x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Russia has conquered the game

Russia show their dominance as four women have earned the right to compete in the annual end-of-season showdown in Doha.

DOHA // While the highlights of the round-robin stage of the Sony Ericsson Championships, which begin this evening, are the all-Serbian clash between Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic along with the latest episode of sibling rivalry between Venus and Serena Williams, it is not without significance that the "supporting cast" at this elite gathering is entirely Russian.

Four players from that country have earned the right to compete in the annual end-of-season showdown and if Maria Sharapova, world No 1 as recently as May, had not spent much of the second half of the year on the sidelines recovering from injury, there could have been an even greater presence. Svetlana Kuznetsova, 23 and a former US Open champion, who has endured a less impressive year than in recent campaigns, was also proud to be part of the dominant nation coming into these Championships which offer a record prize pool for a women's tennis tournament of $US4.55m (Dh16.7m).

"This is a huge success for the Russian Federation to end the year with four players in the top eight," she said. "And there is more to come hopefully. The popularity of tennis is growing in Russia and we all realise it is because of our success. That's always a great feeling. "It was all about survival in the early stages. Each one of us started with no money and when we travelled we tended to travel far and so we lost money. We had to go through difficult circumstances and that is what made us stronger. That is the reason there are so many top players coming from Russia at the moment."

Dinara Safina is officially the best of that outstanding crop, having enjoyed a superb second half of the year to climb from 17th in the world rankings to No 2. She is hoping to endorse that status in a difficult opening match tonight against Venus Williams. Safina, the younger sister of former US Open men's champion Marat Safin, regards her brother as a mentor to help her deal with the volatile temperament that clearly runs in the family.

"He would just tell me that if you're starting to get emotional just ask for a towel," she said. "I said 'What? I have to ask every five seconds for a towel?' He then told me that I should walk around, take my time and think about something else. Basic stuff, I know, but it has helped me to keep my emotions in check a bit better." Safina surprised even herself with the speed of her rise to the brink of world supremacy.

"Every Monday I would look at the rankings and see that I had broken into the top 10, and then see number nine, eight, seven, six, five and so on to the point of being second in the world," she said. "I became much more aggressive on the court, and I started to go much more for my shots where before maybe I was holding back a little bit ." wjohnson@thenational.ae