Now that another two of the year's Grand Slams - the French Open and Wimbledon - are in the books, and the professional tours are careening toward the last slam in Flushing Meadows (the U.S. Open), it's time to take stock of Ukrainian progress.
The top two Ukes on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour, Kyiv-born Russian-Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev and Montreal-born Greg Rusedski who now plays out of the U.K., have improved on their rankings since the beginning of the season, thanks in part to stronger performances in Grand Slam play.
Of the two, Mr. Rusedski has shown the more remarkable improvement, vaulting into the top-25 for the first time in his career, largely on the strength of his overpowering serve (fastest clocked: a barely believable 139 mph), but also in part due to a relentless search for experience in tournaments around the world.
In fact, the ever-improving technology of racket construction has led many officials in the men's tour and many media commentators, to muse aloud whether it might be time to ditch all the graphite and fiberglass composites and return to the traditional wood in order to bring serving speed down.
For obvious reasons, Mr. Rusedski was loudly opposed to this, and the world's forests and equipment companies are no doubt on his side.
Mr. Medvedev has settled into his role as top Ukrainian after flirting with a switch to Russian colors for Olympic and Davis Cup competition (paradoxically, after resisting Moscow's blandishments for years). Although he hasn't returned to the top-10 form he reached in 1993, the graceful 23-year-old has overcome injuries and a new coach's tinkering with his service to stop his slide out of the elite.
As of August 11, Ukrainian men stood as follows in the ATP singles rankings (with standing at the beginning of the season in brackets):
|19 (36)||Medvedev, Andrei|
|25 (56)||Rusedski, Greg|
Mr. Medvedev's doubles partner, Andrij Rybalko, was ranked 346th on July 21 (334 at the season's start), but then disappeared from view a scant two weeks later. Similarly, Dmytro Poliakov was 489th on July 21, 501st at the beginning of the season.
Among those we listed at the beginning of the season who have completely fallen below the official ATP ranking website's radar include Denys Yakymenko (formerly ranked 855th), Dmytro Muzyka (1038), Serhii Dovban (1093), Andrei Litvinov (1169), Volodymyr Lys (1302) and Serhii Yaroshenko (1302).
As mentioned in previous columns, Max Myrnyi is a man we'd dearly like to know more about, particularly now that he's risen to 368th in the world and has played in 13 tournaments this year. Is Ihor Kornienko (364th in the world) Ukrainian? These are the mysteries we ask our readers to help us solve.
The fact that we have no further data on all of the abovementioned gentlemen is in part due to fact that the glorious Stats Queen who maintained a superlative website at http://www.jdland.com/tennis.html finally burned out after six long years of number-crunching. As a result, fans are forced to rely on the grossly inadequate official ATP site.
The Stats Queen site remains on-line, however, and is an excellent resource for archivists, tennis historians and other numerically obsessed life-forms.
At the French Open, the Kyiv-based Russian was unseeded and drew a tough opponent in the first round, surprising given his successes at Roland-Garros. At any rate, he faced 12th seeded Spaniard Alberto Berasategui. Their hard-fought marathon match lasted two hours and 18 minutes. After four see-saw sets, the score was 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-1. In the fifth set, Mr. Medvedev was ahead 2-1, and the Spaniard withdrew due to leg cramps.
In the next round, Mr. Medvedev faced another member of the "Spanish Armada," Juan Viloca, who was not as tough, and dispatched him 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, despite struggling with his first serves. In the third round, he faced a young qualifier and home favorite, Nicolas Escude of France, downing him 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 6-3, with his serve back in form (11 aces).
He then learned that his next opponent would be 20-year-old Brazilian sensation Gustavo Kuerten, who had just upset the tournament's fifth seed, 1995 champion and all-around clay-court king Thomas Muster of Sweden. Dour as usual, Mr. Medvedev said the form that had taken him to the 1994 semifinal had deserted him, adding that "I'd rather play Muster because I know his game."
It appeared that Mr. Medvedev was facing a rabid Ukrainian patriot - Mr. Kuerten's blue-and-yellow clothes, even yellow socks and blue shoes (not suede), drew a reprimand from French Tennis Federation President Christian Bimes.
After winning the first set, 7-5, of their afternoon match, the Kyivan seemed to falter, dropping the next two, 1-6, 2-6, before storming back 6-1 in the fourth. The fifth was deadlocked 2-2, when officials decided to suspend the match due to darkness.
The following morning, the young Brazilian's nerves seemed to best withstand the delay, as he quickly went up 4-2, breaking the Kyivan's serve. The Russian-Ukrainian often seems to need that kind of pressure. He broke back, held serve to even the set at 4-4, then had his opponent down, 0-40, on the brink of another break point.
