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Monday, July 07, 2008

Wimbledon Wrapup: American Domination, Russian Humiliation

Five Russian women made it into the fourth round of The Championships at Wimbledon last week, including three of the top ten seeds in the tournament. Just two made it out.

Four of those five players (#4 Kuznetsova, #5 Dementieva, pictured above, #8 Chakvetadze, #21 Petrova and the unseeded Kudryaseva) -- all the seeds -- drew lower-ranked opponents in the fourth round, and three of those opponents were non-Russians. Yet, only one of those three (Dementieva) survived what should have been easy contests against the foreigners and only one of the losers pushed her opponent to a third set. The other Russian to advance to the quarter finals was Petrova, the one who had the luxury of facing fellow Russian Kudryaseva.

With #3 Maria Sharapova having been eliminated in starkly humiliating fashion much earlier (even facing the lowly Kudryaseva could not save Russia's #1, though Petrova was able to crush her in easy straight sets), only one of Russia's four top-ten seeds in the tournament managed to get as far as the semifinals -- that being the woeful Elena Dementieva, the "serveless wonder." And she was able to accomplish this only because of her all-Russian quarterfinal match with the much lower-ranked Petrova, who wilted and handed the match to Dementieva without much struggle.

If you were a sufficiently hardcore tennis fanatic to have woken up early and tuned in to watch Dementieva play American Venus Williams in their semi-finals match on Thursday (at 7 am New York time on ESPN2), you heard the commentators ridiculing the Russian before the match as having a nickname among the players of "the Demented One" because of her repeated psychological breakdowns on the court, and scoffing at her lackluster game. Only two Russians who actually grew up in Russia have ever won grand slam titles in the history of the sport, and both of them won them by beating Dementieva in the finals, where she fell apart like a cheap suit each time. As the camera panned around the storied Centre Court stadium, you'd have seen scores of empty seats. The knowledgeable British fans knew what was coming, and they wanted no part of it.

Nor, it seemed, did Dementieva. When interviewed before stepping on court instead of overflowing with joy at her best-ever Wimbledon result she spoke in the colorless, robotic manner of so many Russian players (Sharapova was booed off the court in her ejection match at this year's French Open, not the first time such a thing has happened) and looked like someone marching out to face the firing squad. Which, indeed, it turned out she was. At that point, you might well have considered going back to bed.

The lower-ranked and lower-seeded American destroyed the Russian on the court, outclassing her in every aspect of the game. In the first set, the Demented One was able to eke out only a single game as Williams broke her serve at will and dominated her with her own service game. From then on, Williams was on autopilot, letting Dementieva breathe and then crushing her in a second-set tiebreaker. It was almost as if she felt sorry for those assembled to watch and wanted to give them at least a little bit of a contest. One third of the meager 60 points Dementieva won over the course of the match came on unforced errors made by Williams. She served no aces and made three key double faults, including one in the tiebreaker that decided the match. In more than half of her preceding matches she had been stretched to three sets; Williams had not dropped a single set in any of her prior matches. Dementieva, the tournaments #5 seed, ended up inflicting less damage on Venus than the unseeded Chinese player who faced her sister in the other semi-finals match and also went down in straight sets.

And remember, Dementieva was the class of the Russian field.

The sad thing is that the Russians' woeful play was actually good for the tournament, because it left the thrilling Williams sisters to contest yet another all-American final. Ask anyone even casually familiar with the sport who they'd rather see (much less pay big bucks to watch in person): Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova or Williams vs. Williams. It's the mother of all no-brainers. And the idea of Dementieva being any part of the finals is more than enough to make any tennis fan consider switching over to bowling. The Williams sisters not only leave the Russians in the dust in terms of the quality and watchability of their play, but also in terms of personal interest and color. Russians seem utterly oblivious of the need to bring something dynamic and entertaining to the table, and because of this they seriously jeopardize the future of the women's game with their omnipresence.

The tournament turned out to be a real bloodbath for the Slavic women as the top two Serbians (Ivanovic and Jancovic) were also blown out by unheralded competitors early in the going. For the final insult, after having its top male player, Niklolay Davydenko (under a match-fixing cloud), eliminated in the first round in a manner even more pathetic than its female #1 Russia's Marat Safin was easily crushed by #1 Roger Federer -- no shame in losing to #1, but Safin looked like a rank amateur and was reduced to fits of apelike rage and racket smashing, drawing a code violation from the umpire. Not much on sportsmanship, that Safin.

But he was a paragon of virtue compared to the loathsome Dementieva. Fuming with bitterness over her pathetic level of play, when asked about the likely outcome of the All-American final she declared: "For sure it's going to be a family decision." By that she meant as what she "said in 2001 following a loss to Venus in the quarterfinals of a tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., setting up a Williams-Williams semifinal. Asked to predict the outcome, Dementieva said then: 'I don't know what Richard thinks about it. I think he will decide who's going to win,'" as the AP reported. Venus responded: "Any mention of that is extremely disrespectful for who I am, what I stand for, and my family."

When Vladimir Putin was anointed Time magazine's "person of the year" in 2007, he complained in an interview with the weekly that too many foreigners insist on seeing Russians as "a little bit savage." But based on the behavior of their leading male and female players at the world's most civilized sports forum last week, it could well be that foreigners don't see Russians as sufficiently savage. Will Putin take time out to chastise his countrymen for their barbaric vulgarity? It seems unlikely.

The Americans, however, had a field day. In addition to an all-American ladies' singles final (note that neither Williams sister was among the top five seeds when the tournament began) yielding the USA a women's title two years running, the Williams sisters teamed up to play doubles and made it all the way to the finals, taking the title there too. Three of the four women who contested the doubles final were Americans, making nearly an all-American affair there as well (the fourth was an Aussie; no Russian woman made the semi-finals in doubles, while half the field there was American). The stellar American mens' doubles team, the Bryan brothers, also reached the semi-finals. Though they didn't win through to the finals, both the brothers made it to the finals of the last major event, mixed doubles, contesting it (with non-American partners) just as the Williams sisters were contesting the singles final. Even though they're in a slump in terms of generating new talent, Americans appeared in at least the semi-finals of every event except men's singles and won three of the five titles.

Now that's domination.

One thing Dementieva did do however, it must be said, was remind everyone that she was Russian, screeching unintelligible Russian phrases of disgust and yelping like a puppy whose tail had been trodden on (in bizarre fashion, she would routinely turn to face her mother in the stands and carry on extended dialogues with her). Maria Sharapova, by contrast, speaks English on the court because she, the only Russian to ever beat a non-Russian in a grand slam final, and the only one to ever hold the number 1 ranking, has lived most of her life in the United States, where she was taught how to play by American masters.

If that's a Russian accomplishment, then America discovered the theory of relativity.

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