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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Behind the Rise of Russian Tennis

Renowned for the strength of its Olympic athletes and hockey players, Russia is virtually unknown to most sports fans as a tennis powerhouse. Yet Friday its top players take on a vaunted Swedish team in the Davis Cup finals with a chance to win the most prestigious international trophy in the game, the Davis Cup.


Players and coaches give a variety of reasons for Russia's success in what is generally viewed as a "bourgeois" sport. They range from praise for the results of perestroika, which expanded the world of tennis for Russian players, to acclaim for the old Soviet system which developed talent, but limited players' access to international tournaments.


Politics played a role also. While Soviet players enjoyed some international successes in the early and mid-1970s, Moscow from 1977 to 1984 banned its athletes from sporting events in which South Africans or Israelis competed. It took several more years for restrictions to be fully lifted, meaning players failed to benefit from playing internationally for almost a decade.


Leading the Russian squad is Yevgeny Kafelnikov whose wins over German Michael Stich in the Davis Cup semifinals in September earned Russia its historic berth. Aged just 20, he has been a major beneficiary of the new policy, leaping more than 300 places in the world rankings since turning professional in 1992. He is now ranked No. 11.


Andrei Cherkasov, 24, another member of the Davis Cup squad, said: "Guys who are 25 to 30 never had the ability to travel abroad and gain experience from international competition." The liberalization of travel regulations, he said, "is the main reason our players have improved and Russia has become strong enough to make it to the finals."


With earlier liberalization, Russian tennis might have blossomed even sooner with current stars reaching a higher level. Andrei Chesnokov, 28, was the first Russian permitted to compete professionally, in 1985, but -- with only two years of international junior play under his belt at the time. "This was not enough experience for me," he said.


Alexander Volkov, the 1993 U.S. Open semifinalist and winner of the Kremlin Cup in November, was 22 before he could compete in his first professional tournament in 1988.


However, Davis Cup coach Vadim Boritsov, said Russia's strong performance this year is unrelated to the dramatic changes of the past 10 years.


"It was strictly a matter of these players, this time, this year," he said, adding that Andrei Olhovskiy had never played singles in a Davis Cup tennis match before, and yet he beat Slava Dosedel in Russia's quarter-final match against the Czech Republic. "It was the decisive match which clinched it for us 3-2. Who could have expected that?"


As for the improved talent, he said: "It could have developed anywhere. It just happened to develop here at this time."


However, 1973 Wimbledon finalist Alexander Metreveli of Georgia, the most successful player to emerge from the Soviet Union, said Russia's performance this year has not been a matter of chance.


"Every house is built upon a basement, on a foundation, and this basement was laid in the 1970s. What you see now, Kafelnikov, Cherkasov, is the last generation of the Soviet system," he said. The Soviet Union did, in fact, make it to the semifinals of the Davis Cup in 1974 and 1976 under Metreveli's guidance as squad leader.


Despite the substantial age difference, almost all current Russian players cite Metreveli as a role model and personal inspiration. Cherkasov, for example, said: "Metreveli started the popularity of tennis in Russia" and that thereafter the sport attracted better athletes.


Vice president of the All-Russia Tennis Association Gennady Zhukov, who spent many years working for the Soviet State Sports Committee, holds that today's successes are the product of yesterday's building during Soviet times.


"Then everything was governed and funded by the state. Without saying that it was good or bad, that system was far better for the development of grass-roots tennis. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we have had no financing and have just barely managed to survive."


Chesnokov, who in the words of Davis Cup press director Alexander Pesov, "broke the Russian system" by becoming the first player to retain the prize-money he won, has mixed feelings about the relative effect of both systems on the sport.


Chesnokov, who bridges the two eras, issued an ultimatum to the Soviet Sports Ministry in 1989 declaring that he intended to cease relations with the organization and would no longer share the money he won.


Previously tennis players were entitled to keep $750 a year regardless of the amount of their annual prize money. Given the new spirit of those days and the possibility of an embarrassing emigration, the ministry backed down.


Asked about his reasons, Chesnokov said: "I got so tired of people following me around every time I played abroad. There were so many stupid rules placed on what I could do. KGB men would come to my hotel room and tell me it was a bad idea for me to go out at night," he said.


Finally before a tournament in Basel, Switzerland, in September 1989, "I told the Sports Committee this is the last day we split the money. The way they treated me when I played for the Sports Committee was pure robbery."


Acknowledging the role that the old system played in his development, though, he said: "I don't want to say everything was bad. In the beginning I had no money, I had no rackets. They paid for everything.


"I know young players today who feel they are strong enough to play internationally but don't have enough money, and no one wants to support them."


According the association's Zhukov, Russian junior tennis has suffered greatly from the Soviet Union's collapse as there has only been money to send 25 to 30 boys and girls in four age groups to international tournaments.


Nevertheless, the association's financial resource base is being rebuilt through its own commercial endeavors and recently Russian 14-years-olds performed extremely well internationally.


There may be another lull in Russian tennis ahead -- this time because of the collapse in funding -- but, with many young prospects in the pipeline, it appears that the downswing will be much shorter than the last one.