Quick now, what’s the answer to this question: Who was the president of Moscow’s first tennis club? Hint: the year is around 1895 and he was a prominent literary figure.

The answer is Leo Tolstoy and the date tells you that Russians have been playing tennis for more than one hundred years. Nicholas and Alexandria played tennis with their children. Even Lenin played tennis.

So why is it only recently that we’ve seen a group of highly ranked Russian players? Anna’s Army: Behind the Rise of Russian Women’s Tennis, a documentary available on DVD, answers this question by tracing the history of Russian tennis, and politics, in the past century.

Russia has had very good tennis players for a long time. We never saw them because the government didn’t allow them to leave the USSR. Instead, they played in an Eastern Europe/Russian tennis circuit. Why didn’t they defect if they were top-flight players? When Margaret Smith Court won all four slams in 1970, her income for the year was $15, 000, hardly enough reason to leave your family and friends forever.

Russia has had very good tennis players for a long time. We never saw them because the government didn’t allow them to leave the USSR.

Martina Navratilova defected from Czechoslovakia so she could have the freedom to play tennis where and when she wanted. But Russia was different. In the documentary, Navratilova tells us that families left behind by defecting Russian players would have paid a great penalty. Forced exile to Siberia is a good guess.

Maria Sharapova’s family was in a different kind of exile, they moved to Siberia after the Chernobyl accident. She was born in the town of Nyagan. When she was seven years old, Sharapova and her father Yuri Sharapov left Russia and came to Florida to find coaching for young Maria’s tennis game. Last year, Sharapova earned $23 million dollars as the highest paid female athlete in the world. Sharapova should give Anna Kournikova a finder’s fee. Kournikova is the pioneer for glamorous, endorsement-laden Russian female athletes.

Kournikova’s career was the result of a long chain of events. Olga Morozova, the first Russian tennis player to have international success, tells the following story about Nikita Kruschev. A reporter asked Kruschev why there weren’t any Russian players in Wimbledon. His response was “What’s Wimbledon?” then he turned to an aide and asked why Russia didn’t have any players in Wimbledon. We don’t know if the story is true but not long after, Russian players started to turn up at Wimbledon and other international tournaments.

But only two at a time so the government could keep a close watch on them. Russian players had an entourage but it wasn’t composed of trainers, hitting partners and stringers, it was a political entourage charged with insulating players from exposure to anything contradicting communist ideals. It’s bad enough that players were tailed but they were also required to give every cent of their prize money to the Russian Tennis Federation. Communism indeed.

By the late 1980’s, the political atmosphere had freed up enough that players started to push for change. The documentary shows fascinating footage of eighteen-year-old Natasha Zvereva after she had just lost the 1988 French Open to Steffi Graf. Zvereva is holding her prize money, a check for $24, 000, as Bud Collins interviews her. She starts out vaguely by saying that she wishes the Russian Tennis Federation would change something, “you know what I mean.” Collins knows what she means and helps her out by filling in the blanks: “You would like them to pay you the money you’ve just won.” Zvereva then holds the check up and says: “This $24, 000, it’s not money, just the paper.” One of her handlers squirms uncomfortably in the stands and shakes his finger, this is a no-no. How often do you get a chance to see political protest at a tennis match? Shortly after Zvereva’s stand, the Federation changed its policy to allow players to keep their prize money.

This was a critical step in the history of the current wave of good Russian players. The average income in Russia is $1400 per year. Russian parents realized that their children could make a lot of money playing tennis.

On the outskirts of Moscow, a large tennis community grew up around a mangy set of tennis courts that constitute the tennis club known as Spartak. Many retired tennis players taught at the center and lived nearby. One of them was Rauza Islanova, a former top ten player who trained a lot of the current Russian players including her son, Marat Safin, and her daughter, Dinara Safina.

Students started at Spartak when they were five or six years old and trained with the same coach, sometimes for as long as ten years. Kournikova, who was seven years old when Zvereva made her protest, was one of these students. Elena Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina were also in her age group.

Kournikova became a glamorous and rich tennis player. One year she had more internet hits than Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan combined. All of this was rather un-communist and young Russians took note. You could be a glamorous star and make a lot of money playing tennis even if you didn’t reach number one and never won a singles title. You can see why most junior tournaments are dominated by Russian women. There is promise of gold at the end of the rainbow.

You could be a glamorous star and make a lot of money playing tennis even if you didn’t reach number one and never won a singles title.

Sharapova has won a singles title, she has ten of them, and she won a slam: the 2004 Wimbledon. Russian women won three of the four slams in 2004. Even though you can barely turn a page in a tennis magazine without looking at an ad featuring her, Sharapova’s management and her company, SW19 (the postal code for Wimbledon), have sued the makers of this documentary for using her image to sell their product. Sharapova should get over it. Filmmakers are allowed to license footage and tell a story. It’s not like they make her look bad, it’s a respectful and well-made documentary.

Maybe she took exception to the characterization of Russian people at the conclusion of the film. The filmmakers suggest that Russians aren’t ruling the world any more so they’ve turned their focus to ruling the tennis world implying that they are still the same old imperialists and only the subject of conquest has changed.

Clearly the story of Russian tennis is deeply affected by its communist past and it would be hard to call Russia a democratic nation when it jails corporate leaders for political reasons, but it makes the United States look jealous (the producers are American). Russia has a lot of good tennis players and we don’t, it must be because the Russian mentality is to take over and dictate. If anything, the United States can be accused of trying to rule the world at the moment.

The United States is also the country that has a yearly championship called the World Series even though it is restricted to teams within the United States and Canada.

With the exception of the unnecessary Russian bashing, this is a fascinating look at the recent history of a nation through the evolution of a sport that has come to represent that nation. Give anyone a little political and financial freedom and they really can take over the world.

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