But the younger phenom fought back to deuce and then blasted a pair of aces to hold serve. The tide turned and Mr. Medvedev had to save a match point in the 10th game, but in the 12th found himself at the wall again, down 15-40. After fighting back to deuce, the Kyivan was hard pressed to return a well-aimed lob, and when the ball hit the net, it was 7-5 Mr. Kuerten, who became the first Brazilian to reach the quarterfinals of the French Open since 1960. He eventually won the tournament, besting last year's champion, Yegeniy Kafelnikov of Russia, on the way.
At Wimbledon, Mr. Medvedev was seeded (13th) but did not do as well. In the second round he had trouble against hard-serving qualifier Sargis Sargsian of Armenia, committing nine double faults and a whopping 51 unforced errors on the way to a 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 victory, and then bowed out to Nicolas Kiefer of Germany, 4-6, 2-6, 7-6 (7-2), 4-6.
At the French Open the former Canadian Ukrainian's fortunes were similar to Mr. Medvedev's: he ran into a hot young newcomer, Sweden's Magnus Norman, but his setback unfortunately came much earlier, in the first round. Mr. Rusedski lost the first two sets 3-6, 2-6, then clawed his way back into the match 6-3, 6-4, before finally surrendering 9-7 in the fifth set after a long three hours and eight minutes.
Back in England, Mr. Rusedski has begun to learn that now that a died-in-the-wool born-in-Oxford WASP knight has come to British tennis (Tim Henman), he's going to be hard-pressed to keep Albion's attention. After Mr. Henman lost and he won in the semis of the Wimbledon tune-up Nottingham tournament, Mr. Rusedski said, "Maybe I'll get a headline if I win. It would be nice if people said 'Rusedski wins,' rather than 'Henman loses.' "
At the All-England Club Mr. Rusedski's first round match was against seventh seed Australian Mark Philliphousis, and a showcase of what purists consider to be wrong with tennis - two men with serves topping 135 mph!
Mr. Rusedski held the record for fastest serve at 139.8 mph until Mr. Phillipousis broke it earlier this year. The Aussie has since hit five serves recorded at over 140 mph, including a 142.3 mph rocket he launched in May in Dusseldorf, Germany, which stands as the current record.
Their match must have reminded spectators of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture. With his serve reaching 139 mph, the Ukrainian fireballer hammered 27 aces at his equally peppery opponent, and even managed to serve at a reasonable percentage (55 percent), taking the match 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (8-6), 6-3 and sending the English crowd into orbit.
Round two was another artillery barrage. This time the opponent was Jonathan Stark of the U.S., another 130 mph-er. Mr. Rusedski prevailed in a marathon 4-6, 6-7 (9-11), 6-4, 6-3, 11-9, as between them the two men fired 36 aces. The American was undone by 23 double faults.
In the third round, the ex-Canadian manhandled 233rd ranked Brit Andrew Richardson 6-3, 6-4, 6-4; and in the fourth, he turfed Richey Renenberg (U.S., 57th in the world), 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) with another scarifying total of aces: 32.
As a result, this marked the first time that two players from the Green Isle had made it into the quarterfinals at Wimbledon since 1961, Mr. Henman also having made it to the round of eight. Both lost.
Mr. Rusedski faced eventual finalist Cédric Pioline of France. He kept his ace total high (18), but the Frenchman was clearly a better returner than anyone he'd faced in the tournament, hitting eight returns for outright winners, and creating 11 break opportunities. The final score was 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 Pioline.
Other notes: Mr. Medvedev's Davis Cup doubles partner, Andrij Rybalko, played in the Wimbledon qualifier, but lost to Frenchman Francois Fontana, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6 in the first round. A certain O. Karpenko of Ukraine played in the boys' singles draw, losing to M. Gregore of Slovenia 6-3, 0-6, 4-6.
As we mentioned earlier in one of this year's columns, Ukraine's women have enjoyed better success in doubles than singles, so we'll provide the more positive rankings first. As listed on the Women's Tennis Association website (http://www.corelwtatour.com/playstat), Ukrainian women in the world doubles rankings system as of August 4 are provided below. The rank shown in brackets was the player's position at the beginning of the season.
|8 (2)||Neiland, Larisa|
|61 (46)||Lugina, Olga|
|68 (60)||Medvedeva, Natalia|
|126 (192)||Tatarkova, Elena|
|245 (177)||Brioukhovets, Olena|
|275 (533)||Zaporozhanova, Anna|
|416 (475)||Nemchinova, Natalia|
|421 (726)||Bondarenko, Natalia|
|461 (500)||Kovalchuk, Tetiana|
|666 (929)||Tchvanova, Nadia|
|693 (1033)||Nossenko, Irena|
|730 (1022)||Turpak, Daria|
|738 (1067)||Semenets, Juliya|
|787 (NA)||Teplynska, Olha|
|818 (1003)||Kavoun, Kate|
Singles Rankings as of August 4:
Over all, the WTA has a far superior website to the men's site, but in recent months, the WTA has begun to list Olena Brioukhovets as a player from Russia (and some stats doings so have appeared in newspapers). Sportsline urges our readers to remonstrate with its powers that be (please see the website address above).
