By David Kane
Two tweets from former World No. 2s, Vera Zvonareva’s announcement that she would be missing the upcoming Australian Open, and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s suspense-filled declaration that she indeed loved life, seemed to sum up the status quo for Russian women’s tennis these days. It feels like a lifetime ago that to be a Russian on the WTA Tour usually signified a player with a high ranking who made deep runs in major tournaments and, if nothing else, was a fierce competitor, a member of a contingent strong in numbers. As recently as 2009, there were four Russian women in the top 10, two in the top 4. As the 2013 season approaches, only Maria Sharapova remains among that elite group, with three others floating around the top twenty.
The formerly proud and prolific Russian horde even found themselves the butts of a light joke from Tennis Australia, who boasted that their best player, Samantha Stosur, could beat anyone with an “-ova” surname. That Stosur has failed to beat a player inside the top 50 Down Under since 2006 (and has a paltry head-to-head record against most Russians in general) illustrates how far things have fallen for what used to be the game’s most indomitable force.
With Christmas only hours away, imagine if you will, jaded tennis fans, several midnight visits from three of the most knowledgeable spirits: the Ghosts of Tennis Past, Present and the always ominous Ghost of Tennis Future. Allow these spirits to remind you of what has already been, and perhaps warn you of that which is soon to be.
It was a little over a decade ago that “Anna’s Army,” led by the glamorously talented Anna Kournikova, burst onto the women’s tour. While their leader failed to win a singles title, those who followed in her footsteps took full advantage of the road she paved. In 2004, thirty years after Soviet Olga Morozova reached the finals of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the first three Russian women won Grand Slam titles at major tournaments that featured two all-Russian finals. While Sharapova has won most often on the sport’s biggest stages, compatriots like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva have more than made names for themselves with multiple Slam titles (Kuznetsova), 26 weeks atop the world rankings (Safina) and multiple Slam finals and semifinals (Dementieva).
The year 2009 represented a second crest on the wave of Russian dominance: Kuznetsova won the third all-Russian final of the Open Era, Safina was ranked No. 1 for most of the year, and Dementieva came within one backhand passing shot of upsetting Serena Williams for a place in the Wimbledon final. As the decade came to a close and talented youngsters like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Maria Kirilenko began to post impressive results, the Russian horde looked as strong as ever.
Barely two years on, the Ghost of Tennis Present presents a wholly grimmer reality. Vera Zvonareva may have been the breakout player of 2010, reaching two Slam finals and peaking just behind the top spot in the rankings, but since then, “Anna’s Army” has done an almost complete about face. What could explain such a dramatic reversal of fortune? Ostensibly, injuries and early retirements are to blame. Dementieva retired at the end of 2010. Safina is indefinitely absent with a broken back. Kuznetsova and Zvonareva are rehabbing injuries in the hopes of reviving their stalled careers.
Truthfully, however, most of the Russian contingent could be diagnosed with problems that are as mental as they are physical. Over the years, it has become increasingly uncomfortable to watch these talented women fail to get out of their own way time and time again in important situations. Matches that look to be straightforward from the outset end up having more twists and turns than a Tolstoy novel, complete with double-digit double-faults and screaming into hands. Where most of the top men could have their names etched in to the final rounds of major tournaments in pen, even the faintest pencil tracing could derail what should be unassailable progress.
In fact, Maria Sharapova has been so successful at deviating from this tragic formula that, despite bearing the Russian flag at the London Olympics, American journalists and commentators hardly believe her to be of the same ilk, and frequently attempt to claim her as their own. This is wrong. Not only is Sharapova as Russian as her compatriots, but she has also suffered her own heart-wrenching losses to prove it.
The average Russian tennis player can be accused of many things, but rarely can it be said that she does not want success badly enough. In the last decade and a half, this diverse group of women has taken passion in this sport to a level where every point is a battle, every match a war. Painful as it can be to watch, the inherent entertainment value cannot be denied. More often than not, when a Russian takes the court, she takes on two adversaries: her opponent, and herself. When she wins, then, the victories are twice as sweet, for her and those who were swept up in her almost spiritual fervor and feel as if they helped will her over the finish line.
All of this is why what the Ghost of Tennis Future has to say is so important. Because they are so rarely the champions at the end of the fortnight, they may appear inconsequential to the many storylines in the canonical WTA soap opera. However, the drama that the Russian contingent brought and continues to bring (although on a muted level) kept viewers interested. They emit a passion for the game that could convert any causal fan (Bah Humbug!) into a diehard (Merry Christmas!).
Once, it was said that the Russians were coming. For a few brief-shining moments, they had arrived. Now, there are more than a few ghostly moans in the night, calling for their return.