In the capital of The Netherlands last week tradition was duly honored as Queen Juliana and her husband invited a clutch of reigning royalty in to celebrate a silver wedding. But in another Dutch city where the guests had come to play tennis, tradition was washed away like tulips before a broken dike. The inundation was accomplished by four personable young athletes from behind the Iron Curtain who together formed the first tennis team from Soviet Russia ever to enter into Davis Cup competition.
It was an auspicious entry. In the first match of this first European Zone round at the seaside resort of Scheveningen, Russia's 20-year-old star, Tomas Lejus, who was defeated by Australia's Rod Laver in the first round at Wimbledon last year, beat the first-ranked Dutch contender, Willem Maris, so decisively that he actually was embarrassed. "I feel bad," said the victorious Russian after winning in straight sets in scarcely an hour, "but then, if I not win, I feel bad still more."
Like many championship players from the Western world, this sensitive but practical youngster has been hanging around tennis courts most of his life, starting as a ball boy in Tallinn, Estonia, where his father is a supervisor in a furniture manufacturing collective. "I was at it all the time," said Tomas Lejus of tennis. An accomplished musician, who looks as though he might have stepped straight out of a role in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, he plays tennis with the grace and ease of one born to the game. He can direct his topped forehand drive with equal ease cross-court or down the line, and his backhand connects with either a slice or top spin as he chooses. When he made his first appearance on the hallowed center court at Wimbledon, Lejus admits that he was numb with nerves. The next time he plays there, he hopes, "it will be easier."
Far more than Lejus himself, his teammates—second-ranked Sergei Likhachev, 27-year-old former champion Mikhail Mozer and 24-year-old present Champion Rudolf Sivokhin—betray the enormous emphasis Russia has put on tennis since the end of the war. None of them appears to be a "natural" in the way that Lejus does, but all are superbly conditioned and generally well-rounded athletes. Likhachev is a year older than Lejus, small but immensely strong, a physical education student, a basketball player and a frolicsome jokester. He is faintly reminiscent of America's ex-quarterback Jon Douglas—except for a handsome mouthful of gleaming gold teeth—and his tennis has some of the same aggressive quality. He hits his shots with a stiffer arm and more shoulder than the others, fiat, without top spin, and consequently they have sharper penetration.
Handsome, muscular Rudolf Sivokhin, who beat Lejus in last year's Russian nationals, doesn't lock like a tennis player at all, but he is clearly a man who makes few if any mistakes on the court. "I am only three-quarters in form," he explains frankly. An all-round athlete, he has played volleyball, basketball, and handball, and is only a notch below the official rating of Master of Sport in all these games. The son of an electrical technician, he is an architect by profession, assigned to work on sports buildings and stadiums.
Blond, nearly bald Mikhail Mozer approached his game in Holland last week with the gloom of a commissar forced to explain a short quota, but that may have been only, as a teammate explained, because "he luff one of our champion lady players, but she does not luff him."
All four of the Davis Cuppers are end products of a determined Soviet effort to change Russian tennis from a scarcely noticed bourgeois pastime to a national sport. Though tennis has been played in Russia since czarist times, there were only 500 courts in the country at the end of the war. Now there are more than 2,000, and hundreds more arc being built yearly. One of the men responsible for this forward surge is Cup Captain Victor Kollegorski, 48, a busy, balding and bespectacled little man who has played tennis since he was 10 years old. Another is the quietly studious Davis Cup team coach, Sergei Andreyev, who is 39 and was Russian champion six times.
"He is a mechanical man," says Captain Kollegorski of his coach in what is presumably a compliment in Russia. As if to fit the description, the coach spent most of one afternoon at court-side during practice at Scheveningen jumping up and down on an imaginary pogo stick to ward off the damp chill.
"It's youth we must concentrate on," said Coach Andreyev last week. "If the Australians can produce international class players at 18, it means they must have developed their techniques at 15. The Australians know how to prepare youth, and that is what we must learn to do." Jaroslav Drobny, the Czech champion who sparked Italy to two Davis Cup Challenge Rounds, believes that Russian cuppers will be challenging Australian supremacy within seven to 10 years.
Meanwhile, the Russians have taken only a relatively tiny step in the current year. True, their first-round matches ended in a victory over the Dutch that was clinched in five easy matches: the fiasco victory (6-1, 6-1, 6-2) of Lejus over Willem Maris, a slightly tougher four-set victory (6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4) of Likhachev over Evert Schneider, a doubles win by Likhachev and Lejus against the same two, and two more singles wins on the final day. But the victory tossed the Russian tyros right into the big time against the country that has twice reached the Challenge Round, Italy. For their second-round matches, the Soviets have already elected to play in Florence rather than back home two weeks from now (as they could) because, they say, it can snow in Moscow even in May. A more accurate reason may be that they are not anxious to have their compatriots see Italy beat them. Playing before the screaming, partisan crowds that tennis attracts in Italy, being judged by Italian umpires and linesmen, playing with Italy's Pirelli balls, which are the slowest and softest in the world, should provide the Russians with some vivid new Davis Cup experience. But, despite the fact that Italy has not lost at home since 1948, Russian Cup Captain Kollegorski was not yet ready to write the matches off as just experience. "We have a saying in Russia," he says dryly, "that you should never divide the skin of a bear until it is shot."