Larisa Savchenko Neiland
To provide some additional notes on the most successful women's tennis player Ukraine has produced: Ms. Neiland broke $3 million in career prize money in 1996, the 18th woman to pass that milestone. She is among a very select company of players who have beaten Martina Navratilova in match play.
On a more personal note, she married Alex Neiland of Latvia on December 21, 1989, and now plays out of that country. Her mother, Margarita, is a homemaker and her father is deceased. Ms. Neiland speaks Ukrainian, Latvian, Russian and English, and is writing her autobiography.
But now back to business. At this year's French Open, in the singles draw Ms. Neiland continued to show the weakened form that reflects her slide down the rankings.
After a first round victory over Anne Sidot of France (6-2, 7-5) she was ousted in the next by Ann Grossman of the U.S. (4-6, 4-6)
In doubles play, however, the 29-year-old Lviv-born ace is still among the top echelon. She was seeded fourth along with team-mate Czech star Helena Sukova, and they played like it - blowing past first and second round opponents by scores of 6-2, 6-3 and 6-4, 6-1.
They were even more impressive in the third round, overpowering Naoko Kijimata and Nana Miyagi 6-1, 6-2. Unfortunately, it is often the case that lack of a real challenge in the early rounds can spell trouble when the opposition stiffens nearer the championship.
So it was when Neiland and Sukova faced the U.S. tandem of Mary Joe Fernandez and Lisa Raymond, who dispatched them 6-2, 6-3.
The former Miss Savchenko suffered a greater shock in mixed doubles competition. Paired with Andrei Olhovsky of Russia, they were second seeds, but were knocked out by the unheralded Germans Barbara Rittner and Klaus Braasch after getting a bye into the second round.
At Wimbledon, Ms. Neiland was shown the singles exit door even earlier, as Ms. Kijimata avenged the pasting the Lviv-born star administered across the channel, winning 7-5, 6-2.
As usual, the Latvian-based player did much better in doubles. In the all-women's event, the second round featured a Ukrainian-versus-Ukrainian match, as Neiland/Sukova were pitted against Olga Lugina and her German partner Elena Wagner. The bigger (third seed) battalions won 6-3, 6-2.
After dispatching 10th seeds Nathalie Tauziat (France) and Linda Wild (U.S.) 6-4, 6-4, they won their quarterfinal contest against Els Callens (Belgium) and Ginger Nielsen (U.S.) 6-4, 6-4. In the semis, they were bested by Manon Bollegraf (Holland) and Nicole Arendt (U.S.), 2-6,6-3, 6-1.
In mixed doubles, Ms. Neiland enjoyed her best Grand Slam run of this season. Her partner, Mr. Olhovsky, had been turfed from the singles draw in the qualifying rounds, and so both could concentrate on making good on their status as third seeds.
After three rounds of relatively easy two-set sailing, they dispatched Ruxandra Dragomir of Romania and Leander Paes of India 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. In the semis, the unseeded but home-favored pair of Nicholas Broad (U.K.) and Marie de Swardt (South Africa) put up a hard fight. The final score was 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-3 in favor of Ms. Neiland's side.
In the final, she found herself across the net from her doubles partner, Ms. Sukova, who together with her brother Cyril Suk, was the defending Wimbledon mixed doubles champion. Despite taking the first set, firing more aces in the contest and manufacturing 15 break-point opportunities, Nieland-Olhovsky bowed to the Czech pair by a score of 6-4, 3-6, 4-6.
Despite the dip in the rankings shown by Ukrainian women, a number of them had strong performances at the All-England Club. As mentioned above, Ms. Lugina made it through the qualifying rounds with team-mate Ms. Wagner, and bested Silke Meier (Germany) and Lenka Nemeckova (Czech Republic) in the first round, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, before being bounced by the higher flying pair of Neiland-Sukova.
Also enjoying a good run on Albion green was the all-Ukrainian team of Olena Brioukhovets and Olena Tatarkova, who made it through the qualifiers, but unfortunately ran out of gas against Tami Jones (U.S.) and Maria Muric (Croatia), losing 3-6, 1-6.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 17, 1997, No. 33, Vol. LXV
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