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From Russia with Game

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In the past couple of years women's tennis has basically been dominated by the U.S. (specifically the Williams sisters) and Belgium (Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne), but Russia is starting to stockpile plenty of talent, as evidenced by no less than four top-20 performers.

Russians are littered throughout the WTA Rankings -- including their top stars Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva -- but the best of the up-and- coming young crop includes names like Vera Zvonareva, Nadia Petrova, Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina and Maria Kirilenko.

The 16-year-old Kirilenko has yet to make her mark on tour, but word on the street has it that with a little seasoning she'll be one to reckon with in the very near future. The 17-year-old Safina is the younger sister of charismatic men's star Marat Safin, and at No. 64 the hard-hitting youngster gives Russia a whopping 11 of the top-64 female players on the planet. Twelve Russians in all reside in the top 100.

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova is just one of the several up-and-coming Russians.
Russia accounted for five (the most of any nation) of the "Sweet 16" players at the 2003 U.S. Open, although four of the five lost in the fourth round, with the world No. 8 Myskina gaining a quarterfinal berth in Flushing. The Russians also sent five women into the round of 16 at Wimbledon, which marked the first time that had happened in Grand Slam tournament history.

The Russians sent a pair of players deep into French Open draw, as Petrova soared all the way to the semis after besting her compatriot Zvonareva in the quarters at Roland Garros.

Sharapova is already a media darling, having drawn comparisons to Anna Kournikova because of her looks, but, more importantly (I guess), because of her blossoming game. The 16-year-old's thunderous groundstrokes are only going to get better. The only thing more powerful right now than Sharapova's groundies are her (Monica) Seles-esque grunts. As a matter of fact, this tennis writer believes the Russian's high-pitched shrieks out-decible those of the nine-time Grand Slam event champion Seles.

The 18-year-old Zvonareva is probably the farthest along of the rising Russian teens, but she'll need to harness her hot temper in order to make continued strides in the ever-improving women's game.

Myskina is currently the highest-ranked of the entire group, but I don't know how much better she's going to get. Ditto for the ninth-ranked Dementieva. Zvonareva, Petrova, Sharapova and Kirilenko clearly have the most buzz surrounding them in the Russian camp.

Honorable mentions go out to Elena Bovina, Lina Krasnoroutskaya, Elena Likhovtseva and Martina Navratilova's current doubles partner, Svetlana Kuznetsova.

The Russians have already combined for five titles on tour this season, including a pair of wins for Myskina (Doha and Sarasota) and one each for Dementieva (Amelia Island), Zvonareva (Bol) and Safina (Palermo). Russia is also one of four nations still vying for the 2003 Fed Cup title, which will be determined on its home turf in Moscow in November.

As for the aforementioned Kournikova (currently ranked 147th), believe it or not she was actually a better tennis player than a roving reporter, a post she embarrassingly held for a mere three days (under the employ of USA Network) at the recently-concluded Open. In all fairness to Anna, she was a top-10 player at one point in her basically-disappointing career, one that is in serious jeopardy right now due to a chronic back problem.

I really don't think that a Russian woman will hoist a Grand Slam championship trophy as long as Serena, Venus, Kimmy and JH-H remain healthy and hungry, but don't be surprised when you see them hovering around the quarters and semis at the majors.

A Russian woman has yet to win a Grand Slam event, and only five have ever cracked the top 10 (Olga Morozova, Natasha Zvereva, Kournikova, Dementieva, Myskina).

Russian men (specifically Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov) have enjoyed success over the past several years, now it's time for the ladies to step up and seriously challenge for the top spots and at the Slams.

Scott Riley
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