In the world of women's tennis, every year tells a story. If 2002 was the year of the Williams sisters and 2003 was the year of the Belgians, then 2004 is turning out to be the year of the Russians. As the US Open, the year's last grand slam, heads into its final weekend, it's the Russian women who have established themselves as the new powerhouse on the WTA Tour and become a source of pride for an entire country.
After beginning the Open with five Russians among the top 10 seeds, three - sixth seed Elena Dementieva, ninth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and 14th seed Nadia Petrova - have battled their way into the final eight.
"I don't ever recall seeing such a quick rise of a group of players from one country at one time," says Larry Scott, the chairman and chief executive of the WTA Tour. "They're not just playing well. They're winning grand slams."
In fact, the past two grand slams have been won by promising young Russians. Anastasia Myskina defeated her childhood friend, Dementieva, at the French Open in June. And just a month later, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova stunned the tennis world by handily beating Serena Williams at Wimbledon.
Not so long ago, Anna Kournikova was probably the only Russian woman tennis player most fans had heard of. Famous for her glamorous looks rather than her winning power - she has never won a WTA tour singles title - Kournikova was Russia's only top-10 representative when she hit a career high of eighth in the world in 2000. But for all of the criticism Kournikova received for not realizing her potential, some credit her for adding to the sport's presence in Russia.
"Anna put Russian tennis on the map," says her agent, Phil de Picciotto, president of Octagon, one of the world's top sports marketing and management firms, based in McLean, Va. "Her success attracted so much attention. Russians saw her succeed and flocked to the courts."
Less than four years later, women's tennis has been transformed and is now the stage for a power struggle between the United States, Russia, and Belgium. At this year's US Open, 12 Russian women were among the top 100 seeds. In a country where tennis was considered bourgeois just over a decade ago, the sport has reached new heights.
"We have good competition between us," says French Open champion Myskina. "We play a lot of tournaments against each other. I know there are so many good girls behind me, I want to be No. 1 in Russia, and it pushes me to play better. The girls want to get ahead of me, so they try hard to play better too."
Besides the popularity and success of Kourni-kova, who is no longer on the competitive circuit, the addition of tennis to the Olympics in 1988 boosted the sport in Russia. The Soviet Union began to funnel money into coaching and development. It also didn't hurt that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, an avid player, gave the sport his backing - providing even more state money.
"There is good coaching to be had in Russia, which helps at the start," says Australian star Lleyton Hewitt. "They have a great work ethic and the results both the men and the women have had on the tour speak for themselves."
Russia now has 11 million females between the ages of 12 and 26 playing tennis, according to the Russian Tennis Federation. Although only a handful of those players will ever make it to the WTA tour, tennis is seen by many Russian parents as a way for their children to succeed.
"Quite a lot of players play for the love of the sport, but it's also about the money," says Russian-born Dmitry Tursunov, the 63rd-ranked singles player on the ATP Tour. "Tennis opens a lot more doors, allows us to travel and has helped many players - including Maria Sharapova - out of a lower lifestyle."
Sharapova began playing almost as soon as she could hold a racket. She was just 8 years old when Martina Navratilova spotted her at a tournament in Moscow, and the Hall of Famer suggested that the youngster go to the US for training. Two years later, Sharapova's father scraped together the $900 for a flight to Florida, and she began her tennis education at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Despite a peripatetic childhood - and a grand slam title at the age of 17 - she seems wonderfully centered, putting her early exit from the US Open in perspective.
"It [the recent terrorism in Russia] just shows that my loss is just a little thing," she says. "It's just an example of what can happen in life and that this [loss] sort of doesn't really mean anything."
On the men's side of the game, Russian success has been more limited. Unlike the women, who have 12 players in the top 100, the men have just five. Still, four players - former US Open champion, Marat Safin, former world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Mikhail Youzhny, and Nikolay Davydenko - made up Russia's winning Davis Cup team last year.
"I think the women are a lot more focused, and each of their successes elevates the other's confidence," says Tursunov. "Men in Russia have many more choices and opportunities and are not as influenced by tennis parents."
And the future looks bright. Last year, Russians took two of the four junior grand slam titles and there is another wave of players who Russian coaches say are very capable of achieving top results.
"They [the Russians] are coming," says defending US Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, who was knocked out by Petrova. "I think that everybody here knows that they are coming."