It's a Russian explosion

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:20 PM ET

Under the old Soviet regime, tennis was considered a sport for the bourgeoisie -- the wealthy middle class.

However, times have drastically changed since the arrival of Boris Yeltsin and Anna Kournikova.

Yeltsin, the former Russian president is a tennis buff and he poured a lot of money into the development of young, tennis-playing Russians. He financed their trips to Florida so they could enrol into prominent tennis schools and find connections to player agencies such as IMG.

Kournikova, of course, is the tennis-playing Russian version of a SUNshine Girl ,who can win the odd doubles match. The exposure --no pun intended -- Kournikova has received has attracted scores of young Russian women to follow in her footsteps. You could call it the Russian tennis explosion.

Actually, so much so, that at the Rogers Cup, to be staged Aug. 13-21 at the Rexall Centre, sports fans will be given a chance to admire seven Russians -- sorry, no Kournikova -- among the top 20 female tennis players in the world, including last year's Wimbledon champion, 18-year-old Maria Sharapova, whose annual earnings fluctuate somewhere between $20-$25 million US and who, according to Forbes Magazine, is the highest-paid female athlete in the world.

The other Russians on hand at the Rogers Cup will be Svetlana Kuznetsova -- who, along with the legendary Martina Navratilova, will defend the women's doubles title they won here two years ago -- Nadia Petrova, Anastasia Myskina, Vera Zvonarova and the two Elenas -- Likhovtseva and Bovina. That's quite women's powerhouse, even without the injured Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati.

While one of the Russians could win the Rogers Cup this year, there are several other challengers for the crown.

There is Venus Williams, this year's Wimbledon champion, as well as her sister, Serena, who is always a title candidate. The two Americans and the seven Russians will havw their hands full with two Belgians -- Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters -- who belong to the cream of women's tennis.

In addition, Toronto fans will see four French women who figure in the world's top 20 -- Amelie Maurismo, the rejuvenated Mary Pierce, Nathalie Dechy and Tatiana Golovin. The top 20 also include Serbia's Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanek, Italy's Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone and Australia's Alicia Molik.

"Our budget for the ladies tournament in Toronto and the men's event in Montreal is about $19 million," said Stacey Allaster, vice-president and tournament director for Tennis Canada, who has been with the organization for 15 years. Our event is successful because of the 900 volunteers who are helping out.

"As far as I'm concerned, the volunteers are a magical and rewarding component of our events, even though they only get together once a year. They don't get paid and all they receive is clothing from adidas. Last year, we celebrated the 25th anniversary that some volunteers have been with us. They say they love coming here because it is like coming to their second family."

It's one thing to establish a budget of about $20 million for the two Tennis Canada events, and it is another to find the funding for it.

Allaster, a little dynamo who sits on the board of the Women's Tennis Association and who started her carreer at Tennis Canada as assistant to tournament director John Beddington, supplied the answers from her hip pocket, so to speak.

"Between 60% and 70% of the money comes from stadium sales," she explained. "Then there is the revenue from box seats, luxury suites and session tickets sale. Approximately 30% is sponsorship, television and miscelaneous revenue."

The Toronto tournament also provides financial help to charity and local tennis development, particularly with Navratilova involved. This Toronto favourite is prepared to play doubles with business executives who would be prepared to pay $1,500 each for the privilege of playing with Martina.

At first, the Czech-American wanted part of that to go to her charity, but then agreed that all the money would go to the development of two young, gifted Canadian girls -- Sharon Fichman, who recently won gold at the Maccabbiah Games in Israel, and Alexandra Wozniak. Both are expected to play in the Rogers Cup.

"Martina Navratilova is fabulous," Allaster said. "We will set up a puppy park on Martina's suggestion to accommodate her dog and also the dogs of other competitors for the duration of the tournament.

Navratilova will visit the puppy park every day and sign autographs for fans. All of the resulting revenues will go to the Toronto Humane Society. Moreover, on Aug. 14, she will participate in pro-am charity doubles matches with all proceeds going to the development fund of the two young Canadian girls. To play with Martina will cost each player $1,500."

It is not the first time that Martina has offered her fame to charity. A few years ago, I asked her if she would spend a few minutes with kids from Variety Village. She not only agreed, but sat down with the youngsters on the lawn of the old York University Tennis Centre and munched on a sandwich before heading out to the court for a match.

Small wonder that she will be welcomed with a standing ovation when she steps on court here next month. And the one cheering most loudly will be Stacey Allaster.

"If the U.S. Open is being compared to the Stanley Cup final, then the Rogers Cup in Toronto should be regarded as an NHL semi-final," she said. "And the tickets are so reasonable that the final costs only $60 and earlier matches are priced between $15 and $20. That's pretty reasonable, isn't it?"

It is. Particularly to see most of the world's top women's tennis players on parade -- even without Kournikova.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Another Toronto favourite --Monica Seles -- will attend the tourney as an ambassador and will arrive on Aug. 10 ...Tickets can be obtained by email at Rogerscup.com or by calling 1-877-283-6647...Tickets also are avialable for the Davis Cup tie between Canada and Belarus, which will also be played at the Rexall Centre from Sept. 23-25.


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