Elena Dementieva: The Woman With the Label

Player Profiles
By Matthew Zemek, March 3rd, 2010

Elena Dementieva of RussiaElena Dementieva has had to endure the label so many tennis players and golfers dread: the best player never to win a major. Spain’s Sergio Garcia is widely regarded as the male golfer who ought to have won a prestigious championship by now, but hasn’t. In men’s tennis, Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko are battling for that double-edged distinction, which carries with it both a compliment and a deficiency. In women’s tennis, there’s really no debate: Dementieva – more than her Russian countrywoman, Dinara Safina – is the best WTA Tour competitor who hasn’t yet taken home a signature singles trophy at a Big Four event.

Dementieva possesses most of the tools needed to be a world-class performer within the realm of the white-lined rectangle. The 28-year-old owns rock solid groundstrokes from both wings, and she can flatten the ball in an attempt to hit through the court.

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Dementieva’s court coverage and footwork are well above average in the women’s game, and the Russian is a proven defensive fortress who doesn’t make it easy for her opponents to find angles on the court.

There are only two chinks in Dementieva’s armor, but unfortunately, they’re large ones: the serve and the mind.

Dementieva has long struggled with her serve, a problem which was often the result of a bad ball toss and a lack of overall coordination in her larger service motion. The ball toss would drift sideways, away from her racquet. This hitch made it impossible for Dementieva to generate any appreciable degree of power on her serve; moreover, the flaw in her form forced the Russian to hit a curving serve to the wide part of the deuce court and, on the other hand, an ad-court serve to down the T.

In tennis, servers need a neutral ball toss so that their opponent can’t guess the location, but when the toss floats in one direction, the server loses the ability to disguise the location or trajectory on the serve. Because she couldn’t solve her toss for quite some time, a shaken and wobbly Dementieva remained extremely vulnerable on her serve, and this fact cost this top 10 mainstay a number of very meaningful matches at major tournaments. Just one example came in the 2008 U.S. Open semifinals, when Dementieva lost to Jelena Jankovic, 6-4, 6-4.

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Dementieva gained a break lead in each set, but could not parlay either advantage into the capture of a single set. Jankovic broke Dementieva in each of the Russian’s last five service games, a telling indication of just how weak her serve was.

With that having been said, the bigger reason for this elite player’s acute agony at the Majors has been the area between the ears. Just when Vera Dementieva’s daughter has been on the cusp of doing something special in reputation-making situations, this fragile flower has allowed the weight of the occasion to overwhelm her.

Dementieva’s body is strong and powerful, but her mental framework has all the resilience of a matchstick… at least when a Major championship is waiting to be won.

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In each of Dementieva’s two Major finals – which were admittedly contested back in 2004 – a younger woman nevertheless displayed the stage fright that has continued to characterize her career.

“Demmy” crumbled in the 2004 French Open final, losing to Anastasia Myskina, 6-1, 6-2, in a painfully ugly (yet mercifully brief) match. In the 2004 U.S. Open final, Dementieva didn’t dissolve into a pool of ineptitude, but she lost as a favorite against Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-3, 7-5. The awareness of those two stumbles has surely lingered in Dementieva’s mind through the years… perhaps on a subconscious level, but enough to plant seeds of doubt that have grown into nagging vines, vines which have strangled a gifted player’s sense of self confidence.

In the 2005 U.S. Open semifinals, Dementieva won the first set against Mary Pierce but then lost the final two sets, 2 and 2, after Pierce requested a medical timeout. In the 2008 French Open semis against Dinara Safina, Demmy won the first set and had match point at 5-2 in the second, but somehow failed to close down the match. One loss of a match point was understandable; it was the inability to hold onto a 5-2 lead that really exposed an upper-tier player’s runaway nerves.

But enough about the deficiencies in Dementieva’s game. You don’t win 545 singles matches and 152 doubles matches without doing a lot of things right. Yes, Dementieva has never won a Major in either discipline, but she did take part in one of the great women’s tennis matches of all time. Let’s take a trip into the wayback machine…

In the 2009 Wimbledon ladies’ singles semifinals, Dementieva engaged in a classic battle against the best player of the current era, Serena Williams. After having taken the first set in a tiebreak, Dementieva dropped the second set, 7–5. With Williams serving at 4–5 in the third, Dementieva even held a single match point and had a passing shot set up. Demmy went crosscourt, Serena guessed right to knock off the volley, and the match point went begging. Dementieva eventually lost the match 6–7(4), 7–5, 8–6, in 2 hours and 49 minutes. The epic encounter was the longest Wimbledon semifinal of the Open era.

Just how good was Dementieva, even in defeat? On that electrifying afternoon, the No. 4 seed at Wimbledon endured her share of hiccups, such as a botched backhand that allowed Serena to take the second set, and a nervous forehand that allowed the Serena to break back early in the third set after the Russian took a 3-1 lead. With that said, Dementieva didn’t descend into a pool of self-pity the way she normally has in other semifinal slam showdowns.

Whenever Dementieva dumped a ball into the canvas or lost a makeable shot by sending it into the doubles alley, she was able to play highlight-reel points immediately afterward. Forgetting her mistakes with uncommon poise, Dementieva exhibited the clearheaded crispness that elite athletes bring to the table in high-stakes situations. This WTA workhorse found the tunnel vision that had eluded her for so long. Several instances revealed this encouraging development:

* Despite having to serve just to stay in the first set – at 4-5 and 5-6 – Dementieva, long known as a shrinking violet at the service line, stood tall in the saddle. The Russian wore out the corners of each service box, placing her first serves near the lines with a considerable amount of pace. No longer hitting cream-puff second serves as well, Demmy was able to hold for 5-all and 6-all, steering the set into a tiebreak that the Russian won when a Serena forehand landed just wide.

* After she briefly flinched to hand back her break lead early in the third set, Dementieva then held convincingly in each of her next four service games. What was especially remarkable was that after Serena saved match point and held for 5-all in the deciding set, Dementieva shrugged off that disappointment to hold for 6-5.

* In a larger context, Dementieva – slugging superbly with Serena for nearly three full hours–inevitably encountered a tidal wave of frustrating moments when the prospect of victory faded as soon as it appeared. Yet, to the very end, the Russian was playing high-level tennis, giving as good as she got against the most accomplished player of the 21st century. This version of Demmy will win a Grand Slam; the key will be for the 28-year-old to maintain the mindset that served her so well at last year’s Wimbledon.

True tennis fans can only hope that will be the case. This is a player whose career needs to receive the affirmation and validation of a Major championship victory.

Country                                                    Russia

Birth Date                                                October 15, 1981 (1973-12-02)

Residence                                                Monte Carlo, Monaco (1980-09-30)

Height                                                        5 ft 11

Weight                                                       140 lbs.

Year Turned Pro                                  1998

Highest Rank – Singles                        No. 3 (April 6, 2009)

Highest Rank – Doubles                     No. 5 (April 14, 2003)

Career Prize Earnings                          US $13,212,689

Grand Slam (Singles)                            0 titles

Australian Open                                     Best showing – semifinalist (2009)

French Open                                            Best showing – finalist (2004)

Wimbledon                                               Best showing – semifinalist (2008, 2009)

U.S. Open                                                   Best showing – finalist (2004)

Grand Slam Women’s Doubles          0 titles

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