Olga Morozova was rarely at a loss for words throughout a revealing interview with former Bethanie Mattek-Sands for the latest episode of Tennis United, armed with vivid anecdotes that not only answered each of the former WTA Doubles No.1’s questions, but also created clear pictures from the perspective of the woman who began the first dynasty of Russian tennis.
A former World No.7, Morozova serve-and-volleyed her way to become the first Russian (then Soviet) to win a Grand Slam title, partnering Chris Evert to win the 1974 French Open doubles tournament. That same year, she faced off with Evert in the singles finals of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and went on to become her country's preeminent coaching force for the next two decades.
The closest she came to speechlessness was when asked about Maria Sharapova, the undisputed leader of the mid-2000s’ Russian Revolution who won a Career Grand Slam and Olympic Silver medal at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
“How important was Masha?” she asked Mattek-Sands in her inimitably wry rhetorical style.
“Let’s put it this way: she was holding the Russian flag at the Olympics. That’s how important she is to Russian sport.
“My opinion is that she did so much herself that it’s actually impossible to describe. I admire every step of her life. I read her book, and of course, I knew how much effort she put into her game.”
Most impressive to Morozova is the work Sharapova put into her game post-shoulder surgery in 2008. Out of the game for nearly a year, her countrywoman slowly revamped her service motion and ended up becoming one of the tour’s best clay court players, reaching three straight Roland Garros finals between 2012 and 2014, winning two.
“I think people sometimes forget what she went through. Tennis players know how tough it is to change certain things in your game. With Masha’s injuries, she changed her serve, her forehand, and a little bit of her game. It’s not easy. Sometimes it can be difficult just to move your grip a little, but she had to change the serve, which was her base. If she had not had her serve, she would not have had a game. She made the decision to do it, and she did.”
Morozova could have hardly predicted Sharapova’s success story when she began playing on tour in the 1960s, long before tennis re-entered the Olympic pantheon and subsequently exploded in popularity at home.
“My family was very simple. My mother was a secretary and my father was a mechanic. I don’t think I would have been able to start playing now because of how much more expensive it is to play tennis in Russia right now. In my time, my mother bought me one racquet and a tennis track suit. It wasn’t Fred Perry or something super special, but it was still something I was able to play in. I was happy just able to play tennis and making new friends.
“I didn’t know anything about Wimbledon or the US Open as a kid; I was just playing tennis. When I was 16 and starting to play really well, that’s when I was told I had a chance to play at Wimbledon. It was just a dream because tennis was something different at that time. It wasn’t a sport in the same way that we viewed hockey, figure skating, or track and field.”
She first traveled to the United States at the dawn of the 1970s, in part due to the USTA’s professional circuit, and soon befriended the likes of Evert, Virginia Wade, and Billie Jean King.
“In Moscow, we had a big exhibition against the United States and when we went we saw the huge cars, the Coca-Cola, the blue jeans. It was like a dream, or from a picture from a movie.
“Finally, here I was in the United States, and the funny thing is that we had somebody meeting us in this huge car. It was so hot, you know, summer in New York during the US Open. I’m opening the window of the car, but they keep closing it and finally I realized it was because I was letting out the air conditioning! I didn’t know such a thing existed!”
While Morozova played doubles with Evert – “It was great to play with her because no matter what happens, you know she’ll return the serve!” – King was in the midst of creating the Women’s Tennis Association, which further opened up the world for the Russian, who fondly remembers her Battle of the Sexes victory over Bobby Riggs.
“Billie Jean was always Billie Jean, and we don’t need to take time to describe her because she was always at the top. She was always trying to explain things to us, even things I didn’t understand at the time. As a girl in the Soviet Union, I wasn’t making a lot of my own decisions, but I was very interested in what was going on. I remember Bobby Riggs told me he also wanted to play against me in Moscow, in Red Square. I told him to ask for an invitation and I’d play him whenever he wanted, but it looks like he didn’t!”
Morozova later transitioned into coaching, working with compatriots Larisa Neiland (née Savchenko) and Natalia Zvereva as they began their own professional careers in the 1980s. Thirty years after her own Grand Slam runner-up finish, she had a front row seat to the first all-Russian Grand Slam final as young charge Elena Dementieva took on eventual champion Anastasia Myskina at the 2004 French Open.
“When you look at Myskina, Dementieva, Kuznetsova, they all came from big sports families. The base for training was very good; it came from the Soviet Union and it was scientifically based. That’s why we had such a good coaching system; the coaches would be with the players all the time, and players tended to stay with the same coaches for a long time, which I think is quite important.
“Looking at Dementieva and Myskina, they were completely different people with different games, but they were successful because they were physically very good.”
Dementieva went on to earn an arguably bigger prize in the minds of Russian sports fans when she led a podium sweep of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, defeating future World No.1 Dinara Safina in another all-Russian final while Vera Zvonareva nabbed the bronze.
Russians have continued to thrive in the Olympic format, from Sharapova’s silver medal in London to Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina’s golden week in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The next generation of Russian talents have already begun to emerge. Daria Kasatkina cracked the Top 10 in 2018 on the strength of back-to-back Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances, while fellow former junior standout Anastasia Potapova had worked her way to a career-high ranking to start the new season before the tour was suspended due to COVID-19 concerns.
While Morozova wouldn’t make any specific predictions for what comes next for Russian tennis, she was certain the strength of her nation would soon produce another champion.
“When you’re representing such a big country, you have to feel as though there is something powerful behind you,” Morozova said of the Russian athletic mentality. “I think there’s an art to preparing for things like the Olympics or the Wimbledon final. It takes time, and there isn’t a point where your coach or team will just bring you into this situation. It’s not easy. Even Roger Federer wasn’t winning immediately; it took time.”