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Monday, October 27, 2008
Time for Dementieva to break through

It's the kind of irresistible question upon which the PTI guys thrive: Who is the best player in such-and-such a sport never to have won a major championship?

Phil Mickelson held that dubious distinction in men's golf until he sunk the 18-footer for birdie on 18 in Augusta in 2004, thus transferring the best-without-a-big-title moniker to three-time major runner-up and perennially frustrated Sergio Garcia -- not much for Kornheiser and Wilbon to bicker about there. In women's tennis, although there's no single obvious candidate for the unofficial designation, I nominate Elena Dementieva for "Greatest without a Grand Slam" -- and hope 2009 is the year she sheds that label.

Of course, one could argue that top-ranked Jelena Jankovic is the Sergio of her sport. The plucky Serbian has clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking, an achievement somewhat diluted by the fact that she has never won a major. But at 23, Jankovic has not yet amassed a competitive résumé that merits "best without" honors.

Dementieva, on the other hand, has been experiencing major futility for nearly a decade. Now 27, she first signaled the championship-caliber of her game with a run to the semifinals at the U.S. Open in 2000. Since then, she has made it at least that far in a Grand Slam tourney on five other occasions, including semifinal appearances at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows this season.

In a game defined by booming serves and even bigger egos, Dementieva has neither. Eschewing the entourage that is de rigueur for many of her peers, she travels with just her mother and coach, Vera. While some other top player-divas are brazen self-promoters, Dementieva comes across as gracious and modest in interviews. And although the blond and lovely six-footer could easily play the part of vixen and social butterfly, she sticks to a low-key existence with longtime boyfriend Maxim Afinogenov, an NHL player and fellow Muscovite. Dementieva has even been known to spend part of her offseason with the Sabres forward in that popular playground to the stars known as … Buffalo.

Although it is still occasionally suspect, Dementieva has vastly improved her serve, once her greatest liability. Her solid all-around game has propelled her to two Slam finals -- the French Open and the U.S. Open in 2004, a year when she finished a career-high No. 6 in the world rankings. In each final, she lost in straight sets to a fellow Russian who was claiming her first career Grand Slam event title -- Anastasia Myskina at Roland Garros and Svetlana Kuznetsova in New York.

While other Russians like Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina and Anna Chakvetadze have taken star turns on the tour, Dementieva has remained a consistent but inconspicuous presence in the top 10, never considered the leader of the deepest national contingent in women's tennis. That changed briefly this summer when she scored an emotional gold-medal victory at the Beijing Olympics, heading a Russian sweep of the women's singles medals. But the momentum from that career-defining win was not enough to net Dementieva a first Slam title. A couple of weeks after the Games, Dementieva surrendered a lead in the U.S. Open semifinals to the resilient Jankovic, exiting Flushing Meadows having squandered another major opportunity.

Dementieva's thoughtfulness and experience may be increasingly to her detriment in her quest for a Grand Slam event title. In sports, oblivion is bliss; desire can quickly cross the line from powerful motivator to crippling liability. At every championship, Dementieva faces younger players who are just as eager as she is but unburdened by the urgency that comes from knowing there are a limited number of opportunities left.

Dementieva is at the top of her game, ranked No. 4 as she heads into the year-end championships in Doha. On Sunday, she defeated Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in the Luxembourg final.

"I feel like I just won a Grand Slam," the gritty Dementieva said after battling back for her third title of the year. I hope 2009 is the year she finds out what that really feels like. Given her talent, her longevity and her admirable off-court comportment, she'd be a worthy champion.