Sharapova, others have shot at Open
Although Maria Sharapova could become the world's top-ranked player this week at the JP Morgan Chase Open in Carson, Calif., it certainly hasn't been a dominant year for a group of players who combined to snare four out of five major titles and the Fed Cup crown last year.
In 2004, Anastasia Myskina won the French Open, Sharapova won Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, and Svetlana Kuznetsova took the U.S. Open.
But this year, no Russian player has made it to a Grand Slam final.
"It's very difficult to win three Grand Slams again," said Elena Dementieva, who reached the French Open and U.S. Open finals last year. "Life is not that way, it's up and down. But it hasn't been a bad year for Russian players, we've had some good results. It's not over yet."
It's certainly not for Sharapova, who will renew her four-month-long quest for the top ranking this week. And it's not for fourth-ranked Kuznetsova, who believes she can get back on track in time for the U.S. Open. The same goes for No. 6 Dementieva, who also believes she can reach No. 1.
In fact, the Russians are looking very good on paper as the top four seeds in Carson -- Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Dementieva and ninth-ranked Nadia Petrova. Four more Russian players were seeded in the rest of the tournament's top 16.
With top-ranked Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams out with injuries and Venus Williams out of action with what she called a case of the flu, no Americans are seeded in the tournament.
"Russians are looking pretty tough right now. Look at this draw. What would they do without Russian players?" Dementieva asked with a laugh.
Tournaments can cheer the bold bunch from Eastern Europe all they want, but the reality is that most of them haven't yet shown they have real staying power among the sport's elite.
"It's already a big achievement to have a Grand Slam title under your belt," said Petrova, who has never won a WTA singles crown. "If you can do it year after year, you are a goddess."
No one in this group has shown herself to be an on-court deity, although the wildly popular Sharapova has reached ethereal status in earnings off the court. She had a bobble-head doll cast in her image this week, although she agrees it looks nothing like her. "You just have to laugh at it."
She also has had a decent year on court, winning three titles and reaching the second week of every Grand Slam. But at the majors, she has shown vulnerability -- losing a chance at a berth in the final to eventual winner Serena in Australia, being schooled by eventual champ Justine Henin-Hardenne in the French quarterfinals and, last month, she couldn't find a way to punch through Venus' steely defense in the Wimbledon semis.
"I told myself not to look back," Sharapova told ESPN.com . "Of course I wanted to do everything possible to win Wimbledon because it's my favorite tournament, but [Venus] played amazing.
"I did everything possible on that day and maybe if it was on another, I would have been able to do more, but it was one of those one- or two-point things that happen. I have to look ahead."
Sharapova can't afford to look back because her last chance at a major tournament achievement is just weeks around the corner at the Open. If she is going to win in New York, she's going to have to step up her slow hard-court game.
She has won only one Tier II title on outdoor cement in her career, and Mary Pierce relentlessly pounded shots at her while Sharapova stared into space at last year's Open.
Her results against the top players on U.S. hard courts have not been spectacular, either. She was shut out against Davenport back in March in the Indian Wells semis, then was outrun by Kim Clijsters in the Miami final.
Sharapova admitted that the deluge of attention she received after winning last year's Wimbledon title overwhelmed her.
"It was different situation last year," she said. "Things were too hectic for me, and I couldn't really find myself mentally with all that was going around me. It wasn't me out there. Now it's totally different. I've had a whole year of learning, especially against top players."
She's a very powerful, clean hitter with a big serve and bullet return, but still can be exposed on the run. Her balance of offense and defense hasn't been constant, and on slow hard courts, that matters a great deal.
"I have to make sure that I'm not always going for winners," said Sharapova, who has never won a U.S. outdoor hard-court title. "There's a lot of variety in the game, but that's not going to take away from my main game, my pride. I'm not all of a sudden [going to] become a totally defensive player, but I am going to put little things into my game that are going to make me a better player."
Even if Sharapova finds her stamina, Kuznetsova finds her drive, Dementieva finds her serve, Petrova finds her nerve and Myskina rediscovers her love of the game, it may not matter in New York.
Four of the game's most celebrated players -- the Williams sisters, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters -- were either hurt, sick or in a slump last year. The door was left wide open. Now, the Russians are going to have to jar it open once again.
"This year, there are other players coming back & ," Petrova said. "It's not that wide open for us anymore, but it's still going well.
"We're not going away."
Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.