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Russian teen Kourni-copies add spice to US Open

No Serena Williams. No Venus Williams. No Anna Kournikova. No problem. A sexy set of Russian teen tennis talent is riding to the rescue of the US Open.

tennis Updated: Aug 25, 2003 10:03 IST

No Serena Williams. No Venus Williams. No Anna Kournikova. No problem. A sexy set of Russian teen tennis talent is riding to the rescue of the US Open.

With supermodel looks and some skills on the court as well, the blonde Russian heart-throbs made their first appearances here Sunday on the eve of the year's final Grand Slam event.

Hoping to make fans forget the absence of injured Russian beauty Kournikova or injured reigning champion Serena Williams' outrageous outfits, 16-year-old Maria Sharapova and 18-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova have sparkled.

"It's sort of like the hype is all around you," Sharapova said. "It's really crazy. You have got so many people around you. You begin to realize this is something big."

Sharapova, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, designs her own tennis clothes and grunts with the loudest of the WTA Tour's players. Expect her to be pretty in pink in her Tuesday opener against Spain's Virginia Ruano Pascual.

"My level in tennis went up a notch," Sharapova said. "Mentally I think I am ready. I really practiced and worked hard on my game. Hopefully I'm mentally fresh."

Seven other Russians are ranked in the WTA's top 30 with the eldest, 22-year-old Anastasia Myskina, the highest seed here at seventh. With top stars missing and other big names missing, a Russian revolution could unfold here.

"As soon as you get to the top, you want to show you are better than the others," said Kuznetsova, ranked 29th. "It's because of mentality. We have a lot of talent in Russia. Not all people are so lucky to get a sponsor."

Elena Dementieva, seeded 11th, was a semi-finalist here in 2000 at age 18. Vera Zvonereva, 18, is seeded 13th with Elena Bovina, 20; Nadia Petrova, 21; and Lina Krasnoroutskaya, 19, also among the Russians eying the third round.

"They just want to be number one in the world," Sharapova said. "They are very talented out there. They want to use their talent and develop it and work hard. They are really fighters out there and they want to be number one."

Taking a set from world number one Kim Clijsters in the third round at Los Angeles earlier this month was no big deal for Sharapova, who has no awe for the elite of the women's game.

"I didn't think I could compete with them. I thought I could beat them," she said. "Taking a set of Clijsters is a great thing but it's not so much because I didn't win the match."

Clijsters hopes that without the Williams sisters, other stars will emerge.

"It would be better for everything if they were here," she said. "Even without them, I think we have so many personalities and different types of players. This could be, even without them, a very interesting Grand Slam."

Still, the new number one has no plans on following Serena into acting.

"I'm not a good actor or anything. I don't see myself doing anything in that direction," Clijsters said. "It creates more opportunities to expand yourself and your personality. You just have to be yourself. That's what Serena and Venus are doing."

Sharapova, who never had a tennis idol, could face American former teen star Jennifer Capriati in the third round. She does not shy away from looking beyond the typical "one match at a time" cliche.

"When I look at the draw, it's not like I hide the second and third round," Sharapova said. "I know this is the US Open. It's not a Tier five (event) in Asia somewhere. It's not like I'm here playing with Barbie dolls."

No, here the Barbie dolls are playing.

First Published: Aug 25, 2003 10:03 IST