From Russia, With Topspin

MOSCOW, Russia -- A young girl stands on an indoor tennis court, bouncing from one foot to the other, like a boxer in the ring before a fight.

She stares straight ahead, eyes furrowed at the corners. Her brown hair is pulled tightly back, not a strand out of place. Her right arm dangles, her hand gripped tightly around a racket almost half her size. A second later, she whips the Babolat from back to front, watching the flight of an imaginary ball rocketing toward the far corner of the court. Her feet still bouncing, she turns her hips and attacks the next invisible globe with a backhand just as fierce. After a few more practice swings, she stops and nods to herself.

She is ready.

Outside, clouds are hiding the sun, and the temperature is dropping by the hour. A cold front is moving in, one considered harsh even for December in Moscow. The day is dark, the air uninviting, as the wind whips against the walls of the Spartak Tennis Club.

Kseniya Alyeshina, who will soon celebrate her 10th birthday, is one of Russia's top-ranked players in her age group. Her coach, Andrey Matrosov, stands on the opposite baseline next to a bucket of yellow balls. They are practicing on one of three courts beneath Spartak's white domed roof. The poured concrete playing surface, coated in plastic, is uneven in areas, especially near the corners.

This whole place has been untouched since it was built in 1979, except for one thing: the color of the courts. During a visit to Spartak in the early '80s, a high-ranking Soviet official found the original gray hue so drab that he spent $25,000 of the state's money to paint the surface green. He was subsequently reprimanded for failing to obtain the proper authorization papers. (As the saying goes in Russia, you need official papers to prove you are even alive.)

Despite the humble surroundings -- the scuffed posts, flimsy wooden doors and rusted lockers -- dozens of world-class tennis players first learned the game here. Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Anastasia Myskina are the most familiar names. But there are others who have made their mark, including current pros Nadia Petrova, Vera Zvonareva, Mikhail Youzhny, Dmitry Tursunov and Igor Andreev.

The number of players who have come through Spartak would seem to suggest it's a tennis outlier, the kind of place that raises some interesting questions about how talent is developed. Imagine a town in which there is just one, well-worn piano, yet that town produces a surprising number of the world's finest composers. Does waiting in line to make music on scratched ivory produce something special inside the student? Or is there something special inside the student that compels her to wait in line to play that piano? When a place seems immune to the standard rules of talent distribution, our curiosity is piqued. Is there some universal truth to be found here?

What's in the water?

And in the case of Spartak, we can zoom in even closer to examine the success of its female players because the academy's influence is felt most strongly on the women's side of the game. Over the past 15 years, the program has produced a steady stream of female pros. The 2004 French Open women's final, where Myskina beat Dementieva, was an all-Spartak affair. And ever since Kournikova broke into the top 15 in 1998, there has been a Spartak alum near the top of the women's rankings. Today, Petrova carries the torch; she is ranked No. 12 in the world heading into the Australian Open. The 2013 season also could provide a glimpse into the next Spartak infusion, as juniors Yulia Putintseva and Irina Khromacheva look poised to compete at a higher level.

But this wouldn't be a Russian story without struggle. Most of the aforementioned players felt compelled to leave their home country by age 14, sometimes earlier. They spend their formative years inside the cocoon Spartak provides, but eventually they realize the facilities are too dated and the cost of training in post-Soviet Moscow too steep. So they must leave the place they've come to know and switch to an academy abroad. Some, such as Putintseva, even go as far as to change their nationality.

The dynamic is complicated, to say the least. Still, it is at Spartak where these players first learn the game and dream of where it might take them. A palpable optimism fills the air here. Walk through the guarded gates, past the whitewashed statue of Lenin and inside the complex that houses Moscow's only indoor tennis courts -- where some of the world's best coaches and most motivated young players devote themselves to the sport -- and one thing becomes clear above all else.

Here beats the heart of Russian tennis.

Creativity born of necessity

Matrosov grabs a yellow ball from his bucket and holds it high in front of him, swiveling it to give Alyeshina a full view, as if later she will be called upon to identify this particular one. He turns and walks to the back right corner, placing the ball into the final space still considered in bounds.

