Vera credits Yeltsin for Russian tennis revolution

The late Russian President Boris Yeltsin was instrumental in tennis becoming a popular sport in the country, World No. 9 Vera Zvonareva has said. Known as much for his passion for tennis as for vodka, Yeltsin, who died last year, was a permanent fixture at events featuring Russia and was often seen celebrating with team members when they won their Davis Cup or Fed Cup matches.

In fact, immediately after he died in April last year, his widow, Naina, attended the Fed Cup final out of respect for her late husband. Fittingly enough, Russia thrashed Italy to win the tournament.

"Tennis became so popular thanks to the help of the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, who got involved and loved the game. He introduced the Russian kids to the game. Then everyone started coming and playing tennis," Zvonareva said.

Yeltsin, the first popularly elected Russian President, is credited with bringing tennis out in the open after it was reviled for years by the country's Communist leaders as a class-ridden sport unfit for the masses.

But Zvonareva feels that the future of the sport in her country is secure with several Russian men and women players now doing well on the professional circuit.

"It's just great to see all of us to be here right now, said Zvonareva about the four Russians in the Sony Ericsson Championships. "I remember being a little girl, 7, 8 years old running around watching big tennis events on the TV. We couldn't even dream about it that we'll ever be able to, you know, to be part of it."

Unlike most sportswomen who have female idols, Zvonareva's favourites are Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. "I think Andre Agassi, he was my favorite one. But, of course I also really liked Kafelnikov. He was very big, he was Russian, so I really enjoyed his game.

"I really the way Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis played their game. But I think the real idols were Kafelnikov and Andre."

Zvonareva, who often in the past made quite a spectacle of herself with her crying bouts during matches, said she has now become much stronger emotionally.

"You know, I think I'm just more experienced and more mature player right now. I've been on the tour for a few years, so maybe I have more experience behind my back and it helps on the court.

"It also helps you to understand that you'll never always play your perfect tennis out there. But no matter what, you have to try your best. You have to find a way to win the match, and that's what makes it interesting for me."

Zvonareva, the last player to qualify for the Doha tournament said she never sets any goals for herself and chasing rankings had never been her priority.

"I don't really look at the rankings, or I never say I have to do this and this and this. I just try to work hard, you know. Trying to improve every single shot I have. Just my game in general.

"It doesn't matter if I win the match, I don't know, 6 Love, 6 Love, or another one 7 6 in the third. I still feel like I can improve. I feel like I didn't do maybe something like enough. That's what makes me go back on the court to try to improve my game.

"I believe in myself. That's the most important part. Rankings don't really matter as long as I keep working and improving and getting to, you know, that level which I can play at."


By Anil John, November, 2008