern Europe, they play with a different kind of hunger. You can see it in their eyes. They don’t play for fun, even at a young age. They play for the dollar, for the better chance of life. Three years ago I said you would need to be speaking Russian on the circuit by 2005 because it will be the only way to communicate. The volume of players of players coming from that part of the world is not an accident”
Violetta is watched by her mother Arla, who offers a fatalistic shrug when asked about her daughter’s future. Only God knows what the future holds, she says, but Violetta is determined. When not at the Vimpel she hits against her bedroom wall in the family’s cramped apartment. Hour after hour. No one can stop her. Martina Hingis was once the same. Mrs Shatalova says she doesn’t dare to dream. She cannot afford to. Her family can barely amass the £24 a month needed to pay for Violetta to play at the Vimpel club. “We try not to raise the subject, we might not be able to afford to help her,” she admits. “But Violetta says she is certain she will be professional. She says to her Dada “Don’t worry, when I am rich I will buy you a car.”
Meanwhile at the National Olympic Training Centre for Tennis
– which Violetta hopes to attend in a few years’ time – the “school day” is in full swing. Tennis is the only lesson on the curriculum. One of last years Junior Fed Cup-winning team, 16 year-old Daria “Dascha” Kustava, stops to talk after practice. She began playing aged five when her father, an electrician, brought her to the tennis centre for an assessment. Dascha knew she was going to be good when, at eight, she won her first trophy – a large white teddy bear, She intends to make the top 50 by the time she is 19. Dascha’s story is not unusual. Her family are far from wealthy, in a country where the majority survive on less than £300 a month. It is not uncommon for parents to sell whatever they have to further their children’s tennis career. What sacrifices has her mother, Lena, made for her daughter? The question brings a prickle of tears to Lena’s eye. “Everything.” She says. “Everything we had, we passed to Dascha.” Could she elaborate? Lena just shook her head. “Everything.”
When I asked Dascha who she plays for – herself, her parents, the glory of Belarus? – she replies, “First for me, and then for my parents.” And what does she hope the game will bring her? “I want a big house, nice car and a lot of good clothes. I want to buy my father a yacht.” And for her mother? “She will be with Father on the yacht.” Such bald statements of material ambition might sound crude to Western ears but iiving is hard in post-Soviet Belarus. The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, is an old- fashioned communist who still seeks to control large parts of social and economic life. Last January, he issued a presidential decree that Belarus would win 25 medals at the Athens Olympics in 2004. “Sports are a tool of achieving our priorities,” Lukashenko decreed, “because they ensure the health of our nation and the image of our state.”
In the West pushy tennis parents are constantly reminded that financial rewards should be a bonus and not a goal, but here in post-Soviet reality no one gives up their house, sells their car or takes on extra jobs at night without expecting some sort of return. At the tennis centre the reminders of the rewards are constant. In the foyer the lives of Belarus’ top players - Max Mirnyi, Vladimir Voltchkov, Natasha Zvereva, Olga Barabanschikova and Tatiana Poutchek – are documented in large photographic details. At the Pyramids with Anna Kournikova. Sunbathing in Florida. Exchanging a joke with Martina Navratilova. None is a household name in Britain, but by Belarussian standards they have all made serious sums from the game.
For most, parental sacrifice will not be enough. To join the ranks of the wealthy most of the young girls will need to find a sponsor. Barabanschikova, a classically beautiful woman who was once mentioned in the same breath as Anna Kournikova, was sponsored by Milos Vainer, a Czech diamond dealer who also helped Navratilova in her early years. Barabanschikova, now 23 and ranked 128, is training for her comeback. At her peak in 1999-2000 she reached the world’s top 50. She shows off the uncut rock diamond which Vainer gave her, and she still wears it around her neck. “Without Milos, none of my life would have been possible,” she says, “He was very good to me.”
We are eventually granted the privalege of two days with Vika Azarenka.
Nominally at least, she attends School No 48 in Minsk, but it soon becomes obvious she spends more time training at the BelTech Export tennis club (where the gate is guarded by a man in a fraying military uniform). Her headmaster, Sergei Nikitich, says exceptions are made on account of her sporting achievements. The school already has one pupil playing ice-hockey in Canada at the moment. “Vika’s classmates know of her achievements and they are very proud, and treat her as she deserves,” the head solemnly adds. “ I hope Vika will be the pride of not only of her school but also of her country.” Today at the club she is doing drills with Volha Havartsova, her friend and rival and the other big hope for Belarus tennis. Without her usual fluffy jumper on, Vika is revealed to be a gangly teenager. Her wrists are not much thicker than the handle of the racket she wields. She hits the ball like she means it. But before long Vika is engaged in a fierce argument with Volha. They are fighting over the score. It is the first time in two days that Vika has shown the slightest loss of composure. When the game resumes Vika petulantly hits a bad shot, as if she doesn’t care any more. Olga Barabanschikova says she knows the feeling. “Vika is like I was, a perfectionist. I would be playing well and then, after just one bad shot, decide the whole world was against me. I would start smashing my racket and lose the game. It was far from plessure. “Barabanschikova blames her slide down the rankings partly on her ability to deal with the pressure. “ I lost my head, “she says. “I felt like I had been doing it for somebody else for too long.
