Russian tennis is enjoying a moment as the 2021 season gets underway. On the eve of the Australian Open, the Russians won their first title as a team at the ATP Cup event, led by two dominant performances from Daniil Medvedev and Andrei Rublev. Heading into Melbourne, those two- particularly Medevedev- represent the greatest hope for a Russian man to accomplish what none of them have since Marat Safin in 2005- to lift a Grand Slam championship trophy.
Medvedev and Rublev finished 2020 ranked in the top 10 in the ATP rankings, the first time two Russians had done so since Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov did in the year 2000. What is the cause of this nearly two decade long fallow period in Russian tennis (on the men’s side at least), and why is it perhaps coming to an end now?
One can find correlations in a nation’s sports performance and political or economic events and trends. A classic example is Spain- the years following the end of the Francisco Franco regime saw a boom in sports infrastructure- a “sports revolution”, that caused an explosion of talent in the ranks of its soccer, tennis, and basketball stars- giving rise to names such as Rafael Nadal, Xavier Iniesta, Pau Gasol and more.
In Russia, the inverse has taken place with its tennis players. The 1990s and early 2000s saw an unprecedented rise in its tennis players to prominence, with Safin and Kafelnikov leading the way, each winning two Grand Slams and achieving the world no.1 ranking. Other Russian players such as Nikolai Davydenko and Mikhail Youzhny did not manage to win a Slam, but made themselves into regular tour fixtures, with Davydenko rising as high as world no. 3.
All of these players save Youzhny would have been at least ten years old- already having taken up the sport- by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The ensuing decade or more saw Russia, as the largest former Soviet state, enter a period of economic and demographic ruination. Fewer children were being born, and the ones that were found themselves born to parents who would likely struggle to equip them and pay for lessons.
During Soviet times, the infrastructure for children to develop into top athletes would have been paid for by the state, as the Soviets saw sport as both a tool of influence on the world stage as well as a way to help mold youth into the model “new Soviet man.” This resulted in the USSR becoming such a powerhouse in international athletic competitions that, to this day, the Soviet Union holds the status of being the country to have won the second most Olympic medals in history, despite the fact that the last Olympic Games to feature athletes under the Soviet flag took place in 1988!
The 1990s saw the collapse of the old Soviet machine of sports funding- with the results reflected in the birth dates of Russian men competing at the top of the sport. Only one Russian man born between the years of 1982 and 1996- Igor Andreev (b.1983)- would ever achieve a ranking in the ATP top 20, and he only barely would, peaking at no. 18.
Curiously, this decline did not manifest itself nearly as much for Russian women, with Maria Sharapova (b.1987), Svetlana Kuznetsova (b.1985) and Dinara Safina (b.1986) all either winning Grand Slams or becoming ranked no.1 in the WTA’s world rankings. However, these may be classic cases of exceptions that prove the rule. None of these women developed their tennis skills at home in Russia, with Sharapova attending the Bolletieri Tennis Academy in the United States, while Kuznetsova and Safina both went to Spain.
For Russian men, at least, 1996 is the line of demarcation that indicates when the rebirth of top tennis has begun. Daniil Medvedev, the brightest young star of Russian men’s tennis, was born that year, as was Karen Khachanov, who has not quite achieved Mededev’s consistent results but has managed to crack the ATP top 10. Coming on their heels was Andrey Rublev, born in 1997.
These players were born into a Russia that, in the era of Vladimir Putin that began at the turn of the 21st century, has seen Russia emerge in many ways from the ruin of the 1990s. Putin’s Russia has seen the revival of sports infrastructure on multiple levels, including tennis, with several massive facilities going up in the early 2000s.
Interestingly, the last article cited may in fact indicate that Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin deserves some credit in this area at least, seeing as he was an avid tennis fan who reportedly encouraged investment in the sport. Putin’s own sport of choice is, famously, hockey, but he has taken time out to issue statements praising the performance of Russia’s strong crop of young players.
Despite the success of this new crop of Russian men, it is yet to be determined if this resurgence will be sustained or just a flash in the pan. In the ATP’ Next Gen Rankings (which rank the top male players under 21), only two Russians place in the top 30. In this respect, the men of Russia still lag behind the opposite sex- in ESPN’s profile of the 21 players (regardless of sex) under 21 to watch this year, the only Russians to feature were women.
Nevertheless, Medvedev, Rublev, and Khachanov represent Russia’s best chance since the heyday of Marat Safin to crown a men’s Grand Slam champion. And back in their homeland, development of tennis infrastructure continues apace, with a new complex in the Moscow area that will be the nation’s largest set to finish construction this year. It remains a possibility that, even after the emergence of this new big three of Russian men, that there will be a lull for a time. However, a betting man might want to wager that any sort of lull will not last for too long.