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From Russia with love and plenty of game

Anastasia Myskina's French Open title is just another step in the rise of Russian tennis.

KEITH NIEBUHR
Published June 20, 2004

Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva met as children. At an early age, they took lessons from the mother of 2000 U.S. Open men's champion Marat Safin at a Moscow club.

Soon, the two were friends.

And rivals.

"One time, we were young, we were maybe 9 or 10 years old, and we were playing for pizza," Dementieva said.

The stakes, one could say, have gotten significantly higher. Today, they're playing for championships, not slices of pepperoni.

When Myskina defeated Dementieva 6-1, 6-2 two weeks ago in the French Open final, the moment was significant for Russian tennis. Not only did Myskina become the first Russian woman to claim a Grand Slam title, it marked the first time two Russians met in the championship match of a major.

It might not be the last.

With others on the cusp of greatness, Russian tennis has officially arrived. Before Myskina and Dementieva, Olga Morozova, who lost to Chris Evert in the French and Wimbledon finals in 1974, had been the most recent Russian woman to reach a Grand Slam final.

But entering Wimbledon, which begins Monday in England, 10 Russians are ranked in the WTA Tour's top 50. Eight of those players own tournament titles, something the most famous Russian player of all - Anna Kournikova - never accomplished.

"They're young, eager and talented," ESPN commentator and former tour player Mary Joe Fernandez said of the crop of rising Russians.

Though Kournikova fizzled, at one time, many believed her talents would carry her to greatness. Now 23, she made her tour debut in 1995 and climbed 224 spots during one 12-month period early in her career. She became a top doubles player (twice winning the Australian Open), reached the Wimbledon singles semifinals at 16 and rose to No. 8 in the rankings but has since all but fallen off the map.

Lingering injuries persisted, and many questioned her motivation because of her numerous modeling gigs on the side. She last played in a major 17 months ago and has yet to play in a tournament this year, though there is talk of a comeback. But for all of the criticism Kournikova received for not realizing her potential, some credit her for adding to the sport's prevalence in Russia. Russians saw her succeed and flocked to the courts, one tour player said.

"Women's tennis, in Russia and around the world, is popular because of Kournikova," said Russian Dinara Safina, the world's 31st-ranked player. "A lot of players want to be like her. She was in the semifinals of Wimbledon and in the top 10. I think she did a lot for women's tennis."

Among the top Russians, No. 3 Myskina, No. 6 Dementieva, No. 9 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 12 Nadia Petrova, No. 14 Vera Zvonareva and No. 15 Maria Sharapova have shown the most promise. Of those, Myskina, who turns 23 on July 8, is the oldest. Sharapova, 17, is the youngest.

They all know each other. They're all friends.

"I always feel more comfortable talking to Russian girls," Sharapova said. "I get along great with everybody."

Myskina and Dementieva have had consistent seasons. Kuznetsova won her first singles title Saturday at the Eastbourne grass-court tournament and was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year. Petrova was a 2003 French Open semifinalist, and Zvonareva has reached the third round of her past five majors. Sharapova, however, might have the brightest future.

"She looks to be another superstar," Fernandez said. "She's a dangerous player, for sure."

Sharapova, who seems to play best on grass, was spotted by legend Martina Navratilova at a tennis exhibition in Russia when she was 5. Navratilova liked what she saw and told Sharapova's parents the girl had talent. Two years later, Sharapova was living and training in Florida.

"Tennis is a big sport in Russia right now," Sharapova said.

While it's true the more people who play, the more chances there are of producing talent, that only partially explains the success of the Russians. Other factors might include coaching, desire and opportunity.

"There is good coaching to be had in Russia, which helps at the start," NBC announcer and Boston Globe tennis columnist Bud Collins said. "Mainly, I think it's the chance for fame and fortune that puts them on the road away from the motherland. Life isn't too easy in Russia, so they aren't averse to hard work."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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