- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England — The Cold War is over. And judging from the likes of Maria Sharapova and company, the Russians won.

Going away.

“We have so many girls in the top 100,” Sharapova said. “It’s just — it’s wonderful to see them all.”

Call it the Anna Effect. On second thought, forget all about the pouty-lipped download queen.

Here at Wimbledon, the injured Kournikova hardly has been missed. Not when a bevy of young Russian women have hammer-and-sickled their way through the draw, turning the grass courts of the All England Club into something out of “Red Dawn” — albeit easy on the eyes, and minus the irritating presence of Patrick Swayze.

There’s Venus-slayer Vera Zvonareva. GQ magazine pinup Anastasia Myskina. Former U.S. Open semifinalist Elena Dementieva. The aforementioned Sharapova, a 16-year-old wild card who already might be better — not to mention better looking — than the unduly celebrated Anna K.

Add in No. 33 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, and five Russians have advanced to today’s fourth round. That’s better than the United States (four players) and Belgium (two players). And far superior to sad-sack host nation England, which failed to send a single woman past the opening round.

“When I come into a tournament I am expecting to win,” Sharapova said. “That’s my philosophy. I can’t go to a tournament thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna get my [butt] kicked today, so I might as well just leave.’”

Sharapova’s confidence isn’t misplaced. Despite the oft-flaky nature of Wimbledon’s grass surface, the Russian flotilla is no fluke.

Consider the numbers. Four Russians are ranked in the WTA’s top 25. Twelve are in the top 100. And more are on the way from the junior ranks, as Maria Kirilenko won last year’s junior U.S. Open and Vera Dushevina captured Wimbledon.

“There’s a lot of [Russians],” said No.11 seed Jelena Dokic, a third-round loser to Sharapova. “There’s a big competition between them. They’re all very good players.”

Beyond turning Wimbledon into Moscow on the Thames, the Russian women also have injected a fresh dose of glamour into a sport whose mass-market popularity — for better or worse — partially stems from the sex appeal epitomized by Kournikova.

Last year, Myskina raised eyebrows by posing in GQ nearly nude and atop a horse. At the All England Club, Sharapova has taken up the Glam Slam mantle of the absent Kournikova, much to the delight of the London tabloids.

Case in point? Sharapova’s first-round match against 18-year-old American Ashley Harkleroad was dubbed the “Battle of the Blondes” by the English press. Though both players were unseeded, dozens of reporters and photographers were on hand to, er, check out the combatants.

Judging from the reaction of the tennis paparazzi — and yes, they exist — the leggy, 6-foot Sharapova won more than just the match.

“I come on the streets of Wimbledon village, going to have a lunch,” Sharapova said. “I just come out of the cafe and there’s like three tabloid photographers just right in front of my face. They just jump out. I was laughing so hard.”

To her credit, Sharapova is more than a pretty face, hardly worthy of her “Kourni-klone” tabloid tag. Blessed with good mobility, crackling groundstrokes and a serve that tops 100 mph, she has all the makings of a future star, as evidenced by her straight-set dismantling of Dokic.

“If she plays like that every match, she will definitely be in [the top 10],” Dokic said. “She just comes out and swings. She has nothing to lose.”

In that regard, Sharapova isn’t alone. Zvonereva upset Venus Williams at the French Open. Elena Bovina, who lost to Sharapova at Wimbledon, became the first Russian woman to reach the Roland Garros semifinals in 28 years, dumping Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati along the way.

“Russian girls are really strong and really tough,” Sharapova said after beating Dokic.

Sharapova knows toughness. When she was 2, her family fled the Siberian town of Nyagan to avoid the radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown; at the age of 6, Sharapova left Russia altogether, landing in Florida to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

The move wasn’t easy: While Sharapova’s father, Yuri, accompanied her to the United States, her mother, Yelena, failed to secure a visa. The family was split up for nearly two years.

Bollettieri, who also coached Kournikova as a junior, believes that the hardships Russian players endure make them tougher and harder-working than their counterparts from other countries.

Sharapova concurs.

“I think [Russians] are really strong inside,” she said. “In Russia, I don’t think you have many opportunities when they decide to play a sport. They think [tennis] is their only chance to make it. They work really, really hard at it and achieve many good things because they know that’s maybe the only thing they can do.”

The seeds of the Russian tennis revolution were planted in the early 1990s, when president Boris Yeltsin took up the sport, pouring much-needed cash into the Russian tennis federation.

Dismissed under communism as a decadent, bourgeois activity — with a focus on prize money as opposed to national honor — tennis became a popular pastime, with hundreds of clubs springing up across Russia. One of those clubs, Moscow’s prestigious Spartak, produced both Kournikova and Myskina, earning the nickname “Kournikova Factory.”

At the French Open a few years ago, Russia’s Lina Krasnoroutskaya confessed that Kournikova’s well-publicized success — most of it off the court — inspired much of the current boom.

“She’s the reason,” said Krasnoroutskaya, who lost to Myskina at Wimbledon. “She’s very beautiful. She plays tennis very well. All the girls say they want to be like Anna.”

But only to a point. Kournikova’s endorsement portfolio aside, the Russian babe brigade is well aware of Anna K’s continuing failure to win a WTA tournament — so much so that when a 13-year-old Sharapova was asked about her “Baby Kournikova” nickname, she replied that it was “hard to admire” a player who hasn’t won.

Asked at Wimbledon about “filling the Kournikova gap,” Sharapova sounded a similar note.

“I don’t really need to be prepared for that,” she said. “I just do my own thing, try to worry about myself.

“I really want to be No. 1 in the world. It’s been my dream since I was a little girl.”

If and when that dream comes true — and given the number of Russians out there, it seems like a matter of time before one of them reaches the top — there’s only one thing to do. Surrender. And with the white flag in hand, offer spasiba.

Which, for those who don’t speak Russian, means thanks.

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