Who can guess when (or indeed if) Vika will find her own cracking point. In a Minsk pizza parlour a former Belarus “tennis child” agrees to speak frankly on condition of anonymity. She was a product of the Soviet system by which children were rigorously selected for sporting abilities at school. In those days everything was controlled, even the annual collection of tennis balls that arrived by train from a factory in Leningrad. She still makes her living out of the game as a coach. She recalls how, as a girl, her mother would demand to know when her results were going to improve.
“My nerves found it difficult, My mother wanted me to do better, but I could not. I tried very hard. In the end my father decided it was better for my nerves if I stopped playing.” How many children does she estimate have “problems with their nerves” and need help from a psychologist? “About two-thirds,” she says. At the same time, the coach recognises that parents have a role to play. Without pressure, she adds, the children will not achieve. Without achievement, what is the point of playing? The coach has her own child. Would she want her to be professional or play for pleasure? For fun, she says.
At home with Vika we see flashes of a normal teenager who likes ice-cream and Russian rap music. Once in her bedroom, however, perfect order is resumed: her mother makes her tidy it every morning. A packed trophy cabinet takes up one side of her room. On the sofa-bed her teddies are lined up in parade. Two books lie on her desk – a Russian edition of Harry Potter and a technical tennis manual. In a room next door sits a new Macintosh computer that looks as if it has been beamed down from Mars. Vika won it at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, last year. She wants to connect it to the internet, but the right software is not available in Belarus.
The family home is a four-room apartment in a tower block. Minsk, which was completely flattened by the advancing Red Army in 1945, is almost entirely made up of tower blocks, a model of Soviet urban planning. The blocks are differentiated only by the huge red numbers stencilled on their sides. The numbers are a rare dash of colour in a city of greys, browns and whites. Inside, the apartment is cosy although its concrete fabric is visibly crumbling in parts. Alla has laid on an embarrassingly generous spread. Every inch of the table is covered in dishes – red caviar; a whole chicken, roasted and spatch-cocked; potato blinis with sour cream; stewed sweet peppers; a homemade pizza with a rich fish bouillon. Alla, who works all day, must have been cooking half the night. Not to mention the cost. Dinner is a relaxed affair. The convivial atmosphere is fuelled by Russian vodka and good Belarus sparkling wine. Vika looks very happy. Her mother says she is careful not to spoil the little princess. Her father, Fyodor, is a driving instructor. He doesn’t seem the tyrant-type. Stories are exchanged. Alla tells how Vika embarrassed her at the Kremlin Cup. She had promised her daughter a McDonald’s if she won her match, but when she began to lose, “Can we still go to McDonald’s?” They laugh about it now. Vika blushes at the memory. Alla says Vika lost because she was worrying too much about Big Macs. That was the last time she offered Vika an inducement to win. Vika says she has “gone off” McDonald’s. It is for kids. Instead, she wants permission to pierce her nose. “When you have earned enough money for a diamond, then you can pierce your nose,” Alla says. She will not be drawn into what she hopes Vika might achieve. “ My dreams are in my heart. There are only 10 spots in the top 10. Is she proud of her daughter? “Today I have nothing to be proud of. I will be proud if Vika achieves what she wants. That will be my happiness, because my happiness is my children. I want her to work very hard. That is all I can ask. If she does that she will achieve.”
It is only when Vika has said her goodnights that we come to understand a little more about the scale of what Alla is trying to achieve for her daughter. The vodka has helped darken the conversation. Alla’s mother, 65-year old Nina, has sat through dinner silently. She carries her share of Belarus’ suffering in her face. The people of Belarus endured disaster on an epic scale. More than 2.5 million people – a quarter of the population – died between the Nazi invasion in 1941 and the arrival of the Red Army four years later. When Nina was Vika’s age she had already seen things that were beyond words. “My mother is a unique person. She has endured terrible grief. Terrible suffering and yet stayed optimistic,” says Alla, when her mother has gone to bed. “There are few such people as my mother.”
It is late. Vika’s father insists on giving us a lift back into Minsk in the ageing Volkswagen that earns him his living. Fyodor is justifiably proud of his daughter but, during the evening, it has become clear that Vika’s career represents more than the chance of a new car. It is something much bigger than that. Vika’s aspiration, her determination to succeed and to ignore hardship is born out of long tradition. If Vika fulfils her great expectations on tour, her family will have travelled to a new world, in the space of three generations. If Alla gets her day in the Wimbledon centre court box it will be just 50 years since Nina was a teenage girl, struggling to survive in the desolation of post-war Minsk. Now Alla finds herself doing the same for the next generation. She gives everything, as her mother did for her, in the hope that Vika too can have a better life.
from the Daily Telegraph Magazine Section. Aug 2003.