They have exchanged no words, but Alyeshina understands what her coach wants; they've been working together for more than five years. Matrosov drop-serves a ball over the net. Alyeshina shuffles into place and meets the bounce with precision, her forehand return creating a flash of yellow as the ball whizzes back over the net on a line as straight as the pleats on her white skirt. It lands just a few inches from where Matrosov placed the target -- so close, in fact, it appears as if hitting the space nearest to the ball, rather than the ball itself, was the girl's true intention.

Behind her, a balcony stretches the length of the three baselines, offering a few rows of wooden seats with worn red cushioning, a vestige of Spartak's original incarnation as a handball venue in the 1980 Summer Olympics. Alyeshina's mother stands on this perch, overlooking the first court. She is wrapped in a full-length fur coat -- it is 10 degrees outside -- and grips the banister as she watches the lesson below. "That is my daughter," she says with a proud smile.

Twice a year, in May and November, Spartak holds tryouts for kids ages 5 and 6. A spot in the academy is in such high demand that some parents have discovered in advance what exercises the children will be asked to perform, then drilled their kids for months. No matter, says Spartak head coach Igor Volkov, one of the program's 12 coaches, all of whom can spot the difference between a prepared child, trained in advance by a parent, and a gifted youngster who possesses innate skills that will translate to tennis. "We know if a child is capable of this game," Volkov says through an interpreter. "And we will keep only the best."

Volkov has run Spartak since the government opened the club's outdoor courts in 1971. Many sports academies popped up during that time, as part of the USSR's investment in Olympic domination, what became known around the globe as "the Russian sports machine." And although much has changed politically in the past four decades, Spartak's basic funding structure remains in place.

More than 100 children try out for the club each season; one in four is selected. At the end of each year, more testing is done, and only those students who have progressed sufficiently are allowed to continue in the program. To demonstrate how this works, Volkov tents his fingers, touching his thumbs and forefingers to create the outline of a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid are the children selected at semiannual tryouts, a cross-section of young talent from which only the best are funneled upward to the next level. "We are concerned only with raising the champions," Volkov says, pointing to the tip of the pyramid.

That's not to say money doesn't play a crucial role at Spartak, especially for children who come from families with modest means (more on that later), but the financial support provided by the government has allowed the academy to preserve its selection formula, welcoming talented kids regardless of class. Many of the surrounding tennis schools, on the other hand, must cater solely to the wealthy as a matter of basic survival.

At times, the way Volkov talks about producing champions makes Spartak sound like a Cold War cliché, a factory assembly line of children glumly holding tennis rackets. But to watch him in action, gregariously greeting students and offering encouragement, is to see the essence of Spartak. Although the school is proud to have retained some Soviet-era philosophies, most of the current coaches take a more Western approach to teaching. These men and women have traveled the world, often as players on tour, and they blend the best methods they've picked up along the way.

Despite monumental changes in Russia in the past 20 years, some things retain a familiar feel. On our first day at Spartak -- photographer, interpreter and reporter -- we breeze right through the front gate; at the beginning of Day 2, however, we are stopped by an armed security guard, who ushers us into the office of the security chief, then stands in the doorway, arms crossed. The problem is made clear after a few minutes of rapid-fire exchange: Someone must "make official paper." So the interpreter sits at a table, pen in hand, scribbling on a piece of blank white paper provided by the guard. It is the least official-looking official paper, a swirl of blue ink covering both sides, but the security chief nods his satisfaction.

The guard mostly seems pleased to have something to do, which is understandable, as this part of Moscow draws few visitors. Spartak is tucked in the woods on the edge of Sokolniki Park, which sits on the city's outer ring. The closest metro stop is a 40-minute walk, along a route packed with snow, covered by a layer of frozen ice and populated with stray dogs. Driving won't get you anywhere in Russia's capital, not quickly anyway, because the highways haven't expanded to match the number of cars Muscovites have purchased in the past two decades. In Moscow, home to 12 million people, sitting in a car and staring at brake lights is better than the way things used to be -- no car at all and a 10-year waiting list just for the opportunity to purchase one.

Beyond the security chief's office is a long stretch of hallway, then a pingpong table, then a small set of stairs that open onto court level. Stories about Spartak in the Soviet days focused on the formula for making stars -- the tekhnika (technique) and the imitatsiya (imitation) -- and the blanket rules for all children, who were not allowed to play matches until they had trained for three years. The academy still prides itself on teaching crisp fundamentals, but the coaches here adopted a philosophy of individualism many years ago, tailoring their teaching to the strengths and weaknesses of each player.

