Feeding the cows, cleaning out the pigpen and weeding the potato beds that's the routine Irina Zhbanova grew up with in Perkhlyai, a desolate village of 740 souls in the depressed Russian republic of Mordovia, 600 km southeast of Moscow. But for the past three years, Zhbanova, 14, has been following another daily routine: for two hours early in the morning and two more after school, she practices her aces and backhands, flat serves and chip shots, footwork and block volleys. "Trying harder makes up for my starting in tennis too late," she says. "All right, I won't jump as high as Elena Dementieva, but tennis is still my spring-board the only one I have to take me out of here."
This week, Zhbanova and thousands of other teenagers across Russia will be glued to their TV sets, watching Dementieva and the rest of a new generation of Russian tennis stars compete in the U.S. Open. The sport has become a Russian obsession thanks to this wave of glamorous female players first there was sports-model Anna Kournikova, of course, and then came the ones who can really play, such as Dementieva, 21, and Anastasia Myskina, 22, who have both won tour titles this year; 16-year-old Anna Tchakvetadze, who made the girls' singles final at Wimbledon; Lina Krasnoroutskaya, 19, who beat Kim Clijsters in August at the Rogers AT&T Cup in Toronto; and Maria Sharapova, 16, who hasn't won yet but may become the best of the bunch.
Impoverished Russian kids copy these heroes the way teenagers elsewhere emulate David Beckham or Shaquille O'Neill, as TV and newspaper coverage bring the triumphant, affluent and socially important new stars into virtually every Russian home. Though 40% of the Russian population "cannot afford toothpaste," according to the Moscow daily Izvestia, everyone seems to be playing or watching tennis. They read that Kournikova is now worth at least $30 million. They hear of Sharapova, risen from poverty in the Black Sea town of Sochi and now happily settled in the U.S. "For the poor in Russia," says Moscow coach Vladimir Altukhov, "tennis now stands for [what] the NBA does for the poor blacks in the U.S.: their only chance of making it."
Zhbanova is one of those with a slim chance of making her dreams come true. An aggressive all-rounder neither as easygoing as Kournikova nor as lissome as Sharapova, less talented but possibly more determined than either she ranked first in her age group last summer at the Mordovian Republican Games and won the 2002 Head of Mordovia Cup, the highest tennis prize in the region. Standing on the outskirts of her dusty village like a monument to Zhbanova's potential is a professional outdoor tennis court, high concrete walls surrounding it to keep out cows and vandals. Built for the village by a ranking federal-level official who comes from Perkhlyai, it is simply the best thing that ever happened to her. It is also, says her coach Yevgeny Tyurin, "her only chance of getting out of this desperate and hopeless poverty." Her parents are village schoolteachers, but they don't have the money to send her to university in the Mordovian capital of Saransk, 30 km away, where tuition is free but living expenses are, they say, well beyond their means.