Russians are here to stay
NEW YORK -- For six matches here, Elena Dementieva got away with it.
She played her way into the U.S. Open finals with a lollipop, side-armed serve. Three top-10 players -- Vera Zvonareva, Amelie Mauresmo and Jennifer Capriati -- couldn't take that club-level slicing softie and squash it like a bug on a windshield.
Well, 19-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova didn't have any problems pounding Dementieva's weak, queasy offerings. In the Russian summit that was the women's final on Saturday night at the National Tennis Center, No. 9-seeded Kuznetsova smashed No. 6 Dementieva 6-3, 7-5.
"It's all about my serve," Dementieva said. "I really need to have a better serve to win a Grand Slam. When somebody has a great return, there is nothing I can do with this kind of serve.
"It's good that I have something I can improve. That was something that I really didn't like to practice and something I didn't really like to do on the court. I don't like to start with the serve. That's what I have to change in my mind. I have to really like it. I have to love it -- then I'm going to have a good one."
Even when the Petrovas and Zvonarevas and Likhovtsevas started the parade of Russians into the upper ranks of the WTA Tour a few years ago, they were talking about Kuznetsova. The brace-faced girl from St. Petersburg was ranked No. 43 in the world at the age of 17 and this year she's seen fellow Russians Anastasia Myskina and Maria Sharapova land in the finals of Grand Slams and win -- for the first time in the proud country's history. In the fourth round at Roland Garros, Kuznetsova won the first set against Myskina before losing 8-6 in the third. This is the same Myskina, who beat Dementieva 6-1, 6-2 in the final. Who would take more from their spring visit to Paris?
When Dementieva won the coin toss before the match, not surprisingly, she elected to receive. Not only did it take her weak serve out of play, it put the pressure on Kuznetsova, who was appearing in her first Grand Slam final. It was a long day for Kuznetsova, who came to the National Tennis Center to hit balls, then returned to her Manhattan hotel. And then, after watching Lleyton Hewitt's semifinal match and eating lunch, she repeated the process again. Dementieva won the first four points of the match, but she was broken nearly as fast. Kuznetsova broke her again in the sixth game when she lasered a forehand service return down the line. For the set, Kuznetsova had 12 forehand winners, while Dementieva -- who has one of the biggest forehands in the game -- had one.
Midway through the second set, Dementieva started dragging her left leg. She had been nursing a strained groin muscle through the second week of the tournament and it seemed to restrict her movement. Later, she said the injury didn't allow her to play her best.
Serving at 5-all in the second set, Dementieva's serve cost her the chance to extend the match to three sets. At 15-all, she struck her slowest serve, 62 miles an hour, and Kuznetsova jumped on it. At 15-30, her 68-mile-an-hour second serve missed for a double-fault. On break point, Dementieva's forehand was wide and Kuznetsova found herself serving for the match.
At the end, she walked slowly to the net, as though in a daze and stuck her tongue out as teenagers sometimes do. Kuznetsova, strangely, showed little emotion.
"I was just like, 'I won another match,' not the U.S. Open," Kuznetsova said. "After, I just forgot, I didn't want to think about it. I couldn't show all I feel inside. It's not really what I was feeling. I was so excited. Shocked."
The women's final was moved to prime time in 2001, and to the delight of the United States Tennis Association (not to mention CBS), the Williams sisters met in the final. They couldn't have seen this all-Russian final coming, but there may be more in the offing.
Before this year, the Grand Slam history of Russian women was grim. Olga Morozova -- Dementieva's coach -- reached the 1974 final at Roland Garros, losing to Chris Evert and then at Wimbledon with the same result. Eighteen years later, Natasha Zvereva lost in the 1988 French Open final to Steffi Graf. According to Morozova, tennis received more financial support from the government after tennis became an Olympic sport in 1984. And now we are seeing the results. Five of the last six Grand Slam finalists have been Russians. After more than a century of futility, Russian women have won three straight Grand Slams. Now that these young Russians are growing old enough to play a full schedule -- there are rigorous restrictions for players 14-17 -- their results will improve.
It has been 25 years since one country produced three different women's Slam champions in a single year. In 1979, Barbara Jordan, Chris Evert and Tracy Austin of the United States reigned in the Slams. And now, Myskina, Sharapova and Kuznetsova have matched that feat. With so many talented athletes among their ranks, a Russian Grand Slam isn't out of the question.
Martina Navratilova, the great champion, was sitting in Kuznetsova's box. She is a former doubles partner and a big supporter. Before the match, Navratilova told her, "I was young (21) when I won my first Grand Slam title -- you can do it, too."
"It's a really big moment for Russia," Dementieva said. "We were two in the final and then Vera [Zvonareva] won the mixed doubles. There's a chance for Svetlana and Elena [Likhovtseva] to win doubles tomorrow. It's been a great tournament for Russia already. I think that it's a really big moment for our country."
Kuznetsova has been hearing the questions all year long.
"All the time, my answer is the same: it's competition between us," she said. "That's we we're growing so fast. You see Myskina winning -- you think I like it so much? I had match point against her. I want to do the same thing.
"The same about Sharapova, the same about all of us."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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