Olga Barabanschikova/Natalia Zvereva (BLR) high-five their Chinese opponents after winning on day one
Natalia Zvereva may be a rookie in terms of beach tennis, but the multiple Grand Slam doubles champion and Olympian knows a burgeoning sport when she sees one and, on the opening day of the ITF Beach Tennis World Team Championship in Moscow, firmly predicted that her “hobby” would eventually become an Olympic sport.
In partnership with Gigi Fernandez, the Belarusian won 18 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles during the Nineties and here in Moscow the 43-year-old has been re-united with her old Fed Cup teammate Olga Barabanschikova. Along with the Belarusian men, they proved too strong for an inexperienced China team, winning 3-0 to progress to the second round where they will face the No. 7 seeds Portugal.
“It’s nice to have a hobby and this is my hobby,” said Zvereva, who finished third with her partner in the European Championships the very first time she picked up a racket. Not everyone is a natural, though, even if most can play the sport to some degree from the moment they set foot on the soft, crystalized sand.
“Eventually within so many years beach tennis will become an Olympic sport so that’s a huge motivation for all countries to play it,” added Zvereva.
All eight seeds were given a bye in the first round on Thursday, but there could be a nasty surprise waiting for one or two on Friday. Some of the supposedly inferior nations among the record entry of 24 like Belarus - one of six competing in the championship for the first time - possess players with Davis Cup or Fed Cup experience. However, Zvereva thought that a tennis background was only an advantage “if you were good at tennis”.
Barabanschikova said that the “only thing I feel sorry for in my life” was the bronze medal that slipped through the fingers of Zvereva and herself at the Sydney Olympics. While she might have to wait awhile to get a chance to rectify that matter in beach tennis, success here would be a small consolation in a sport she has quickly become attached to.
“I love the energy and relaxed atmosphere of beach tennis, although here I feel the competition more,” she said. “It’s beautiful – soft sand and you can wear open clothes. It’s a lot of fun, something different.
“Unlike tennis and other professional sports where you have to start when you’re a kid to be any good, here anyone can play if you practise and have some [basic] physical fitness and that’s a huge plus for beach tennis.”
Brazil, the defending champion, opens its account on Friday against Cyprus, whose team includes Petros Baghdatis, the brother of Marcos, the former Australian Open runner-up. Cyprus lost the women’s match against Switzerland but came back to the win the men’s and mixed doubles.
Italy, the founding father of the sport, is probably the team that they all have to beat, though. The winners of the inaugural championship two years ago and runners-up last year possess some of the best men and women players in the world. The No. 2 seeds play France, who defeated Greece 3-0 in the first round, and, if successful, could come up against Belarus in the quarterfinals.
In the men’s game, serve is king and in that respect Russia possess some of the biggest in Nikita Burmakin, Sergey Kuptsov and Vladislav Zaichenko.
The host nation will be desperate to improve on its third place finish of a year ago, but first they have to find a way past Hungary, who beat Thailand 3-0 in its opening match.