"We have combined the thinking," Matrosov says through an interpreter. "During the USSR period, during the late 1980s especially, things here were more rigid, more uniform. But it's evolved, and even before the disappearance of the Soviet Union, we were already starting to use individualized coaching."

The best male player training at Spartak this winter is 12-year-old Alexey Zakharov, ranked No. 1 in Russia for his age. His light brown hair occasionally flops in his eyes, and he is dressed from head to toe in Nike gear. He says his goal is to become an Olympic champion for Russia, to make his country proud. His forehand and footwork are without flaw.

Melissa Ifidzhen, a 14-year-old with a 110 mph serve, makes a strong case for top honors among the girls. She trains at Spartak six days a week, resting only on Sundays. She does not attend school, instead studying with the help of her parents (her father is from Congo, her mother from Ukraine) and taking her exams on the Internet. "I play because I love the competition," says Ifidzhen, whose easy smile belies her fierce game. "There are pictures of the stars who learned here -- they are everywhere -- and once we see them, we want to become stars, too."

Tennis is a full-time job for some kids, who must overcome the weather and shortage of courts. For seven to eight months a year, the 150 kids enrolled at Spartak are moved from the 21 outdoor clay courts into the cramped indoor facilities. (In addition to the main building, there is another indoor court on the grounds, equally worn and dated.) But although Moscow is at a disadvantage because of its climate, it's also true that creativity is born of necessity -- and this is where Spartak shines.

"See Alexey over there?" asks Matrosov, pointing to Zakharov, who hits a backhand winner, then pumps his fist. "In America, there might be five courts and three kids. Alexey would be alone. Here, we have five kids on one court and we must close at 6 p.m. Nobody will waste a minute. What are we to do in this circumstance but adapt?"

Three boys and two girls are playing a game they call "The Chesnok." About five years ago, former Spartak student and tennis pro Andrey Chesnokov showed this drill to the kids, and they named it after him. (In Russian, "Chesnok" translates to "garlic," which also makes them laugh.) The drill is continuous and competitive. Two kids play a point. The winner holds the court, and the loser rotates off. If a player takes two points in a row, he or she moves to, or stays on, the "winning side" -- the one with only two players and less of a wait.

The kids are enthralled, dripping sweat and clearly testing shots they've not quite mastered. One girl tries a tricky backhand down the line, but the ball sails way out of bounds. Matrosov calls out an adjustment, telling her to bring her racket through more level. A few minutes later, she tries the same shot and scorches it for a winner. A smile dances at the corner of her lips, but she quickly shakes it away and serves to the next opponent.

"This is what makes Spartak great," Matrosov says.

When Dementieva and Myskina (now both retired) were at Spartak in the early 1990s, they would play each other for pizza. "Spartak is an ordinary club like many others, but the thing we had was a lot of players with talent, desperate to play," says Dementieva, who won an Olympic gold medal in singles at the 2008 Beijing Games. "Competition is the best motivation and inspiration for development. That is something money can't buy."

And more often than not, young girls and boys train together on these indoor courts. The same afternoon that Matrosov's students are playing their game of "The Chesnok," another Spartak coach, Evgenia Kulikovskaya, oversees a session of doubles being waged by three girls and one boy, ages 13 or 14. Kulikovskaya, 34, is a former top-100 player and was the protégé of Russian coaching legend Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, who was highly regarded in the tennis world as a stalwart of Spartak's Soviet-era dedication to good, old-fashioned tekhnika.

Preobrazhenskaya died three years ago, but her influence is still felt. She coached the young Kournikova, who spent five years at Spartak before moving to Florida in 1991 to train at the Bollettieri tennis academy as the Soviet Union was collapsing. And it was Preobrazhenskaya who allowed Kournikova's mother, Alla, to attend practices, which led to other mothers following suit.

During today's session, three mothers are watching their children play doubles. One of them sits courtside in a white fur coat, splitting her focus between an iPhone and the action. Her daughter, a talented left-handed player, looks over between each point, hoping for reassurance but expecting criticism. Finally, after several exchanges between them, the girl rolls her eyes and says something, the tone of which is universal. "Mom! Stop!"

