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Myskina topples Capriati in straight sets

6/3/2004

PARIS -- Head down, Jennifer Capriati shuffled past her
mother and coach near the locker room beneath center court.

"I just want to sit down," Capriati said, then sighed,
burdened by an upset loss in the French Open semifinals Thursday.

A few minutes earlier, a few feet away, a beaming Anastasia
Myskina, red flower in hand, was accepting congratulations for her
6-2, 6-2 victory over Capriati. Myskina got a kiss on the cheek
from Olga Morozova, the last Russian woman to play for a Grand Slam
title, 30 years ago -- and the coach of Saturday's other finalist,
Elena Dementieva.

The No. 9-seeded Dementieva beat No. 14 Paola Suarez 6-0, 7-5 in
a match filled with so many miscues (17 double-faults, 69 unforced
errors total) it could be used for a "How Not To Play Elite
Tennis" instructional video.

The previous 10 Grand Slam tournaments featured six all-Williams
and three all-Belgian championship matches. But befitting the
topsy-turvy nature of the past 10 days, there will be an
all-Russian major final for the first time, assuring the country of
its first female Slam champion.

Capriati had 36 unforced errors to only 11 winners, a big
letdown after knocking off No. 2 Serena Williams in the
quarterfinals Tuesday. That's the same day Myskina eliminated No. 4
Venus Williams, and Dementieva saddened the locals by beating No. 3
Amelie Mauresmo of France.

"I was just having a bad day," said Capriati, 3-9 in major
semifinals dating to a loss to Monica Seles at 14 in the 1990
French Open. "You're trying to figure out ways to change or what
to do or what's going wrong. You have a million things going
through your mind. When it's not there, it's not there."

She trailed 0-3, 0-40 within 10 minutes and didn't recover,
unable to find the range on the sixth-seeded Myskina's slower
shots. The Russian showed no nerves in her first major semifinal,
compiling points streaks in which she won 13 of 14, 10 of 11, and
12 of 14. Normally a top returner, Capriati never solved Myskina's
soft serve, spraying balls in the net, wide or long.

"She's hitting serves what, like, 50 mph?" said Capriati, a
three-time major champion, including the 2001 French Open.
"Usually, I should be able to just take those shots and hit
winners, but nothing was going in today."

By the end of her 61-minute disaster, Capriati looked as if she
had somewhere better to be, halfheartedly slapping at the ball. She
cracked her racket on the court after one errant forehand and
periodically looked up at the guest box with palms up, as if to
say, "What is going on here?"

In part, what was happening Thursday was the coming-of-age for
Myskina, Dementieva and, in a way, all of Russian tennis. Ever
since Anna Kournikova reached the Wimbledon semifinals at 16, then
was followed onto the WTA Tour by a crop of young compatriots,
there's been a sense of anticipation.

Ten Russians rank among the top 43 players in the world, five in
the top 13. But other than Dementieva's Olympic silver medal and
U.S. Open semifinal appearance in 2000, no real breakthrough came.

"You were writing, 'The Russians are coming' for how many
years?" said Morozova, who lost to Chris Evert in the 1974 French
Open and Wimbledon finals.

"You asked, we did it."

It helped that the Williams sisters have been hampered by
injuries and lack of matches. And that defending champion Justine
Henin-Hardenne lost in the second round after missing six weeks
with a viral infection. And that Belgium's other star, 2001 and
2003 French Open runner-up Kim Clijsters, is sidelined by left
wrist tendinitis.

This was the first Slam in four years with none of that quartet
in the semifinals, mirroring the unpredictable makeup of the men's
final four: Three Argentines and serve-and-volleyer Tim Henman are
in action Friday.

"These days," Capriati said, "nothing is surprising,
really."

Oh, no?

Check out Dementieva's season record when she arrived in Paris:
10-9, with only one semifinal appearance. Or her recent Grand Slam
history: three first-round losses in the preceding five events. Or
Myskina's career French Open mark before last week: 1-4. Or her
record against Capriati before Thursday: 1-5.

Now Myskina and Dementieva, both 22, have won six straight
matches apiece on a surface that makes many a point a grind.

And they know each other well: They met when they were 6 or 7,
at Moscow's Spartak club, taking lessons from the mother of 2000
U.S. Open champion Marat Safin. Dementieva estimated they've played
each other 30 times, from the junior ranks right up to tour level,
where they are 4-4 head-to-head.

Myskina earned her first title as a pro at a 1997 minor league
event in Batumi, Georgia, by beating Dementieva in the final. Both
were ranked lower than 500th.

Look at them now.

"We do everything together, and we're pretty good friends,"
Myskina said, then paused and smiled. "I hope."