Tarpishchev Lauds Yeltsin's Passion for Tennis

ReutersYeltsin congratulating Tarpishchev after victory in the Davis Cup quarterfinal against France in Moscow in 2005.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin and Maria Sharapova brought Russia tennis glory, but it was keen player and avid fan Boris Yeltsin who helped make the sport popular nationwide.

Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpishchev said it was mainly because of the former Russian president that the game -- considered a bourgeois sport in the communist Soviet Union -- became a pastime that appealed to the masses.

Yeltsin, the man who dismantled the Soviet Union and led Russia in its first chaotic years of independence, died on Monday from heart failure, aged 76.

"Yeltsin's name became synonymous with tennis in Russia," Tarpishchev said. "When he picked up a tennis racket in 1992 it was the most significant moment in our sport.

"It was a major landmark in Russian tennis history, alongside the feat of Andrei Chesnokov, when in 1987 he became the first Russian to win a Grand Prix event, and Kafelnikov winning Russia's first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1996."

Tarpishchev, who has captained Russia to two Davis Cup and two Fed Cup titles in the last five years, said Yeltsin's love of the game had a profound effect on Russian tennis.

"In large part due to him, tennis has become what it is today -- not only one of the most popular sports in Russia, along with football and ice hockey, but also the most successful," he said.

Photographs of the president indulging in his hobby gave tennis an immediate appeal, prompting Russia's political and business elite to join in and enticing thousands of youngsters to take up the game.

Kafelnikov's triumph coupled with Anna Kournikova's looks, fame and fortune took the game's popularity to even greater heights. Then came Safin, Anastasia Myskina, Yelena Dementyeva and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Siberian-born Sharapova, who stunned the sporting world by winning the Wimbledon crown in 2004 as a little-known 17-year-old, became another Russian success story.

But to be recognized as a truly national game, tennis, a highly individual sport, had to achieve something special to bring the whole country together.

That day came on Dec. 1, 2002 when Russia won its first major team trophy -- the Davis Cup -- by edging France 3-2 in the Paris final after an amazing comeback by Mikhail Youzhny.

Youzhny, a late substitute for Kafelnikov, beat Paul-Henri Mathieu in the deciding fifth rubber and became the first player in the event's 102-year history to win a match in the final after losing the first two sets.

Yeltsin was an integral part of that success.

Not only did he make the trip to Paris to support the team, he sat in the VIP box along with French President Jacques Chirac during the entire three-day encounter, cheering wildly at every winning point for Russia.

In the most dramatic moments of the tie, Yeltsin, the self-proclaimed team mascot, punched the air in delight.

The moment Youzhny clinched the title, Yeltsin climbed over a courtside barrier to bearhug him and the rest of the squad.

Yeltsin, who was an accomplished volleyball player in his youth, later recalled that Davis Cup victory as his proudest moment in sports.

The image of Yeltsin hugging Russian winners became a familiar sight over the following years as the country captured the Fed Cup in 2004 and the Davis Cup last year on home soil.

He was not a fair-weather fan, like many politicians who show up only at awards presentations to be seen with winners.

Yeltsin once said he knew every Russian tennis player by name and he could also recite the names of most leading foreign players.

He had attended every major tennis event in Moscow for the last several years, except when he was ill.

Health problems prevented him from going to Russia's last two home ties, this month's Davis Cup quarterfinal against France and last weekend's Fed Cup quarterfinal against Spain.

The day after the Russian women routed Spain 5-0, he died.

Tarpishchev said Yeltsin's legacy in Russian tennis would live long after his death.

"We were very fortunate to have him around for all these years. He was one of our most loyal fans," he said. "While we all mourn his death, I'm sure Russian tennis will not only survive but will become even more successful in the years to come."