When Kulikovskaya took over Preobrazhenskaya's duties, she couldn't easily say to these parents, "No, you can't come anymore," even though she realized the potential for distraction. "Everyone who comes here thinks her daughter will become the next Anna Kournikova," she says.

A confluence of factors contributes to Spartak's success in churning out female tennis talent -- some cultural, some practical. Although Russian boys have other major sports competing for their attention, namely hockey and soccer, girls have fewer options. Figure skating and gymnastics, disciplines in which the Russians have long excelled, require certain body types and offer shorter, less profitable careers. So when Spartak holds its semiannual tryouts, the talent pool for girls is generally deeper.

"I also think it's about motivation," Kulikovskaya says. "I think there are not as many chances for girls. Our universities are not highly ranked in the world, and even if you have a good degree, it doesn't mean you will have a good job here. You also have to know people. So the girls fight for a chance at a good life, for a better life."

And at Spartak, the girls actually have an advantage. Because of limited court space during the long winters, girls are sparring against top-level boys for two-thirds of the year. "If a girl practices with a boy, she is already playing at a higher level," Kulikovskaya says. On the court right now, the boy serves with speed and power during the doubles match. The team of two girls struggles at first to return his serve, but soon they pick up on the pace and begin figuring out how to get the ball back over the net.

"The boy hits harder than the girl," the coach says. "Here, it's just harder for the boy to continually get better."

Steep price to pay

An Audi, a Lexus and a BMW are parked in one of Spartak's lots. An Acura approaches the gate and unloads three kids, all of whom sling Babolat bags over their shoulders. The promised cold front has arrived, but so has the sun, which is reflecting brightly off the hood ornaments, making these new-model cars impossible to ignore. As a black Range Rover passes, our interpreter says, "Do you see this? This is Moscow; this is not Russia."

What she means is that Spartak has changed. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in democracy, capitalism and more individual freedoms for Russian citizens, it also uprooted the social infrastructure, which included state-sponsored training. The impact of those changes was tempered for a time by the tennis boom spurred by former president Boris Yeltsin, whose love of the sport increased its popularity and, by extension, the funding it received. (Yeltsin left office in 1999 and died in 2007.) Over the past decade, though, young tennis hopefuls in Russia, specifically those who come to Spartak for the elite coaching, have faced increasing obstacles.

Yes, Spartak still receives funding from the government, but not the kind necessary to pay travel costs and tournament fees and pay for court time for young players whose parents can't afford it. Most kids enrolled in the academy attend two group sessions a week; the youngest attend only one, on Saturdays. Any additional court time is expensive, sometimes as much as $160 an hour. The coaches themselves make a pittance, and to live in today's Moscow, where a 12-ounce latte costs about $7.50, they must earn additional money tutoring players one-on-one.

"Twice a week is nothing for a young player," says Russian tennis legend Olga Morozova, who reached two Grand Slam finals in 1974, losing to Chris Evert at the French Open and Wimbledon. "If you're in the club, to be competitive, you must have other lessons. And it's enormous money."

Kulikovskaya, like Morozova before her, learned the game under the old system. She was raised by a single mother with limited means, but money didn't matter as much to a promising young player in the 1980s, and Kulikovskaya received top-notch coaching daily from Preobrazhenskaya herself. Kulikovskaya knows if she were a student at Spartak today, she would not become the same player because she couldn't pay for private lessons. (The cost of individual training is now estimated at $50,000 a year, and that number skyrockets once a player reaches age 16 and starts to travel on a regular basis.)

The price tag has become so expensive in part because the game has gone global at the junior level, says Mary Joe Fernandez, a former top-10 player for the U.S. who now serves as an analyst for ESPN. "To develop and improve, the elite young players need to travel around the world to compete against the best players, and this becomes burdensome on many federations. It's an enormous investment."

And it's one the Russian federation has not fully made. "On TV here, they say we are trying to do everything for sports," Kulikovskaya says. "But really it's so much pressure now on the coaches and on the schools to make up the difference."

Spartak does what it can to reduce fees and support young players whose families have limited income, so lack of money doesn't quash a career before it has even begun. But, as Kulikovskaya points out, things aren't how they used to be. "Before, everything was mostly for free," she says. "Now, it's tough for poor people."

