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Good to a fault

4/27/2006

Elena Dementieva had just returned home to Moscow after a tournament in Paris last September when Igor Nikolaev, one of her country's biggest pop stars, called. "Just listen to this," he said, and played her a new song. "Very nice," she offered, truthfully. "Good," replied Nikolaev, a huge tennis fan. "Now be the star in my video."

A week later, Dementieva was in St.Petersburg giving an MTV-worthy performance: waking up in bed, her long blond hair falling sensuously over bare shoulders; sauntering in skimpy jammies; pouting from behind the wheel of a silver Mercedes McLaren; purring over Nikolaev's piano.

Dementieva, the world's ninth-ranked tennis player, generally leaves the booty-bumping to her childhood rival, Anna Kournikova. But Nikolaev called at the right time, after Dementieva had just played three bruising matches to lead Russia over France in the Fed Cup final. "I was so tired that the idea of dressing up in pretty clothes and driving fast cars seemed fun, like a vacation," she says.

That Dementieva has been ranked among the world's top 10 players since 2003 is remarkable. Sure, she's 5-11, with speed, power and some of the game's most dynamic ground strokes. But in every match she plays, she must compensate for a huge shortcoming: a serve that has been labeled bizarre, ugly … perhaps the worst in history. "If you are Russian," says Dementieva, in perfect English, "you must be ready to battle everything."

Ah, yes, the Russian card.

Four of the world's Top 10 women players were born in Russia, but three left as soon as they were out of pigtails, frustrated by eight-month winters and a lack of quality courts. Dementieva stayed and her play reflects the gritty character of the city she calls home. Against Justine Henin-Hardenne, in the semifinals at Indian Wells in March, Dementieva won after trailing 2-6, 2-5. In that match, she double-faulted 14 times -- a nightmarish number that would have sent a lesser player back to the banks of the frozen Volga. For Dementieva, it was typical. "With that serve, it's a miracle she's in the Top 10," says Hall of Famer Pam Shriver. "A miracle!"

And yet the match against Henin-Hardenne was also a showcase for Dementieva's smart, punishing ground game. Her long legs carried her everywhere the Belgian tried to go, and her strokes were powerful and precise. The problem came when she met Maria Sharapova in the next match. It was billed as an all-Russian final, but Sharapova moved to Florida so long ago that she's about as Russian as Lindsay Davenport. Instead, Dementieva was the one who echoed her country: exciting and brash, resilient and stubborn, yet, ultimately, built on a shaky foundation. In the end, her ground strokes couldn't save her soft-as-snowflakes serve, and she lost in straight sets.

When asked about her serve-and the subject is raised in nearly every interview-the 24-year-old Dementieva, who is otherwise intelligent, charming and insightful, says matter-of-factly, "I think perhaps I need to struggle to play well."

Her serve has been labeled bizarre, ugly ... perhaps the worst in history.

Tennis may never have had such an existentialist star. Dementieva grew up reading Chekhov, Nabokov and Tolstoy, and she is consumed with the idea that setback is good for the soul. Her serve is the perfect burden to bear. It's completely in her control, and yet completely out of it.

A million things can cross a player's mind while a tennis ball hangs in the air. So what, exactly, goes through Dementieva's mind before she unleashes that beastly serve?

Her closet for 23 years, Elena shared a bedroom with her older brother, Vsevolod, in their family's apartment in the heart of Moscow. Some of her earliest memories involve rushing home from school, grabbing a sandwich and her gym bag, and riding the subway across town with her mom to the Central Red Army Club, a rickety collection of cracked, overcrowded courts.

The club was the gold standard for Moscow tennis, where the best players-like Kournikova, then the club's star-got special attention. Elena and the rest washed their balls after practice so they could reuse them. It wasn't until Elena, then 14, won the Junior Orange Bowl 16s that she got her own teacher … and a new can of Wilsons.

She was still in that same bedroom when she turned pro at 16 in 1998, and when she won silver at the 2000 Olympics, and when she had her breakthrough year in 2004, reaching the finals of both the French Open and the U.S. Open. Never once did she consider herself unlucky or think it was odd she shared a room with her brother.

Dementieva's mother, Vera, finally insisted that Lena (as she's known to friends and heart-struck bloggers) move to her own place. Vera picked out two apartments in a stylish Moscow high-rise for Elena to buy. In late 2004, Elena moved into one; Vera and her engineer husband, Viatcheslav, moved into the other with Elena's brother. Vera hired a well-known architect to design Lena's kitchen, which was recently featured in a Russian architecture magazine. But of all the rooms in Lena's apartment, her favorite is a walk-in closet. Sometimes she just stands in it, looking at the trophies and touring bags, marveling at how far she's traveled.

Her mother Vera can usually be found courtside, quiet, poised, dignified. There's a line she uses to describe the strength of a Russian woman, and it goes something like this: "She must be able to stop the horse when it is running and get into the burning house."

Vera spent Lena's youth in perpetual motion, working as a lecturer at a graphic arts institute, standing in two-hour lines to buy groceries, then taking three different trains and walking seven blocks home, arms full, because the family had no car. Once she dropped off those bags, she grabbed her kids and jumped back on the subway for the hour-long ride to the Red Army Club. After practice, she cooked dinner, did the wash and went to sleep so she could do it all over again the next day. "An American woman might think it was a hell," Vera says. "But that was the way it was for all women."

