The (re)Renaissance of Russian Women’s Tennis

Since Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova announced Russia’s arrival in women’s tennis in 2004 with their Grand Slam triumphs, the nation took a stranglehold on the WTA rankings. Serena Williams once joked that she should just be called “Williamsova” at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, where the main draw contained 24 -ovas and seven -evas. ”I just know the standard: everyone is from Russia,” she quipped. “Sometimes I think I’m from Russia, too. With all these new -ovas, I don’t know anyone, I don’t really recognize anyone.”

The height of Russian dominance came in 2008 with a sweep of Olympic medals and five players in the top 10.

At one point during 2008, Russians made up 50% of the world’s top 10, with Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Anna Chakvetadze all occupying places in the elite. That came in the period when Sharapova was sidelined with a shoulder injury. They swept the podium at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, with Dementieva winning gold, Safina taking silver and Zvonareva winning bronze. However, in the 2012 year-end rankings, there were only four in the top 20, or 20%.

That led to the question: where have all the Russians gone? Dementieva’s retirement, coupled with injuries to Safina, Chakvetadze and Zvonareva, made many feel as though the days of Russian dominance on the WTA were over. Their mantle of churning out multiple quality WTA players all at once had now been taken up by nations such as Germany and the Czech Republic, and the longstanding tennis powerhouses of the United States and Great Britain have multiple young stars with bright futures.

The answer is: the Russians never really left, they were just taking a vacation.

With Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina all making the second week Down Under, it marks the first time that Russia has had more than two players reach the second week of a major event since the 2011 US Open.

Little needs to be said about Sharapova and Kuznetsova, arguably the two greatest Russians in terms of career accomplishments, who have six Grand Slam titles between them and 40 overall titles. Kuznetsova’s reascension has been particularly notable, as she missed almost half of 2012 due to a knee injury.

Maria Kirilenko is looking to match her best result at the Australian Open when she takes on Serena Williams in the fourth round.

Kirilenko, perhaps one of the hardest workers on the WTA, makes the most of what she has. In addition to being a standout doubles player, Kirilenko reached her career-high ranking in singles in 2012. She and countrywoman Nadia Petrova, who’s had a late-career renaissance in her own right, won the bronze medal in doubles at the Olympics; she finished fourth in singles, losing to Victoria Azarenka in the bronze medal match. Kirilenko’s had success Down Under before, as she reached the quarterfinals in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova in the first round; she’ll have an extremely tough test against Serena Williams.

Makarova has had her greatest successes in places called ‘bourne. The lefty stormed to the title at the WTA Premier event in Eastbourne as a qualifier in 2010, beating Flavia Pennetta, Nadia Petrova, Kuznetsova, Samantha Stosur and Azarenka in the final. She’s perhaps best known for her upset over Serena Williams at the Australian Open last year en route to the quarterfinals, and matched the feat this year by taking out Angelique Kerber. Her 11-5 record Down Under is her best mark out of all the majors. If the US Open was held in Bourne, Massachusetts, she’d probably win it.

Makarova and Vesnina are partnered in the Australian Open doubles event.

Vesnina, who reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in her Grand Slam debut in 2006, matched the feat this year. In her seventh career final to open the year in Hobart, she dethroned defending champion Mona Barthel to finally win a WTA title. She’s taken out two seeds this week, No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko and No. 16 Roberta Vinci.

In addition, Valeria Savinykh scored an upset win over Dominika Cibulkova in the second round and junior standout Daria Gavrilova qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw and had a second round showing.

As the old cliché goes, it’s always about “quality, not quantity.” As the Russians on the WTA have proved over the past decade, you can have both.

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