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Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Safina leading the Russian charge on the WTA Tour

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Four Points

Russia rules the WTA roost
Yes, it might be true that Maria Sharapova, currently on the tennis disabled list, was the only Russian woman to land a Grand Slam title this year when she went the distance in Australia. But while the remaining top prizes were picked up by others -- Ana Ivanovic (French Open), Venus Williams (Wimbledon) and Serena Williams (U.S. Open) -- tennis fans should not be fooled: Russia still holds the reins of the women's game.

This week's tour results -- Dinara Safina beating compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova in Tokyo and Vera Zvonareva's success in Guangzhou, China -- are just further indication of Russia's prolific tendencies. The country also dominates the Fed Cup, having won its fourth title in five years by upending host country Spain in the final two weeks ago.

Five of the top 10 players in the world are Russian: No. 3 Safina, No. 5 Elena Dementieva, No. 6 Sharapova, No. 7 Kuznetsova and No. 9 Zvonareva.

Of the 48 tournaments already played on the 2008 Sony Ericsson WTA Tour calendar, 15 have been won by Russian players -- that's nearly one-third of all the events. Safina has won four titles, reached her first Grand Slam final at the French and won the Olympic silver medal. Other Russians who have won multiple titles include Sharapova (3), Dementieva (2), Zvonareva (2) and Maria Kirilenko (2).

Russia's closest rival for title supremacy this year is the United States, and the country lags far behind with seven titles -- four for Serena Williams, two for Lindsay Davenport and one for Venus Williams.

Quest for the best
Two key tennis governing bodies -- the United States Tennis Association and Tennis Australia -- made recent moves to aid their quest to grow future champions.

Higueras

AP Photo/Armando Franca

Jose Higueras will end his working relationship with Roger Federer and assume the role of director of coaching for the USTA Elite Player Development.

Last week the USTA made an impressive hire in bringing Jose Higueras into their fold as Director of Coaching for USTA Elite Player Development, backing up his new boss Patrick McEnroe, General Manager of the operation.

Higueras, 55, has acted as either full-time or part-time guru for a number of standout players through the years, including Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Carlos Moya, Todd Martin, Michael Chang and Jennifer Capriati. Recently, he's been sitting courtside for Roger Federer and Robby Ginepri.

McEnroe told ESPN's Bonnie Ford during the Davis Cup last week in Spain that Higueras' contract precludes him from working with individual players -- including world No. 2 Roger Federer, who hired Higueras to refine his clay-court technique earlier this season and employed him again as a "consultant'' during the U.S. Open.

Higueras is still committed to one 10-day stint with Federer, but when he fulfills that promise he will be exclusively working for the USTA at one of three locales -- his own facility in Palm Springs, Calif. or at the USTA centers in Florida and California.

"Jose is one of the greatest minds in coaching today," McEnroe said. "His understanding of the sport is unrivaled, and his familiarity with American tennis makes him an invaluable asset."

Tennis Australia is making a concerted effort to improve their player's abilities on clay by hiring Spaniard Felix Mantilla, who will open a training facility in Barcelona, Spain where he can impart the skills that made him a top 10 ranked success during his career.

Swede still has game
Former world No. 1 Stefan Edberg proved he hadn't lost his touch when his maiden voyage to the senior BlackRock Tour of Champions ended with the title in a victory over Spaniard Sergi Bruguera this past weekend. The elegant serve-and-volleying Swede, who won six Grand Slam titles in 11 major final appearances, has kept a very low profile since retiring from the tour in 1996.

Next on Edberg's agenda is a stop at the BlackRock Masters Tennis in London later this fall, where he'll stay in the apartment he's kept in the city throughout his career.

Will Edberg's appetite to compete be heightened enough to keep him as a frequent face in the senior game? A stay-at-home-with-his-family kind of guy, Edberg offered hope, but no guarantees: "If I can make some kind of arrangement with my family so that we can travel a bit together, then there's a good chance I'll be back in Paris next year as the defending champion."

Lending a hand
As the leaves begin to change colors and autumn comes, the tennis circuit is readying itself for its brief offseason. Each year that signifies a number of annual charity events involving tennis celebrities are gearing up to raise money for worthy causes.

