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Monday, October 15, 2007
Russians deliver for home fans

If the tournament directors of Australian Open, Roland Garros or Wimbledon were watching the Kremlin Cup finals Sunday, you just know they were scratching (or banging) their heads, asking, "Why can't that be me?"

Elena Dementieva and Nikolay Davydenko, a pair of Russians who had struggled mightily this year, did what neither Lleyton Hewitt, Amelie Mauresmo nor Andy Murray has come close to achieving. They played their best tennis when it most mattered to their most passionate fans, and emerged as the winners of the biggest and most important tournament held in their native land.

OK, the Kremlin Cup is not, like those other events, a Grand Slam tournament. It's just a one-week, indoor event that takes place during the fall indoor tour, aka the Tennis Twilight Zone. But it's the biggest tennis event in Russia -- by far -- and the way the native players step up and deliver is inspiring as well as unusual. It isn't easy to go out, as an individual, with the hopes of an entire nation resting on your shoulders and deliver for an expectant public.

Players who have won other Grand Slams often crumple under that weight of expectations in their domestic championships, but with the Russians you get the feeling that it works the other way around. Dementieva and Davydenko have struggled this year, but both miraculously found their games in time to win in Moscow. In fact, this was Davydenko's third Kremlin Cup triumph (and his first tournament win this year), which is a stunning statistic for the ATP's perpetual semifinalist.

Sometimes, we forget that one of the most critical aspects of success for an event or a franchise is making the hometown fans happy. The Russians routinely do this in Moscow, and it has helped transform the Kremlin Cup into a robust event. My ATP sources tell me that the Kremlin Cup is the biggest single sporting event in Russia. It takes place in the Olympic Stadium, which has a seating capacity of 80,000, and has been compared to the New Orleans Superdome (although the Russian arena uses more than one court and the seating is partitioned accordingly). The promoters aren't filling all those seats yet, but the event is growing.

The Kremlin Cup has stayed under the tennis radar, partly because it takes place at a slow time of year, indoors, and partly because it's a relatively new event hosted in the equivalent of an emerging nation. But the tournament has all the bells and whistles, including a corporate hospitality village, and a lavish player lounge (featuring 24/7 player dining).

Russia has the most critical components for long-term success -- a society that has embraced tennis, a booming tennis industry that keeps churning out high-quality players, and a stage on which those players can strut their stuff -- the Kremlin Cup.

And in Russia, it seems, those players don't suffer from stage fright.