Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dementieva decides to pack it in

TOKYO - OCTOBER 01: Elena Dementieva of Russia plays a forehand in the Women's Singles semi final match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy on day six of the Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 1, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

I’m not surprised by the way Elena Dementieva announced her retirement. She has always seemed like a low-key, private, non-drama type of individual. And in her typical self-effacing style, she said goodbye with no hoopla, no fuss, no bother. I will certainly miss her.

I have always felt as if I was among the few tennis fans who was able to appreciate Elena Dementieva. Most tennis fans I hang around with tend to dismiss her. If she is in the draw, they look to see who her opponent will be facing next because they were certain that Dementieva was about to lose. She commanded not so much disrespect as dismissal.

But I always had a soft spot for her. I think that part of the reason is because as a player, I kind of identify with some of her struggles. I too am a very good player but sometimes I can’t win for losing. I too have a very good serve but I go through periods of being a double-faulting queen. And like Dementieva I sometimes become embarrassed by how many times I’ve tossed the damn ball into the air as my opponent impatiently stands there. And then I become desperate and hit a side-swipe which my opponent then muscles down the line and it’s all over for the tennischick. Or at least this is my impression of what sometimes happens for Dementieva. I guess I’ve always felt her pain.

Some time ago I was watching a match between Elena and Serena and I tried to write a piece about why between them both, I felt that they offered a free clinic on how to play intelligent tennis. If I had a daughter who was even remotely interested in tennis (I have a daughter and her one concession to tennis is allowing me to drag her to the US Open every year, and only because it’s the closest thing she can find to a Trini Carnival…but I digress) – if I had a daughter who was even slightly interested in playing tennis, I would have her sit for hours and watch matches between Elena and Serena.

This is because I believe that between their joint skills, they conduct a clinic on how to play excellent tennis. What the one creates, the other defends against. The strengths of the one are perfectly matched against the strengths of the other. The weaknesses of the one can be exploited intelligently by the other. Between Serena’s serve and Elena’s return of serve, Serena’s volleys and Elena’s sweet lobs, Serena’s fast movement and Elena’s gutsy changes of ball direction – between these two women you can see clearly how great tennis is created.

I don’t think I did a good job of writing that article because all it attracted were comments from friends about why was I even mentioning Elena in the same breath as Serena. And this is typical of the way that Dementieva has been treated for most of her career. She was part of the first wave of Russian blondes that invaded and took over tennis. But whereas Kournikova went on to fame and fortune for being sexy, and Anastasia Myskina (remember her?) became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam (French Open 2004, where she beat Dementieva in the finals, ouch), and then Sharapova won Wimbledon – Elena remained the also-ran. She made it to sundry Slam finals but was ever the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Even as a child, Dementieva was rejected by two Russian sports clubs that did not think she had what it took to succeed in tennis. Both rejections happened before she was age seven. She was finally accepted as a student by the mother of Marat Safin and Dinara Safina, with whom she worked for three years. At age 11 she was finally accepted into the Central Red Army Club where she was coached by Sergei Pashkov. More recently she has elected to work with her mother and older brother, a decision that no doubt signaled a change in her view of her future prospects.

At almost six feet tall, Elena has always been a fit and strong player, an athletic woman who relied on powerful offensive groundstrokes, a lethal running forehand, and an all-court, all-surface type of game. But she has always lacked a singular weapon. And although she did belatedly improve her serve, in a sport in which a big serve is now a requirement for success, hers just never became a reliable weapon.

And yet I remain probably among the few who believe that Dementieva has had a very successful tennis career. She has won 16 career singles titles and six doubles titles. She won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and silver in Sydney (2000). She has earned over $14-million in prize money. And she is bowing out with a ranking of #9. That’s what you call going out on top. With homes in Monaco, Moscow and Boca Raton, Florida, hobbies that include snowboarding, reading and traveling, and future plans to study journalism, I suspect that Dementieva will be just fine.

I first took notice of Elena when she beat Venus at the 1991 Fed Cup, coming back from a 1-4 deficit to help Russia trounce the USA in the finals. At the time Venus was still playing roughly, making too many errors, her forehand a clear weakness. Elena too was rather tentative at times, pensive in a sport that requires quick reflexes, smiling even when she lost points she should have won, good-humored but not gloating in victory. You saw in that match the clear differences in the potential and future of both women. I wonder if Dementieva feels that she has fulfilled hers?

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