Chris Evert's 19th annual Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic will be held in Delray Beach and Boca Raton, Fla. from Oct. 31-Nov. 2. The event has a heavy tennis theme but also features a golf outing and luncheon with Evert's new husband, famed golfer Greg Norman. Evert teams with the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida to help the needy.

Andy Roddick is set to host the eighth annual Andy Roddick Foundation weekend, Dec. 6-7, also in Boca Raton. Roddick, whose efforts raise money for a variety of children's causes, will be joined by good friends Bob and Mike Bryan.

The 10th annual Swingtime -- A Pro-Celebrity Pro-Am Tennis & Golf Tournament is set for Nov. 22-23, in Naples, Fla., an event designed as a yearly remembrance of Tim Gullikson, a former player and coach of Pete Sampras. Gullikson died of brain cancer at age 44 in 1996. The event benefits the Tim & Tom Gullikson Foundation.

Mardy Fish hosts Mardy's Tennis & Jake's Music Fest from Dec. 12-13 for the third consecutive year in his hometown of Vero Beach, Fla. The event, which benefits the Mardy Fish Foundation, is tennis-oriented and also features Fish's boyhood friend country music artist Jake Owen in concert.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Job hunting

McEnroe Sr.

John P. McEnroe Sr. was in Madrid for the U.S. vs. Spain semifinals as he has been for every one of the weekends in which his sons John and Patrick were involved as a player or captain -- a span dating back to the '70s, when the McEnroe Sr., a retired lawyer, also represented some of the stars of the game in negotiations with the men's tour. Now McEnroe the elder, 73, has thrown his ballcap in the ring as a candidate for the position of ATP executive chairman and president being vacated by Etienne de Villiers in December. McEnroe said he thinks the player participation rules lead to unnecessary and potentially career-curtailing injuries, and made his case in a letter to top players and their agents he sent last month. McEnroe speculated de Villiers' resignation was forced because of ongoing tensions with players. He suggested that players should have the right to decide when, where and how much they play, but maintained that he is not "anti-tournament.'' "I have said, but I'm not proposing, that the best thing would be for the players to go back to having a union and have collective bargaining with the ATP, but in my mind, that's almost like Armageddon at this moment,'' he said. McEnroe said he plans to try to talk to more players about his ideas as the season winds down.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Job opening

Roddick

Andy Roddick will travel to his next two tournaments in Asia accompanied by his longtime trainer Doug Spreen, but no coach. Davis Cup captain and ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe has been working with Roddick since the week before the U.S. Open, when Roddick's brother John stepped out of that role by mutual agreement between the siblings. Andy said he is not in a rush to hire someone else, although ideally he'd like to have someone in place before the end of this season. "Right now I won't have a lot of time to train anyway, and that's when you work things out with people.,'' Roddick said in Madrid this weekend. Asked whether he and McEnroe considered continuing their arrangement, Roddick pointed out that McEnroe already has three jobs, including his relatively new post as general manager of elite player development for the U.S. Tennis Association. McEnroe and his wife Melissa Errico, who have a 2½-year old daughter, also are expecting twin girls shortly. "He doesn't need another baby,'' Roddick said, referring to himself.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Oh say can you ole

Lopez

The Spanish players carped about playing at altitude in a Madrid bullring. But we think they must have secretly liked the poster produced for the event, featuring a traditional bullfighting scene with their names underneath in bold red letters, followed by suitably theatrical nicknames just like the real matadors. Our favorite was Feliciano Lopez, "El Torpedo de Toledo.'' After skewering Sam Querrey in the meaningless fifth match of the weekend, Lopez pantomimed a matator's choreography at center court using a plain white towel, much to the delight of the locals.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Quote of the week

Roddick

"They're probably not going to do that unless you're getting your butt kicked.'' -- Andy Roddick, commenting on the Madrid Davis Cup crowd's sympathetic cheering and chanting of his name toward the end of his straight-sets loss to Rafael Nadal.

Stat of the week

Nadal

3. Rafael Nadal is looking to join only three players -- Pete Sampras (1995), Jim Courier (1992) and John McEnroe (1981 and 1982) -- to finish the year ranked No. 1 and lead his country to a Davis Cup title.