The styles are as different as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, they clash like a stroll through Red Square and a train trip to Vladivostok. The personalities, too.

Vera Zvonareva likes strawberries, Maria Sharapova prefers French crepes and Anastasia Rodionova thinks a lot of Nicholas Cage.

But five of the top nine seeds at the Family Circle Cup share memories of bitter Russian winters and the pride of parental sacrifice.

It isn't easy being the No. 1 country in women's tennis.

Look what Reagan and Gorbachev wrought: Moscow on the Wando.

The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour is the antidote to any tension between Washington and Moscow. Pretty hard to argue when you're enjoying sweet tea on Daniel Island and anticipating a Friday afternoon Sharapova-Serena Williams quarterfinals match, which almost certainly would be televised on ESPN2.

Six of the top 17 players in the rankings are Russians, which isn't new or surprising. The dominance started in 2004 when Russians took three of the four Grand Slam titles.

It's remarkable, however, considering the nation still doesn't have the kind of junior programs or tennis academies found in the U.S. and other countries.

Olympic quest

The rise to prominence is all about odds-beating work ethic.

"This is so true," said Elena Dementieva, a 26-year-old Moscow native who is the No. 4 seed at the Family Circle Cup. "When I started, we just had a few courts in Moscow and that was it. It would be like 50 kids on one court and a few players would come out of that, like me and (2004 French Open winner Anastasia) Myskina. We didn't have anything like the academies in Florida. It was all on the shoulders of our parents, coaching us or traveling with us or doing extra work to support us."

Russia's Fed Cup runneth over.

The fiercest competition in tennis may be the race for the four singles spots on Russia's 2008 Olympic team. The honors likely will be decided by tour rankings with No. 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 4 Sharapova and No. 6 Anna Chakvetadze looking solid and No. 8 Dementieva hoping to hold off No. 16 Dinara Safina and No. 17 Zvonareva.

"The competition between all of us really makes us keep working hard and trying to be a better players," Dementieva said. "I would like to participate in the Olympics. It's tough but this is a goal for me. It really keeps me motivated."

Rodionova mania

There were four prominent Russians in Family Circle Cup singles action Wednesday:

Sharapova, Inc.


Zvonareva and Rodionova.

All won.

Chakvetadze, the rising star No. 3 seed, was upset Tuesday.

No. 8 seed Safina, whose brother Marat Safin reached a No. 1 ranking on the men's tour, will be back on the green clay today.

Go ahead and bemoan the absence of potential Grand Slam champions from the U.S. beyond the Williams sisters. But until Richard Williams opens a tennis school that seeks to copy the progress of his daughters Venus and Serena, it's OK to accept the Russians with love.

They are thoroughly poised, typically polite and wonderfully entertaining.

The names aren't even all that difficult to pronounce (particularly now that chuk-veh-TAHD-zeh has been eliminated).

I mean, isn't Rodionova also a trendy cowboy bar in Austin?

Reach Gene Sapakoff at