Even those with money feel the frustration of training in Moscow. Consider the city's horrendous traffic, says former Grand Slam finalist Dinara Safina. To keep pace with competition abroad, aspiring players need modern facilities for speed and weight training, yet most of them make do with what exists at Spartak -- jumping rope on concrete, doing abs exercises on a thin mat -- because otherwise half of their day would be spent sitting in snarled traffic, trying to get from one gym to the next. "It's crazy here," Safina says. "It's very hard to combine training."

These considerations force the best players to leave Russia when they are really still just kids. The country's two most promising stars, 17-year-old Irina Khromacheva and 18-year-old Yulia Putintseva, no longer train at Spartak. Khromacheva moved to Belgium at age 13 to train at the Justine Henin Academy. And this past June, Putintseva switched flags; she now plays for Kazakhstan, a country pumping money into tennis and promising its players relief from the financial worries that come with training costs.

"It should be a problem for our federation, but they don't care," Kulikovskaya says, "because they will still market a player here in Russia, no matter where she trains."

Prime example: Maria Sharapova, who is No. 2 in the world, plays for Russia despite the fact that she has lived and trained in Florida since age 7. And even though Khromacheva has trained abroad for four years, she still plays under the Russian flag, which means if she does fulfill her potential and become a world-class player, she will still bring honor to her home country. The same can be said for players who came before her, such as Safina, Myskina and Kournikova.

There is little incentive for the Russian federation to change. That is, unless more players take Putintseva's route. She is not the first Russian to play for Kazakhstan, but she is the first top-ranked junior to do so. Putintseva holds the No. 125 spot in the WTA rankings; only one player above her is younger: 16-year-old Donna Vekic of Croatia, at No. 109.

"It's disappointing that players choose another country, but the other country is helping them more financially," says Safina, who reached No. 1 in the rankings in 2009 but left the sport in 2011 because of chronic back problems. "They all go for better facilities and better opportunity. I hope it will soon change, that we will start taking better care of young people and give them better chances."

Morozova says the solution must come from the government. She believes in a top-down approach in which additional funding to the country's tennis federation would help defray the cost of training young players. And not just until they're 12 but all the way to the point when they're ready to turn pro.

"I think they must change it," Morozova says. "Why is everyone supposed to leave the country to train? Why not combine the old with the new? It's been 20 years already. We need to find a solution, not just place blame for the situation."

The coaches at Spartak have their eyes wide open. They know why their school is so successful with young kids, and why those kids eventually go elsewhere. "Everyone who plays here, their talents are raised by one another," Matrosov says, smiling as he remembers the duels between Khromacheva and Putintseva, who was his pupil. "The competition speeds up their mastership, but …"

But then they need a different level of support, the kind Spartak is unable to provide. "In the end, we don't have the facilities, or the money," Matrosov says.

Home … but for how long?

The day after her individual lesson with Matrosov, Alyeshina is in a group session with four other kids. They are playing "The Chesnok." Alyeshina is fortunate; her parents can afford three individual lessons a week, which means she is on the court at Spartak nearly every day. Matrosov is sitting on a low-slung wooden bench, watching each player's movements.

Outside, the temperature has dropped to single digits, but the sun is bright and is streaming through the dome's sloping, oversized windows. The long angles of light make the court look like a geometry problem, and the glare is why one father, tucked warmly into his zipped-up coat and black leather gloves, is still wearing his sunglasses while watching from the balcony. His daughter hits a cross-court winner, then immediately glances up at him. He smiles and flashes her a thumbs-up.

Alyeshina looks only to Matrosov. Between points, even from across the court, she turns toward him, ready to absorb whatever he might have to say. After one winner, as she is switching to the other side of the court, she passes in front of him. She tilts her head and raises her racket as if she is going to ask him a question, but he waves it away. He passes his right hand through the air, keeping the movement steady and true, then pats her encouragingly on the shoulder.

She nods, drops her racket to her side and jogs away.

Player and coach can communicate without words, which makes it easy to understand why Alyeshina's game is so polished for someone her age. But there is one important thing Matrosov knows that his student does not: Someday, and soon, she will need to leave his tutelage, leave Spartak.

Her tennis future will depend on it.