Vera's generation passed that strength on to its daughters, which may explain the sudden glut of ferocious Russian forehands. "I think I took everything from my mom," Elena says. "She's very strong inside. Always fighting."

Her history following a three-month stretch in 2000 that included the Olympics and a U.S. Open semifinal appearance, Dementieva returned home with a pulled ligament in her right shoulder. Because she couldn't rotate her serving arm 360°, she had to make a choice: take time off to rehab, or change her serve. She discovered that if she tossed the ball in front of her instead of straight overhead, she could serve with a sidearm slice. It was less painful but, well, painful to watch. Her serve, marginal to begin with, now orbited to the same forehand spot every time, looping in at less than 80mph -- some 30mph slower than those from Jennifer Capriati or the Williams sisters.

By 2001, Dementieva's shoulder had recovered, and her serve had improved to mediocre. But its evil twin lingered, emerging on big points, when it was least welcome. Before the start of the 2004 season, Vera asked Olga Morozova, Russia's leading coach, to help Elena sharpen her serve. After making little headway, Morozova turned her attention to Lena's runway legs, honing her side-to-side coverage until she had the best lateral movement in women's tennis. Morozova also taught Dementieva to vary her shots, so a power stroke from the baseline might be followed by a lightning move to the net. Lena found herself hanging around points longer. She became a giant-killer, reaching two Grand Slam finals, though in each of those matches her serve sabotaged her.

Against fellow Red Army prodigy Anastasia Myskina at the 2004 French Open, Dementieva won just three games and hit 10 double faults. At the U.S. Open three months later, she lost in straight sets to 19-year-old Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, double-faulting in each of the four service games she lost.

Before Wimbledon in June 2005, Dementieva spent a week in Holland working with Richard Krajicek, once regarded as the most fluid server in the men's game. He put three balls in her hand and had her serve them rapid-fire. Nearly every time, the third serve -- the one she had the least time to think about -- flew fastest and landed with the best topspin bounce. Krajicek is convinced Dementieva's faulting problem has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I believe with Elena, it is not mechanical," he says. "It is psychological."

Krajicek offered to train Dementieva, convinced he could teach her to treat every serve as a third serve. But she wasn't willing to uproot herself and move to Holland, where he lives. Instead, Elena spends her free time on the same Red Army courts where she was raised, doing it the hard way.

Her meltdown in September 2005, Dementieva was on her way to thrashing Mary Pierce to reach her second U.S. Open final in as many years. She was staying low to the ground, stroking the ball on the lines, finding her angles. Best of all, her first serve was fast enough for the Autobahn. By the end of the first set, Pierce looked outmaneuvered, outhustled and outgunned.

"I believe with Elena, it is not mechanical. It is psychological."
-- Richard Krajicek

Then came the most infamous 12 minutes of Dementieva's career. At the changeover, Pierce called two consecutive medical timeouts, stretching the rules in a clear attempt to reverse her failing mojo. As Pierce lay prone while getting a massage at halfcourt, Dementieva stewed. By the time they got back to business, Pierce had burrowed so deep into her opponent's head that Dementieva's ground strokes started sailing wide and her serve went into a free fall. A pair of 6-2 sets later, Pierce was the one heading to the final.

You'd have to go to Stephen King's Carrie for a comparable moment of public humiliation. Lena kept looking to Vera at courtside, as she often does, trying to draw strength. But she couldn't stop the horse. "I should have finished it," she says with a sigh. "I should have been strong."

Her car with her serve still limping along, Dementieva split with Morozova in mid-2005 and returned home to regroup. She drove her silver BMW X5 to Latvia to see her grandparents. She bummed around Moscow, attending the Bolshoi ballet with a girlfriend, shopping with her mother and, if sources are to be believed, hanging with boyfriend Maxim Afinogenov of the Buffalo Sabres. But Dementieva won't talk about her private life, and the only love affair she'll admit to is the one she shares with her city. "When I'm home for a long time, I don't want to leave," she says. "And I get very afraid of that feeling. Every year, I dread going to Australia. For me, saying goodbye to my friends, going from 20° to 90°, is really difficult."

It showed at the 2006 Australian Open, where she lost in a first-round upset. She was ready to fly home, climb into that BMW and drive. But Vera had other ideas. "You will not run," she told her daughter. "You will practice." So Lena spent the next two weeks in the Melbourne sun, warming up for Tokyo's Pan Pacific Open. On Feb. 5, she crushed Martina Hingis 6-2, 6-0 in the final. A month later, it was on to Indian Wells and another trip up the bracket before losing to Sharapova.

In the video she filmed in St. Petersburg, Dementieva wakes up and stretches by an open window as Nikolaev sings: "You are holding my heart in your hands, and you don't even know. You don't even know how beautiful you are."

Of course she does. One men's Web site has tabulated Dementieva's beauty, giving her a 79 out of 100 (Kournikova got an 82) and concluding that she's the reason men go to Moscow to find wives. But there's another stat she cares more about: her 25-48 record against the eight women ahead of her in the rankings. She knows she should move to Belgium or Boca Raton, but she can't imagine leaving family and friends. So she'll remain a proud Russian, stubbornly fighting battles the hard way.

"After we left Indian Wells," Dementieva says, "my mother told me, 'Lena, it is like you make problems so you can fight your way out of them.'" She stops and thinks for a moment: "I suppose it would be so much simpler not to fight myself. But I don't know if that can happen. It seems the fighting is never over with me."

Or maybe she's not over the fighting.

Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.