It's not a passing trend anymore. It's a phenomenon. The east European wave that first hit tennis in the mid-2000s is showing no signs of receding, rather it's growing in intensity. Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 men's player, defended his Australian Open title. It came a day after Victoria Azarenka, the No. 1 women's player and a Belarusian, defended hers at the year's first Slam. In 2012, the Czech Republic earned the rare distinction of winning all three team events: Davis Cup, Fed Cup and the Hopman Cup.
In the current men's rankings, there are 26 players from east Europe in top-100. The dominance is greater on the women's charts, with 40 of them ranked in the top-100. Even as traditional tennis powerhouses like America and Australia have lost grip on the modern game, the fitter, taller, stronger athletes from these war-ravaged countries, all of whom were part of the Soviet Union and many of whom did not even exist till 10 years ago have come to redefine the dynamics of this global sport.
Born in the USSR
The seeds of this tennis revolution in the east, many believe, were laid in USSR.
The Soviet Union was once a dominant force in the Olympics, the Cold War spilling onto the pursuit on the sports field. 1988 was the year that changed the game for tennis. Tennis was reintroduced as a medal sport at the Seoul Olympics and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, himself a keen tennis player, invested heavily into the game. From 200 courts in 1990, the number has risen to more than 3000. And while 'Tsar Boris', as he was known in the tennis circles, brought an elitist sport to the Communist nation it was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Bloc. Modern equipment and slowing down of courts world over have also spawned a generation of super fit tennis players, those who masterfully grind down the opposition.
While Europe, where players have historically been brought up on clay courts, is comfortably dominating the sport, the players from the east have benefited from the accessibility to academies in countries like Germany and Spain to tap into their talent. A study in 2006, conducted by French magazine Le Figaro, also said that the east European women might have a physical edge over their 'western' counterparts: leaner, hardier athletes that are perfectly suited for the modern style of play. "The average height of female tennis players from the East is 175 cm; the average height of the Western female tennis players is 171 cm. The figures grow even higher with regard to the Russian players' average height: 177 cm," it said. Tall, leggy blondes stomping the tennis courts are not just a male fantasy, it's a reality, and one the game's marketing directors are gleeful about.
Fifteen new states came into existence after the USSR was initially split, but trouble continued to brew in the region. Many of today's top players belong to a generation that lived through the Balkan war and suffered under the Slobodan Milosevic (former Yugoslav president) regime.
Janko Tipsarevic, currently No. 9 in the world, "does not believe in Rocky Balboa stories" but is a close incarnation of one. During his 2011 visit at the Chennai Open, the Serb spoke about the bleak financial conditions brought upon his family due to the war. "I broke through in the time of Milosevic being in power, during a time of great political upheaval. It was extremely difficult for my family to support a tennis player," he recounted. "My father relied on the government. His salary was five Deutsche Marks, which is nothing, enough to buy about seven kilos of carrots."
Ivan Ljubicic, a former top-five player who retired last year, entered Croatia as a refugee in 1993 as his family sought to escape Milosevic's ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. They had to leave without his father since "grown men weren't allowed out of the country". The family eventually reunited after six harrowing months, but the trauma left a telling mark on Ljubicic.
"I feel like it's easier for me in difficult situations," he said. "Because sometimes in difficult moments you realise it's just a tennis match."