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Tennis in Russia: a popular national sport

18:56 05/01/2008

MOSCOW. (Alexander Nikolayev) – Far from a recent fad, tennis in Russia has attracted followers from Tsar Nicholas II and Count Leo Tolstoy to the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.

Recent years have seen many outsiders herald the “discovery” of tennis in Russia. Few know that, in fact, tennis has a significant history in the country. Count Leo Tolstoy played it, had his own court, and devoted an episode in “Anna Karenina” to the game.

Next year will be the 130th anniversary of tennis in Russia. Officially, the game appeared in Russia in 1874, 100 years after a British cavalry Major, Walter Wingfield, patented an invention he called Sphairistike, or Lawn Tennis.

On August 28, 1878, a manifesto “On the development of lawn tennis in Russia” was issued in St. Petersburg. Very soon afterwards, one of the oldest sports clubs in Russia — the St. Petersburg Cricket Club — decided to popularize tennis as well.

The new game was taken up by many young Russian aristocrats. Many noble estates acquired courts, sometimes also called “venues for the English pastime.”

Tsar Nicholas II was a keen tennis player. His diary entries are full of references to the sport: “played tennis after breakfast until 5 o’clock”, “played a lot of tennis”, “enjoyed playing tennis,” “I personally played seven sets”, “went to play tennis early and played and sweated a great deal.”

The pioneers of “professional” tennis, if the term can be applied to the sportsmen of the time, were people like Count Mikhail Sumarokov-Elston, Russia’s champion in 1910-1914, and Arthur MacPherson, a Russified Englishman and one of the founders of Russian lawn tennis.

Officially, tennis was rejected in Soviet times, being considered a “bourgeois sport.” However, there is historical evidence that in private even Vladimir Lenin, and later the Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov, played tennis.

This has immediate impact on the professional game. The first Soviet tennis player to be “allowed” to play abroad was Anna Dmitriyeva who placed second in the Wimbledon junior tournament in 1956. Legend has it that she owes her appearance there to Nikita Khruschev. During a visit to London, the then-Soviet leader was asked why he did not send players to compete in Wimbledon. “What is Wimbledon?” he is supposed to have replied. They explained it to him and soon afterwards Soviet players could be spotted at tournaments in Europe and America

“And now all those who have anything to do with Russian tennis are basking in publicity,” says Anna Dmitriyeva, now a tennis commentator. Indeed, almost every day now brings a triumph. It would have have been a farfetched dream 15 or 20 years ago, but now there is not a single tournament – be it Grand Slam events or cup tournaments – in which there are no Russian stars among the winners.

“I don’t remember any other country whose players rose to the top as fast as the Russians,” said Larry Scott, Director General of the World Tennis Association. Indeed, “the Russians are coming” has been the buzz for some time.

With the advent of affluent “new Russians,” many boys and girls can now be seen practicing tennis at glamorous foreign academies, for example, the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy in Florida. “These rich parents attack you all the time, just like the Russian army,” jokes Bollettieri.

Many attribute the boom in Russian tennis to the fact that the first Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, was a tennis buff. More pragmatic observers note that there is more money to be made in this sport than in any other. Even if you don’t become a star yourself, you can make a more than decent living by hitting the ball around with rich clients.

As for Boris Yeltsin, he was not only a keen player, but a fan and connoisseur of professional tennis. Yeltsin created a positive atmosphere around tennis, attracting the attention of businesspeople and journalists. Now that he is gone, Russian tennis players dedicate their triumphs to the memory of the first Russian president, as was the case when our women’s team won the Fed Cup for a third time, and again when Yelena Dementieva triumphed at the Kremlin Cup.

Some cynics boldly predicted the end of tennis as a national hobby and sport following the demise of Yeltsin. After all, they noted, Putin is into other sports, such as skiing and martial arts. People, the cynics said, would turn their backs on tennis. This is not the case; tennis is more popular than ever.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Source: Rossiiskaya Gazeta

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