25 January 2013

Russian composers, playwrights and tennis players?

To my mother’s certain knowledge, Russians and their neighbours were born and educated to be composers, instrumentalists, painters, sculptors, doctors, academics, scientists, writers, dancers, theatre people and architects. It was as though the entire population was educated, cultivated and decidedly intellectual.

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,
Wimbledon, 2011

That is not to say that Serena Williams or Na Li could not win. But Russian women and their neighbours have established an amazing track record this century. Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, U.S Open in 2006, Australian Open in 2008 and French Open in 2012. Vera Zvon­areva has won the U.S Open in 2006. She co-won the Australian Open doubles in 2012, and the mixed doubles titles at the U.S Open in 2004 and Wimbledon in 2006. Anastasia Myskina won the French Open in 2004. Svet­lana Kuznetsova won the 2004 U.S Open and the 2009 French Open. Anna Kournikova co-won two Grand Slam doubles at the Aust­ral­ian Open. Dinara Safina co-won the women's doubles title at the U.S Open in 2007. Ekaterina Makarova co-won the mixed doubles at the U.S Open in 2012. Elena Likhovtseva co-won mixed doubles at Wimble­don in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2007. Czech Petra Kvitová won Wimbledon in 2011. Belarusian Victoria Azarenka won the 2012 Australian Open sin­g­­les and co-won two mixed doubles at the 2007 US Open and the 2008 French Open. Russian-Australian Anastasia Rodionova won the gold med­al in both women's singles and women's doubles at the 2010 Common­wealth Gam­es.

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.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
We have so enjoyed the way in which this post has been written and were, at the start, most intrigued to see where it was leading.

There is, or so we feel, a great sense of determination and commitment to an idea or cause amongst Russian and, indeed, Eastern Europeans, perhaps more so than is traditional in the West. We certainly find this trait among many of our friends who come from these countries and who have developed the most extraordinary talents in many different fields.

As for tennis, alas we know practically nothing.

Andrew said...

Your mother's theory is quite plausible. You may or may not know, but I wonder if Russia and the old Soviet countries have a culture of tennis down to villages. A lack of facilities at a village level in Australia is being blamed as one reason for our lack of success.

ILoveMaria said...

I have been to the Tennis Open a few times, mostly to see Maria Sharapova play. She looks sensational, and she can play a bit of tennis as well.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is interesting how reputations can change over time. Those accomplished Russians you discuss certainly lived in a different world.

By the way, you forgot to mention famous Russian singers--names like Figner, Lipkovskaya, and Michailowa are still legendary among record collectors.

Perhaps today there are more venues for athletes, or perhaps like the singers, the reputations of early athletes were more ephemeral. Russia has not entirely abandoned cerebral pursuits--chess is still highly honored there.
--Road to Parnassus

Dina said...

Ha! I don't follow tennis but I sure did enjoy how your wrote this!

Shabbat shalom and happy Tu BiShvat.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

Exactly ... a great sense of determination and commitment to a cause, even in difficult conditions. So natural talent is probably equally distributed around the world, but parents in Russia and the neighbouring countries are very focused and supportive.

diane b said...

Interesting concept. Isn't it true that a lot of Russians train in America. I have some Art and Architecture today

Hels said...

That is such an interesting question because I had never heard of any tennis tradition. Skiing, skating and winter sports - yes indeed. Gymnastics, wrestling and athletics, of course. But not in my family. Sport was for people to relax, not to take seriously.

Hels said...

Ahhhhh ILoveMaria
Sharapova has won four Grand Slam singles tournaments since 2004!!!

Of course she has a great face and a great figure, but stunning looks aren't everything :)
Ok, they are.

Hels said...


I wish I had known about the singers you mention, and others. I have a composer cousin, a violinist cousin, two professor of medicine uncles and an author cousin, but no personal experience with singers.

Chess is an interesting intellectual activity. There must have been great honour and prizes for the top chess players, but was there a career to be made?

Hels said...


I loved this topic too :)

Where did your parents come from? What talents of yours did they encourage? If I had suggested to my parents that I wanted to become an athlete or actress, they would have gently pointed me in another direction.

Hels said...

diane b

That is so true, including Sharapova and Kournikova.

Even though the adolescents aren't taken away from home until their late teens, I still feel terribly sorry for the parents. Imagine having to make the choice to allow your 17 year old to maximise his/her tennis and losing them Vs keeping them at home and sacrificing their tennis future.

ChrisJ said...

Interesting. I wonder whether there is a split along traditional pre-soviet class lines - with sports previously being for lower classes and the arts for higher class.

Hels said...


That makes perfect sense, even in a society that tried hard to offer equal opportunities to all families, regardless of income or class.

But imagine the irony of working families doing better financially and fame-wise from sport than very clever families did from literature, the arts and music. FAR better!

The Age said...

Re the Australian Open Tennis, 2015.

Ekaterina Makarova remembers a not-so-distant time when Russians so populated the vanguard of women's tennis that four would regularly feature in grand slam quarter-finals, a pair in the semis. "I really wanted to be one of them."

Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina spring to her mind; Anastasia Myskina, who works with her now, was a particular favourite. Has Maria Sharapova seemed part of that group?

Hels said...

Thank you. It is interesting hearing the tennis radio and tv commentators with the Russian and other Eastern European names. Twenty years ago they would have struggled with the correct pronunciations. Now the names are as familiar as the English, Spanish and French names.

bazza said...

Hi Hels. I love the list of Blogs in your side bar (including mine!) - lots to follow up here! Incidentally Melbourne is one of my favourite places on the planet (Friends in Warrandyte and St Andrews)

Hels said...


welcome back to Melbourne any time :) Conversely I have old friends in Britain, going back to the years when my brand new spouse and I lived in NW London and Herts. Great years :)

The Blog List on the side is hugely helpful for _me_ to keep up to date with what other history/art history bloggers are writing about. The Labels at the bottom are to help _other readers_ identify interesting and relevant topics in my blog.