Where has Russian tennis gone?

Oct 21, 2015, 11:01:19 AM

Once a safe bet with Kafelnikov, Safin and Davydenko, Russian men's tennis seems very ill these days. Visit of the patient, before the Kremlin Cup in Moscow.

No player in the top 50, no title for over two years, a team of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas relegated since 2012... Once a safe bet with Kafelnikov, Safin and Davydenko, among others, Russian men's tennis seems very ill these days. Visit of the patient, before the start of the Kremlin Cup in Moscow.


In fashion as in music, we've been seeing a huge comeback of the 90s. A revival that seems to completely escape the world of tennis, with all the strong nations of this era time in crisis. This was the case of Australia before the new generation of Kyrgios and Kokkinakis. This was true also for the US, even if the neo-thirties John Isner and the young Jack Sock maintain the illusion. This is still the case with Sweden, which has completely disappeared from radar screens since Robin Soderling. And this is also the case over the last few seasons of Russia, triumphant nation both in the ATP and the WTA in the past, which seems to be having a hard time existing today as in its heyday. Even though among girls, Maria Sharapova continues to help her country play a leading role. Except that the world number 3 is currently the only Russian to be in the top 20. If the player's level still allowed the National Team of Fed Cup by BNP Paribas to reach the final of a competition it has won four times between 2004 and 2008, the time when the WTA Tour was dominated by Petrova, Myskina, Kuznetsova, Zvonareva and other Safina and Dementieva seems far, far away. As for the men…


Who after Youzhny?


Currently, the first Russian player in the ATP rankings is Teymuraz Gabashvili, modest 30 years old stoker ranked 57th in the world and who hasn't won any tournament on the tour. No title either for the next on the list, Andrey Kuznetsov, world 88th nor for the third of the moment, Evgeny Donskoy, 117th... In fact the only Russian with a prize list is the aging Mikhail Youzhny, 33, down to the 138th place in the world and whose last title was in October 2013 in Valencia. For two years, he hasn't won anything or even played the slightest final. Since Davydenko retired at the end of last season, nothing remains of the glorious tennis Russian army. Moreover, on the collective level, the team of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Tour has disappeared since its relegation in 2012 after twenty years of continuous presence. Clearly, Russian tennis has fell in second division, and it's pretty sad to see this nation in so much pain, a country that gave birth to some of the most flamboyant tennis champions: Yevgeny Kafelnikov, world number 1 in 1999, 26 titles under his belt including 2 Grand Slams; Marat Safin, world number 1 also in 2000 and 2001, 15 titles including two Grand Slams; Nikolay Davydenko after, world number 3 in 2006, 21 ATP titles. Let's not forget Andrei Chesnokov and Alexander Volkov who had made the transition between the USSR and Russia. The latest and Kafelnikov played the first two finals of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas in 1994 and 1995. Then Kafelnikov passed the baton for the historic victory of 2002. In 2006, it's Safin who played the role of the "old guy" to eventually win with Davydenko. The following year, the successor Youzhny failed in final with Tursunov and Andreev. Since it's a desert of results.


Boris Yelsin’s tennis teacher


To understand why, you must first remember how Russian tennis exploded twenty years ago. At the time of the Soviet Union, this individual and "capitalist" sport was only very moderately appreciated by the elites. At the end of the Cold War, however, that same sport became a status symbol, the favourite hobby of the new bourgeoisie. Boris Yeltsin himself was a big was a fan and instilled a dynamic that enabled tennis to quickly catch up and know its heyday in the new Russia. Young champions had the choice between staying at home or going to a private academy, as it was the case for Marat Safin. But the euphoria didn’t last. In an interview with The Russian Courier in 2012 the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpitchev (who is no other than the former coach of Boris Yeltsin) was already pessimistic. "Our training issues appear when our athletes turn 14,” he explained. “Training a 16-year-old cost up to 200 000 dollars a year. At 14, it’s only 50,000 dollars: all losses occur at this time. Due to lack of funding in Russia, 90% of tennis players must stop or travel the world in search of financing. Now, fifteen of our former players represent other countries.” This is the case for example of the Kazakhs Andrey Golubev and Evgeny Korolev, or the Uzbek Denis Istomin, all born in Russia but who chose to take the nationality of a "satellite" country.


Kafelnikov plays golf, Safin into politics


On his part, Patrice Hagelauer thinks that the problem is even greater. "It’s actually structural," says the French national tennis director. « It lacks a clear politic to develop a real detection program, training and progression through youth tournaments. It’s essential and it seems to be a disaster zone. I know Tarpitchev and he seems motivated to develop tennis in Russia, but does he have the necessary means? I wonder... It’s also necessary for former players to get involved, set an example. A Kafelnikov could be at the service of his country, instead he went in the golf... Safin, who's into politics, could perhaps think ahead and take over from Tarpitchev. That would make sense." A small source of hope, which is accompanied by another, because a new talented generation seems to be arising. With Karen Khachanov first, born in 1996, cutting her teeth on minor tournaments (3 victories in Futures and 1 in Challenger in 2015). But above all, there’s the great hope Andrey Rublev, just 18 years old, former winner of the Orange Bowl in 2012 and of the French Open in junior last year, author of an encouraging first season as a professional: a tour passed in Miami, two in Barcelona and a first participation in a Grand Slam, at the US Open, after the qualifying rounds. These two have already integrated the team of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. They are the promises of tomorrow. Meanwhile, there will be no Russian top seed at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. The last local who won this tournament was Mikhail Youzhny in 2009.


By Régis Delanoë