Why the smart money`s on Ukraine to reign again in tennis
Ukraine can now boast six women in the top 100 in the WTA rankings
With six women in the world`s top 100 and some highly-talented young prospects on the horizon, the former Soviet state looks like becoming a force to be reckoned with.
`Alona Bondarenko just needs a bit more consistency in her game to really challenge for a top-10 ranking, but she is a very dangerous player on any surface`
Ukraine is often seen as the poor neighbour to its fellow former USSR state of Russia. It`s a much smaller country and, in its short period of independence, has had far less success in sport than its bigger sister.
But things are changing. The Ukraine is developing a good team of sportsmen and women in many different sports - and tennis is one of those areas.
The Russians have, in recent years, come to the forefront of world tennis, and Ukraine look set to follow suit. They are certainly going to find it tough to follow in Russia`s footsteps but they are making great leaps. Already Ukrainian tennis players are becoming more and more recognisable to tennis fans across the globe.
Not since the days of Andrei Medvedev has the Ukraine had any kind of champion in tennis. The veteran of the 1990s was a sole top-10 player during his time on the ATP tour. His sister Natalie Medvedeva was the closest Ukraine came to having any kind of success in the women`s game. Until now.
Ukraine can now boast six women in the top 100 in the WTA rankings and three in the top 50. Most famous of the Ukrainian players are the Bondarenko sisters, Alona and Kateryna. Both in their early 20s, the sisters have showed good promise on the tour with Alona having her best season last year where she gained a world top-20 spot with a final appearance in Warsaw and many more quarter-final places.
She has shown she can mix it with the best with victories against the likes of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Amelie Mauresmo and Agnieska Radwanska. I feel Alona just needs a bit more consistency in her game to really challenge for a top-10 ranking, but she is a very dangerous player on any surface.
Kateryna has been a little less successful than Alona on the tour but has still managed to gain herself a top-50 position and, with wins over Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina, shows she can play good tennis.
She is two years younger than her sister and so will look to gain experience and challenge Alona to become the Ukrainian number one. The great thing about the sisters is that they have started to play doubles together on a regular basis - and have already won their first Grand Slam event in Australia this year, something which really put Ukrainian tennis on the map.
Julia Vakulenko is another fantastic player for Ukraine. However, injury has forced her to retire from many matches and has hindered her progression up the WTA rankings. She reached a career-best ranking of 32 in the world but a wrist injury has forced her to miss the whole of 2008 so far and she now looks set to move down the rankings unless she can recover to defend some of the clay court points she won last year.
If she can come back from this injury and gain match practice, Vakulenko can scare any top player in the world with her ability.
Other Ukrainian players to watch out for in 2008 are Mariya Koryttseva, who has improved already this year from 105 to 57 in the rankings, and youngsters Olga Savchuk and Viktoriya Kutuzova.
In the men`s game the name that stands out as a potential rising star is that of Sergiy Stakhovsky. The 22-year-old shocked everyone back in February with victory as a qualifier in Zagreb, Croatia. The youngster defeated Ivo Karlovic and Ivan Ljubicic during the tournament and made a real name for himself on the ATP tour.
His ranking has improved from 199 to 126 throughout the year and, with a little more experience and confidence, Stakhovsky could be a top-50 player at the very least.
Talented youngsters including 19-year-old Oleksandr Dologopolov and 20-year-olds Artem Smirnov and Ivan Sergeyev continue to creep up the world rankings which will help the country`s players become more competitive against each other as a nation.
Ukraine are most definitely on the up and tennis is becoming more and more popular. Watch out Russia!