- Kamakshi Tandon
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PARIS -- When the Williamses and Belgians are away, the Russians will play. That was the story here in 2004 -- Anastasia Myskina became the first female Russian Grand Slam winner in history by winning the final against fellow Russian and childhood training partner Elena Dementieva. It kick-started the Year of Russia on the women's tour, with Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova going on to take Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, respectively.
But the growth of Russian tennis, as some predicted, never quite materialized. Serena and Venus Williams managed to stay free enough of injury to scoop up majors on a regular basis, and Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters did the same in between retirements. And of the Russians, only Sharapova and Kuznetsova went on to win more Grand Slams -- Sharapova won the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008, while Kuznetsova took the French in 2009.
Now the Williamses are out with injury -- again. Henin is retired -- again. And Clijsters is out, having somehow conspired to lose from match point up against an unheralded 20-year-old. And the Russians are eyeing their chances again. Sharapova is having her best clay season ever, and Kuznetsova seems to be coming back to life for the first time since losing a four-hour epic to Francesca Schiavone at the Australian Open in January. And there is possibly a new star on the horizon, as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova makes the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time.
And don't look now, but Myskina is back, too. Not as a player; she is long retired and now the mother of two. Instead, she is helping Kuznetsova in her quest to win the French Open for a second time. Ironically, Myskina fought off match points against Kuznetsova on her way to the title in 2004, on the same Bullring court on which Kuznetsova booked her passage to the quarterfinals two days ago.
All is forgiven, if not forgotten. "She make fun of me a lot, and I do the same," said Myskina in an interview with ESPN.com.
"I told her, 'Yeah, yeah, it's your court,'" said Kuznetsova.
On Sunday, seven years later, Myskina was in Kuznetsova's box instead of on the other side of the court. When things got tight, Kuznetsova would glance over. "I looked at her and she's like, 'Move her,'" said Kuznetsova, a slight stretch of the no coaching rule . "I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah, I know what to do.'"
Both insist that Larisa Neiland remains Kuznetsova's primary coach. "She's playing, of course, much better, but I'm just helping her," Myskina said. "The head coach is Larisa.
"I'm just going to help sometimes. Larisa have two kids as well as me, so of course she has to go home sometimes."
Whatever the formalities of her role, Myskina does appear to be a good addition to Kuznetsova's team. Like the banter about past battles, Kuznetsova has in Myskina someone who can relate to the day-to-day of her life on the circuit.
"We discuss before the matches, we talk, we try to find the weakness of the opponents. It's a good relationship and it's a good team and we're really good friends," Myskina said.
Kuznetsova will need to be fully prepared for her next match against the last local women's hope, Marion Bartoli. "If I would choose the court to play against her, it would be clay court for sure, because is best surface for me and I think the worst for her," Kuznetsova said. "Only thing is we played in France, so for her is going to be a lot of support.
"Anastasia was not playing the same game as I was, but what's the point of having somebody playing the same game as I was?" Kuznetsova said. "She teaches me to be smarter maybe a little bit. She was very smart on the court, so I think I can learn it from her. She knew exactly how to play tactically.
"And she can tell me what to do when I am for example back in Moscow. This is what I've been struggling [with], because Larisa is not there. I don't want to practice alone."
Things haven't changed much since Myskina was plying her trade on the circuit. "Of course, there some new names that I don't know and some juniors that I don't see, but pretty much the same people playing, traveling, so I know pretty much all of them," she said.
"Of course, they change some things in their game, and they improve a lot of things.
"Francesca Schiavone, she improve her game [a lot]. She started playing more aggressive and more stable on the baseline, so she's really good. Caroline Wozniacki, of course, definitely a much better player.
"So all the girls who's on top right now, they're playing really good. When they played with me, they were top 20, top 30. [Now] they're top 10, so that means they improve a lot."
Having come through in similar conditions herself, Myskina resists the suggestion that the lack of change means that no one has managed to catch and overtake the Williamses and Belgians. "I think it's just different games. It's not gap," she said. "Serena is Serena and Caroline is Caroline. They cannot be the same, they cannot play exactly the same tennis."
The new name, Pavyluchenkova, is a talented teen who has been on the verge of breaking through for a couple of years but struggled to produce that one big result. Like many Russians not named Sharapova, Pavyluchenkova has also had mental struggles but believes her come-from-behind wins in her past two rounds are the sign of a breakthrough.
"Normally I would probably go down mentally, you know, and I wouldn't be able to hold that match," Pavyluchenkova said. "But that's how I was able to improve my game and finally find my game, and came back and win the match in a good way. Like I remember last year against Serena Williams, it was the third set and she broke me once, and then I didn't really believe that I can come back."
She too has made changes to her team. After training in France as a youngster and then traveling with her tennis-playing brother for a while, she has followed in the footsteps of many other Russians and established a base in Spain. Always a talented ball-striker, the move to fitness-focused Barcelona should help her physical strength.
But when it comes to winning big matches, the box can only do so much. "I think the main coach is the experience," she said.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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