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Cookie-cutter blondes lead Russian revolution
A handful of young, determined women take their shots at the top spot in tennis.

The Orange County Register

NEW YORK – Theirs has been a quiet revolution, their aim to be the best in women's tennis. And that could happen soon. Sooner than many think.

For the past year, female Russian tennis players - most cookie-cutter blondes with deadly backhands - have slowly moved up the rankings and into the public's consciousness. Ten years ago, there were no Russian women in the top 100. Today, there are 11 - all under age 23 - and eight more ranked between 101-200.

The highest ranking Russian is Anastasia Myskina, who moved into the top 10 a week ago.

Then there was this year's Wimbledon, where five Russians reached the fourth round, most notably Maria Sharapova, 16, who squealed her way into the forefront.

And the Russian movement didn't stop on the shores of Dover.

At the Acura Classic in Carlsbad, five Russians made to the fourth round, while Svetlana Kuznetsova, 18, reached the semifinals at both Acura and the JPMorgan Chase Open in Carson, and at Toronto, Lina Krasnoroutskaya stopped No. 1 Kim Clijsters.

"We have always traveled together ever since we were 7 or 8 years old," Kuznetsova said. "There is a competitiveness between each other. And when you have someone to compete against, it makes your game that much better."

Max Isenbud, an agent who works with such players as Sharapova, said the desire to excel separates this group from other non-Americans trying to break in on the WTA Tour.

"These girls are hungrier and work harder," Isenbud said. "They are great athletes whose desire to make it is strong."

Said Sharapova: "They're really strong inside ... really tough mentally, have good desire to be No. 1 in the world. Just they're willing to go out there and play hard.

"It's what they are inside, their feelings inside about how they can achieve things, how they can be No. 1 in the world. And in order to achieve and be No. 1 in the world, they have to be really strong. That's what they are."

Isenbud said he believes the pipeline of tennis players filters back to the days of Boris Yeltsin, the former Soviet president who was a huge tennis fan. He believes that influenced many of these players' parents.

"All of these kids, even though they train elsewhere now, all got their fundamentals in Russia," Isenbud said.

They might be chips off the old bloc, but many of these players have taken their games elsewhere, to lands of opportunity and where results are key, not money.

For instance, Kuznetsova moved to Spain to train. Myskina, 22, and Sharapova moved to the United States. Nadia Petrova, 21, lived in Egypt for a while and now lives in Amsterdam. They say better coaching was one reason to leave the homeland. Priorities were the other.

"It's not the (Russian) coaches that have made us good because we are all at different places," Kuznetsova said. "We still love Russia, and still go there, but now we get more contracts like other players (outside the country). It's a different mentality there. It's not so much about having people who are interested in tennis, but rather people who are interested in the money rather than good results."

Sharapova, who first trained at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida and now works with well-respected coach Robert Lansdorp in Los Angeles, said it's difficult to develop a strong tennis career in Russia because of the lack of opportunities and courts. Indoor courts cost $30 an hour, she said.

Figuring out which of these young players will be the first to break through, to win a Grand Slam tournament or reach the top 10 is anyone guess. Sort of a Russian roulette, if you will.

Myskina said she would place her bet on No. 16 Vera Zvonareva, the unyielding groundstroker who upset Venus Williams at the French Open. Sharapova, whose intensity has been compared to Monica Seles, could be another good bet.

"She could be the one, but they are all really good," Myskina told *******************. "Maria hits the ball so hard and is not scared at all. She just goes on the court and hits. And Vera is unbelievable. She was mentally weak last year, but now she's a really strong person."

Others who could fit the bill are No. 21 Elena Bovina, No. 38 Krasnoroutskaya, No. 27 Kuznetsova or No. 22 Petrova, with No. 47 Tatiana Panova, No. 71 Dina Safina and No. 132 Evgenia Koulokoskaya not far behind.

"Our future looks bright," Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischec told Reuters in July. "But winning a Grand Slam makes good players into great players. We're on the way for that big win, we're coming. It's just a matter of time."

Russia's tennis tradition on the women's side goes to the 1970s, when Olga Morozova made in-roads with nine titles and an appearance in the 1974 Wimbledon final.

Natasha Zvereva, the 1988 French Open finalist, was considered Russian until Belarus broke away. Then came Anna Kournikova.

Kournikova broke through when she reached the 1997 Wimbledon semifinals at age 16. That, however, was before the onslaught of modeling gigs, poster shots and unfulfilled expectations hurt her career. She has since slipped to No. 135 in the rankings and is considering retirement.

Elena Dementieva, another blonde ponytailed Russian teen currently ranked No. 15, came next, making it to the U.S. Open semifinals 2000 and winning an Olympic silver medal that same year. But both players peaked too soon and have had trouble repeating their early successes.

Russian men have enjoyed more success during the same period. Yevgeny Kafelnikov was ranked No. 1 in May 1999 and won two Grand Slam tournament titles, while Marat Safin reached the top spot after winning the 2000 U.S. Open. And between the two of them Andre Medvedev and Andrei Chesnokov won 18 titles before retiring.

But the women are going to catch up. The revolution is under way.

"We have the strength and will to win," Petrova said. "And we all fight until the end."
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