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Boris Yeltsin: Russia's No.1 tennis fan

By Matthew Knight for CNN
  • Boris Yeltsin was passionate about playing and supporting Russian tennis
  • Late Russian president took up the game as a way to relax from rigors of public life
  • Yeltsin credited with ushering in a new, highly successful era of Russian tennis
  • Russians have now won ten grand slam champions -- four men's and six women's titles

London, England (CNN) -- One could argue long into the night about his political legacy, but when it comes to tennis most people agree about Boris Yeltsin.

The late Russian president transformed the fortunes of game in his country.

"He laid the foundations for tennis development in Russia and it witnessed a rebirth in our country after everyone saw Yeltsin, in his capacity as president, in shorts, running around on a tennis court," his former tennis coach Shamil Tarpischev told CNN.

Those famous images might induce a McEnroe-style tantrum in today's political spin doctors, but the results speak for themselves.

Before Yeltsin came to power, players from the former Soviet Union had appeared in a total of three grand slam finals -- two Wimbledon and one French Open.

Today, Russia has won 10 grand slam titles -- six for the women, four for the men.

From what I call a girly, bourgeois sport, tennis became truly popular
--Shamil Tarpischev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation
Boris Yeltsin's tennis revolution

"Basically, tennis became on a par with other sports like ice hockey and soccer. From what I call a girly, bourgeois sport it became truly popular," Tarpischev said.

Now president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Tarpischev first ran into Yeltsin in 1988, on a Baltic beach, bizarrely, where he challenged Yeltsin -- who at that time was in political disgrace having criticized Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev the previous year -- to a game which he eventually accepted.

They met periodically the following year, Tarpischev says, this time on the court in Moscow.

When Yeltsin made his controversial but triumphant return to Russian politics in 1991, the new president invited Tarpischev to become his tennis coach. By 1994 Yeltsin had made him his minister for sport.

"He was an early riser, getting up at 5am. After two hours work we would go on court for 40 minutes and it was just the right amount of time for him to relax and then resume work," Tarpischev said.

So, was he any good? He was very agile and possessed a rich sense of humor, he recalls.

"He was a professional volleyball player, so he had a good serve -- the actions are similar -- but his footwork left something to be desired."

But it was Yeltsin's recurring heart problems throughout his time in office which did most to slow him down. He was hospitalized on several occasions and famously underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1996.

But if ill health limited his own trips out on court, it didn't stop him from supporting others.

And with players like Yevgeny Kafelnikov now coming through the ranks he had plenty to cheer.

"His influence was huge and he was a great president of our country for a long time," Kafelnikov told CNN.

The two-time grand slam tournament winner remembers Yeltsin phoning him when he won his first and Russia's grand slam title (at the 1996 French Open) and in 1999 when he became the first Russian player to become world number one.

Notes and calls from Yeltsin were frequent, as they were for all Russia's growing crop of tennis stars. Some of them were even invited around to his dacha in Moscow.

Kafelnikov says the Russian leader also had an encyclopedic knowledge of junior tennis.

"He would know every player in the top 100 and every Russian girl or boy participating," he said.

The demise of Yeltsin's political career in 1999 simply gave him more time to devote to following tennis.

"When we played in Moscow he was always at all the matches," Anastasia Myskina, Russia's first female grand slam winner, told CNN.

Yeltsin was famously in attendance when Russia triumphed in the 2002 Davis Cup final against France in Paris.

Tennis journalist Mikhail Ivanov told CNN: "He was the one who jumped onto the court after Mikhail Youzhny won match point. All tennis fans in Russia will remember this all their lifetime."

Russia triumphed again two years later and in between Russia's women sealed their first Fed Cup victory in 2004 -- a feat they repeated in 2005, 2007 and 2008.

When he couldn't be there in person, Yeltsin sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to keep in touch -- getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Australian Open, on occasions.

Yeltsin's death from congestive heart failure in 2007 meant Russian tennis had lost its "biggest fan" according to Myskina.

Tarpischev says Yeltsin "gave us opportunities that we were not even dreaming of." His obvious legacy is the haul of 10 grand slam titles -- six for the women, four for the men -- and counting. But it runs much deeper than that.

"Tennis has become truly a people's sport and it is amateur tennis that lays the foundations for professional development," Ivanov said.

It's thanks to Yeltsin, Tarpischev says, that the training and participation in tennis has caught up with other sports.

"Right now there are 2,384 tournaments within Russia at all levels with more than 6,000 kids under-16 participating in tournaments," Tarpischev said.

Russia's tennis stars were also freed from old communist rules which forbade them to keep their prize money and only allowed them to travel outside the country for 40 days every year.

Small grumbles persist though. There aren't enough indoor courts -- in a country where the winters are long and brutal -- and Tarpischev says that the sport could do with a little more money.

Tarpischev also wishes that at least one of Yeltsin's biographers attempted to portray his human side.

"None of [them] ever succeeded in showing him in all his largesse and soul. But our big luck was to have Boris Yeltsin as a tennis aficionado."