by Dan Darby
Few followers of the women's game will argue with Maria Stepanova's second successive FIBA Europe Women's Player of the Year award.
The announcement came on the same day that Stepanova's club side, CSKA Volgaburmash, comprehensively saw off Dynamo Moscow 71-45 to retain the Russian Cup, the latest achievement by the 27-year old center.
Stepanova helped CSKA capture their latest Russian league victory, a tougher-than-expected 67-60 win over Dinamo-Energiya Novosibirsk, and then spoke exclusively in Samara to Dan Darby on behalf of FIBA Europe.
The continent's best player offered warm words about her teammates, talked about defeat in two international finals and revealed how difficult it can be sometimes to strike a balance between motherhood and playing professional basketball.
FIBA Europe: Maria, many congratulations on the award. It is the second year running that you have scooped this honour. What does that mean to you?
Stepanova: "To win the award for the second year running means more to me than winning it the first time round. To retain the status as the best player in Europe is great, especially considering I'm in a team alongside players like Ann Wauters, Amaya Valdemoro and Ilona Korstin."
|Stepanova has been the centre-piece of CSKA Volgaburmash's success in recent years.|
FIBA Europe: Yes, you actually competed against those players for this award.
Stepanova: "It is great to play with them but I don't want to compete with them. It is difficult to pick who is the best, because I think each player is the best for her respective position. In the team everybody fulfils their own role and everybody does their job. With Ann, for example, we either work together on the court, or we replace one another as substitutes. We aren't challenging each other."
FIBA Europe: I guess for a terrific team player, it can be difficult to accept awards because you know how your team-mates have sacrificed and played well. While your team cruised to a league and cup double, Volgaburmash lost at Gambrinus Sika Brno in the EuroLeague Women final. Did that ruin the season?
Stepanova: "Not counting the defeat in the EuroLeague final, I think we can count the year as a successful one, although we wanted to be absolute champions and win every cup and tournament we entered. [Against Gambrinus] we were, of course, counting on a victory. But they are a very strong team, and it was never going to be easy. I think the problem was we had only just finished participating in the Russian Cup, and without any kind of break, we immediately flew to play in the finals of the EuroLeague."
FIBA Europe: So, at the end of a very busy season, Volgaburmash could have used a rest before facing an incredibly talented Gambrinus side that was playing before its own fans?
Stepanova: "Fatigue affected us and we were very tired on the court. There where no real breakthroughs, we missed a lot of our attempts, and maybe we appeared a little sluggish. If we had been fresher, then the result would have been different."
FIBA Europe: A lot of people outside of Europe know you from your summers with the Russia in international tournaments. We'll never forget seeing the 75-68 victory over the United States in the semi-final of the FIBA World Championship for Women in Brazil, but equally, we won't forget the defeat to Australia in the final.
Stepanova: "To be honest I felt a wreck (after the USA game). I had no strength at all and didn't really feel any emotion. There was joy of course, but my whole body was just completely exhausted. (But) It simply didn't hit us at the time - what we had achieved."
|Along with being one of the top players in the world, Stepanova is also a wife and mother.|
FIBA Europe: The disadvantage, then, to playing the USA in the semi-final is that it takes so much energy because you did not have much left for Australia?
Stepanova: "We tried so hard, but we'd simply used up all our strength in the semi. We went out to fight, but to repeat such a good performance like the one against the USA was always going to be difficult. We didn't show the kind of basketball we are capable of."
FIBA Europe: The Australians posed different problems when compared to the US, right?
Stepanova: "The Australians play a different style of basketball to the Americans. Unlike the Americans, they play more as a team and rally around one another. It's a much more European style of play, just more physical. But they can switch their game, too, and play on a more individual level like the Americans. If the USA had been playing Australia in the final I wouldn't have been able to choose between them. Australia looked like a very good team."
FIBA Europe: What are your thoughts on EuroBasket 2007 in Italy later this year?
Stepanova: "I believe we remain one of the leading teams in Europe. We are among the favourites and we will be there challenging for the gold."
FIBA Europe: You have indicated that a very short break at the end of the previous season is currently taking its toll on your performances. How much?
Stepanova: "At the moment, my form is suffering. I didn't play badly at the World Cup, and started the season well with CSKA, but at the moment I feel a lull in my play. I feel like I have very little energy and I am getting tired very quickly on the court. After last season, I only had a very short break. I played in Korea and there we had to play a lot of full 40-minute games. It was a very full schedule. I got tired, picked up a slight injury to my achilles along with other aches and pains. So right now, I don't feel like I have as much energy. I am hoping this will pass and that in the end, maybe in the final games, I'll be able to find that energy and raise my game again."
FIBA Europe: It truly is a busy life for you, though. What is that like, especially as a mother to young son, to have two games a week, practices and international travel?
Stepanova: "I am very lucky that I earn a living from doing what I enjoy most. I have my own projects that I devote a lot of time to. My regime is planned, which I like because I can be sure of where I'll be one day and the next. Of course I'd prefer to spend more time at home and devote more time to my son. He currently spends more time with his father and misses me a lot. So any free time is devoted to him."
FIBA Europe: What do you do with him?
Stepanova: "We go for walks, to children's attractions, watch cartoons, or just play at home. Occasionally we'll go to a restaurant or go bowling, but it doesn't happen very often."
FIBA Europe: CSKA Volgaburmash resume their European campaign on Tuesday with the first leg of the EuroLeague Women eight-finals against Valenciennes. How confident are you?
Stepanova: "There are a lot of very good teams in the EuroLeague who are becoming more and more difficult to play against. The opposition gets tougher and tougher with each year. Clubs have brought in a lot of foreign players, who have strengthened the teams and made the game more of a spectacle, both in Russia and the EuroLeague as well."
FIBA Europe: And the biggest challengers on the European stage?
Stepanova: "I don't want to name any teams. Let's just say the same big guns will be there again this time as in previous years."