In August of 2008, a little more than two months before Russia won the last of its four Fed Cup titles, there were six Russian women gracing the top 10: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Anna Chakvetadze and Vera Zvonareva. With a total of 15 players inhabiting the top 100, Russia was far and away the top power in women’s tennis.
In 2013, Russia is back in the Fed Cup final and looking for its first title since Kuznetsova, Zvonareva, Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova brought home team glory in 2008.
Five years later, they can’t even get a top 100 player to play.
The Russians, who’ve typically been spoiled by an incredibly deep bench for team events, remain scrounging around for four players to oppose the Italians in the 2013 Fed Cup final. The deadline for official team nominations is 10 days before the tie begins. With the final set to begin on Nov. 2, that leaves Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev less than two days to find himself a team. However, lineup changes can be made up to an hour before the draw is made on Friday, Nov. 1.
It’s an embarrassing fall from grace for a nation that was on top of the world just a half-decade ago.
Five years ago, the Russians boasted six players in the top 10. Currently, there are just six players in the top 100.
Maria Sharapova, who rarely features on the Russian squad in the team event, was ruled out early. The World No. 2 ended her season in August due to a shoulder injury.
The snowball got rolling on Oct. 8, when Vesnina told Russian news outlet Championat that she will not participate in the Fed Cup final. Instead, Vesnina has chosen to participate in the WTA’s Tournament of Champions in Sofia, held the same week. Vesnina qualified for the event on the back of her first career title, the International-level event in Hobart. She also added a Premier level title in Eastbourne in 2013.
Unfortunately, I cannot play in the Fed Cup final. It is the first time I have qualified for the Tournament of Champions in Sofia and plan to take part in it. For seven years, I have always given priority to the team and put it first…I have the opportunity to go to this prestigious tournament and finish the year in the top 20, and would very much like to achieve this…In our country, there are still players who can play. (original in Russian)
Makarova, Vesnina’s doubles partner, has been suffering from a wrist injury since a quarterfinal showing at the US Open. The pair is scheduled to compete this week in the doubles event at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, but numerous question marks surround the lefty and her health.
Maria Kirilenko, the Russian No. 2, is also on the entry list in Sofia courtesy of a title earlier this year in Pattaya City. Kirilenko participated in Russia’s first two Fed Cup ties this year, and played a key role in getting her country to the final. Kuznetsova reportedly turned down an invitation to play and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova confirmed to Vladas Lasitskas of sport-express.ru that she would be joining Kirilenko and Vesnina in Sofia.
With his top six otherwise occupied, Tarpischev may be forced to go outside the top 100 to find willing and able bodies.
Off of a quarterfinal showing at the Kremlin Cup as a wildcard, former top 20 player Alisa Kleybanova moved up 68 spots in the rankings to No. 186. Kleybanova, who missed most of the last two years recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has offered up her services to her country if necessary.
Speculation that a team consisting of Kleybanova, Daria Gavrilova, Margarita Gasparyan and Irina Khromacheva (combined ranking: 863) ran rampant on social media Monday. However, Gavrilova appeared to put the rumors, at least of her participation, to rest.
In a later series of tweets, the 2010 ITF Junior World Champion blasted the Russian federation regarding the treatment she’s received from them in her transition to the professional circuit.
For the record, Anastasia Bukhanko has played a total of four professional tennis matches in her career. Gavrilova received a main draw wildcard to the Kremlin Cup in Moscow in 2010, where she lost her WTA singles debut to Alona Bondarenko.
She hasn’t received one since.
Adding insult to injury? Following Sharapova’s withdrawal from the WTA Championships, no Russian woman will compete for the season-ending crown for the first time since 1997. For a country that held a vice grip on the WTA top 10 just five years ago, the odds are looking likely that they might not have a top 100 player suit up to fight for the only team trophy in tennis.
How times have changed.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, Tarpischev named his team for the final. Kleybanova, Khromacheva, Gasparyan and Alexandra Panova. The quartet has a combined singles ranking of 872.