Young Russians Rise Tennis Ranks

As she strokes her way into tennis history as the third youngest women's singles finalist at Wimbledon, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova of Russia symbolizes an odd fact of life: As an émigré from the former Soviet Union at an early age, she is straddling two cultures and two nationalities.

"No, I'm still Russian," Sharapova replied today when asked if she feels more American than Russian in mentality. Sharapova hails from Siberia but now lives in Bradenton, Fla., where her father took her in 1995 to train at a top tennis academy.

Sharapova isn't alone.

Dmitry Tursunov, a 21-year-old Russian who lives in Granite Bay, Calif., arrived at age 12 in Sacramento, where his father found a coach to train his talented son.

Tursunov hasn't broken through the men's ranks in the same way as Sharapova, but he did score the first big upset of the 2004 Wimbledon Championships by thrashing his native country's brightest star, Marat Safin, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (7-1).

Oddly enough, the stories of his victory over Safin, the 2001 U.S. Open champion, focused not on Tursunov but on Safin, a finalist in the 2004 Australian open.

After the match, Safin complained that he found it so difficult to play on grass that he might never again make a serious attempt to win Wimbledon (a threat he later withdrew and for which he apologized).

When Tursunov appeared again, winning a five-set match against Sargis Sargsian of Armenia, the tennis world was looking the other way. One reason is that the match was a marathon that lasted four hours and one minute, ending as darkness closed in.

After a day of big matches at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, no one noticed, but it was a remarkable match. Tursunov trailed 4-1 in the final set, yet refused to buckle and methodically worked his way back to victory, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), 3-6, 4-6, 15-13.

"I thought of stretching it out and going for the record books," Tursunov joked later in an interview with ABC News, admitting that getting off the court as a victor became more important as the evening wore on.

By reaching the third round, young Tursunov, who says he wants to become an American citizen, was knocking on a door few of his Russian countrymen had ever entered: The second week of Wimbledon.

Still, one doorkeeper barred the way: Carlos Moya of Spain, a clay court magician who briefly ranked No. 1 in the world in 1999. Moya defeated an exhausted Tursunov in straight sets, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5.

Balancing Two Cultures

So what is next for a young male Russian athlete, who, like Sharapova, straddles two cultures?

Tursunov returns to California where he will play team tennis for the Sacramento Capitols, then resumes traveling the international circuit which leads to the U.S. Open in New York in August.

In the background, there is the matter of becoming a U.S. citizen, a process Tursunov says he leaves to his manager.

Why does it matter?

One reason may be frequent airport delays while U.S. Immigration officials question Tursunov, who has a Russian passport and blond curls (which give him a faint resemblance to Harpo Marx). In flawless English, Tursunov says he understands their desire for security.

So why does he persist in seeking citizenship?

"It's a very tough question," Tursunov said. "It's not that I'm trading passports. It's that I live in the United States. It just makes sense to have citizenship where you live." Some of his Russian friends (not all, he insists), interpret this as unpatriotic toward Mother Russia.

"It's not based on which country I prefer," Tursunov said, a look of earnest concern spreading across his freckled face. "I like both cultures, and both cultures have something I like. Each country is so connected with every other country."

So, in the fast paced world of pro tennis, national borders may seem more of an inconvenience than a validation of nationality. Oddly enough, for Dmitry Tursunov, born in Moscow less than a decade before the end of the Cold War, gaining citizenship as an American would not mean much of a change. He's on the fast track of tennis.