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Monday, March 19, 2007

Russian Tennis Update: Russians humiliated, Sharapova Loses #1 Ranking

Well, of the 33 seeds at last week's Pacific Life Open WTA event in Indian Wells, California, eight (nearly 25%) were Russians -- including three of the top four seeds. The list included (in rank/seed order) Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova, Anna Chakvetadze, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonoreva, Maria Kirilenko, Olga Poutchkova. Three of the top five players in the world (all non-Russians) skipped the event, leaving it wide open for the Russians to conquer.

Not surprisingly (at least for regular LR readers), however, once again they failed to impress, much less "dominate" their ostensibly inferior competition.

In fact, only two Russians (Zvonoreva and Kuznetsova) got as far as the quarter finals and six of the eight were ejected by lower-ranked opponents, those being Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Petrova, Chakvetadze, Safina and Poutchkova. Only Kirilenko (ejected by Chakvetadze) and Zvonoreva (who had the best tournament in the group and was the only one to be ejected by a higher-ranked non-Russian) lost to higher-ranked opponents. The most pathetic spectacle of all was surely Shamapova, who not only lost her third match of the tournament against a much lower-ranked player, but with it she lost her number 1 ranking to Justine Henin-Hardenne, winner of two prior tournaments in a row. Henin didn't even play Indian Wells -- it was almost as if she knew all she had to do was wait for Shamapova to implode.

So while the seeding dictated that three of the four semi-finals spots should have been filled by Russians, only one actually was. The only possible saving grace in all the humiliating carnage was World #6 SvetlanaKuznetsova, who got lucky; she won her quarter-final match (in three sets) against the World #9 and then found herself in the semis faced with only the lowly #33 seed Sybille Bammer of Austria, a player not ranked in the world's top 40 and a journeywoman who's been on the tour for ten years. Bammer had crushed Russian expat Tatiana Golovin (the #13 seed, ranked #19 in the world, Golovin defected from Russia and now plays for France) in easy straight sets in their quarter-final match. If she could get past Bammer, she'd have to face a player ranked no higher than #12 in the finals (the #1 and #3 seeds were eliminated on the other side of the draw, and the #5 scratched). Bammer has never ended a year ranked in the top 50, has never got past the third round in a grand slam, and has won only one tournament in her whole career.

In the end, though it took her three sets, Kuznetsova was able to struggle past Bammer and reach the finals. There, she only needed to beat world #18 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia in order to take the title. In other words, she was able to play both her semi-final and finals matches without facing a player ranked in the world's top 15 and was positioned to take this major title without having to face any of the world's top five players.

But just like Sharapova, Kuznetsova couldn't do it either. She was dominated in every facet of the game by the much lower-ranked Hantuchova in the finals, crushed by a player with only one one prior tournament in her entire career (of nearly ten years), and blown off the court in straight sets as Hantuchova took the title.

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