For many years I truly believed that Anna Pavlova, Vassily Kandinsky, Sergei Rachmaninov and Marc Chagall were my cousins. Vaslav Nijinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Boris Pasternak simply HAD to have been uncles. Czechs Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana, Leos Janacek and Austrian Arnold Schoenberg, whose parents were Czech, had to have been cousins of my husband. However it was not random bragging - there was no mention made of athletes, farmers or soldiers in my mother’s world view.
At the Australian Tennis Open this fortnight, spectators were struck by brilliant Russians, Czechs and Ukrainians alright, but they were not pianists or novelists. Of the top 32 women in the tournament, 17 were Russians or its immediate neighbours, four women with East European surnames (Varvara Lepchenko, Caroline Wozniacki etc) were playing for distant countries and a paltry 11 represented the rest of the world. Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Nadia Petrova, Agnies Radwanska, Anna Ivanovic, Maria Kirilenko, Dominika Cibulkova, Lucie Safarova, Ekaterina Makarova and Yanina Wickmayer smiled up from the published tournament programme and smiled down from the bigger-than-lifesize posters around the Melbourne Tennis Complex.
Petra Kvitova (Czech) and Maria Sharapova (Russian) were the winner and runner up
at the most important tournament of all,
The women tennis players from Russia and its neighbours are tall, athletic, well coached and good looking, but no more tall, athletic, well coached and good looking than other star tennis players. So what is the explanation? Drugs haven’t been found in tennis, as they have been in weight lifting and cycling, so that is not an issue. Money is not an issue since the Australian and American women presumably receive more prize money and endorsements than Russian, Ukrainian and Polish women receive.
My mother’s theory goes like this. When the economy is booming and employment is guaranteed, Russian parents will encourage their clever children to go into music, ballet, drama, literature or any career in which they can shine. But in tough times, “luxury” industries stop hiring young people. Carl Fabergé might have made brilliant and very desirable jewellery in the early 20th century, but if he had been alive now, he may have had to accept work in a chicken factory. Wise parents, therefore, have encouraged their clever daughters to go into an industry that everyone in the world wants to watch – tennis.