MELBOURNE—If the word Russia is never far from anyone’s lips in Washington D.C. these days, the same can be said of those of us involved in the tennis world that has been gathering at the Australian Open in Melbourne.
Obvious or not, so many of the stories emerging from this year’s first Slam have a Russian twist, some obvious, some less so. As the first week drew to a close, the following results were hogging the headlines:
Amanda Anisimova’s crushing 6-3, 6-2 upset of No 11 seed Aryna Sabalenka from neighboring Belarus. Amanda is 17 and the youngest player left in the draw after three rounds. She was born in New Jersey but both her parents were born and raised in Moscow. Her coach is her father Konstantin.
Alexei Popyrin reached the third round when No. 7 seed Dominik Thiem retired at 7-5, 6-4, 2-0 down. As one of the most promising Australian youngsters, Popyrin was given a wild card. He was born in Sydney, but his parents are both Russian.
Sofia Kenin beat a Russian, Veronika Kudermetova, in the first round before going on to thrill Rod Laver Arena by fighting back from a set and 0-3 to lead world No 1 Simona Halep 4-2 in the third. Kenin eventually lost, but she had matched Halep blow for blow in a series of amazing rallies for much of the match. She trains in south Florida and played for the United States in the Fed Cup final last November—but she was born in Moscow.
We are still waiting to see how far Alexander Zverev can go in a Grand Slam. Prior to arriving in Melbourne, the No. 4 seed had only reached one quarterfinal at the Slam level–at the French Open last year. He is widely expected to do much better in the very near future and is, by any standards, a star in the making. Born in Hamburg, he plays for Germany, but his parents are Russian.
One of the most exciting and talented of the NextGen is Stefanos Tstitsipas, who beat four Top-10 players on his way to reaching the Roger's Cup final last summer and then won the ATP title in Stockholm. He is through to the fourth round in Melbourne and Australia's Greek community is going nuts. His mother is Russian.
Another of the young rising stars is Denis Shapovalov. Still a teenager, the No. 25 seed won his first two rounds in Melbourne and is facing the prospect of playing Novak Djokovic in Rod Laver Arena. A talented left hander, Shapovalov was brought to Canada at the age of nine months, having been born in Israel, soon after his parents left the Soviet Union.
In all there were nine Russian women in the draw at Melbourne Park, plus four Russian-born players who now represent other countries. Of the four Russian men in the draw, Daniil Medvedev, seeded No. 15, beat Ryan Harrison in straight sets and awaits a third-round match against David Goffin. Andrei Rublev fell in the first round to Mackenzie McDonald; Evgeny Donskoy lost to Serbia’s Filip Krajinov in the second while the powerful and hugely promising No. 10 seed Karen Khachanov failed to live up to his billing and lost to Roberto Bautista Agut.
Maybe the most eye catching performance in the women’s draw was Maria Sharapova’s impressive 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 defeat of defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in the third round. This was the Sharapova of old, playing the best tennis we have seen from her since she was banned for drug abuse early in 2016. She’s a Californian in style and residence, but has always played under the Russian flag.
Not to be outdone, another experienced Russian, Anastasia Pavlyuchenko ousted No. 9 seed Kiki Bertens before reaching the fourth round by beating Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus.
It has got to the point where new players making their mark on the world stage are almost expected to have a Russian connection. There is no single reason for this influx of Russian talent, other than solid coaching programs and the inspiration, perhaps, of having watched Grand Slam champions Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. They both played in the Kremlin Cup in Moscow under the guidance of New York magazine publisher Eugene. L. Scott in 1990 and the ever present figure of Shamil Tarpischev.
There is no leading tennis official in the world who has been around as long as Tarpischev. Now 70, Tarpischev was appointed Davis Cup captain of the Soviet Union in 1974. The Cold War was at its coldest. Anyone in positions of authority would have had to stick meticulously to the government way of doing things. But as soon as Gorbachev arrived on the scene in the mid-1980’s, paving the way for Boris Yeltsin to stand on his tank and seize control of the Kremlin, everything changed–and Tarpischev with it.
He already knew Yeltsin because the new Russian President was an ardent tennis player and it quickly became evident that he was comfortable having Tarpischev, the man he appointed Minister of Sport, in the office next door. Unofficially Tarpischev became Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff and whenever Gene Scott needed some greasing of the bureaucratic wheels as he got the Kremlin Cup into gear, Shamil was the man he called.
Never as close to Vladimir Putin, Tarpischev, nevertheless, moved smoothly back into his Davis Cup role and took charge of the Russian Tennis Federation, coaching the teams that won the Cup in 2002 and 2006. An appalling sexist remark about Venus and Serena Williams during a talk show on Russian TV got Tarpischev sanctioned by the WTA in 2014, but for this man for all seasons, nothing much seems to have changed. In Russia today, as has been true for over four decades, tennis is Tarpischev.
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