Thursday, December 29, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #5

The past two pre-season lists of IQ's put Russians directly in the spotlight. In 2004, Maria Sharapova was the subject of the #1 entry, while the rest of the Russian Horde settled in at #5. Last year, Sharapova repeated in her #1 spot, with the other Russians right behind her at #2. So, here we are, just entering the Top 5 of the 2006 list... and the Russian entry -- just one for the whole bunch of them -- is already here.

Have things changed? Has the Russian influence on the WTA tour already begun to wane?


As the 2004 season came to a close, everything seemed to be coming easily for the Russians. Throughout the first half of the 2000's, the Horde had been breezing along, each year playing better than the last, placing more members in the Top 100, Top 50, Top 20 and Top 10. The WTA tour seemed a bottomless pot of gold as shiny as a pair of Sharapova's SW19 shoes. That "dream season" included three different Russians being crowned slam champions, new worldwide superstar Sharapova taking the year-end WTA championships, and Team Russia claiming the Fed Cup.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. I guess everyone should have been expecting what happened in 2005. After all, Russian writers have been penning tales of tragedy for generations. There's a reason the phrase "Russian winter" is designed to have a shuddering effect on the senses. Well, last year the Horde had nothing on Anton Chekhov.

The dip in Russian tennis fortunes wasn't just a matter of numbers, though they may show the stark contrast between 2004 and 2005 better than anything, as the total counts of Russians in the Top 10 fell from 4 to 3, in WTA singles finals dropped from 33 to 17, and as WTA singles titlists shrunk from 15 to 9. But it was on and off-court drama that marked the year that was for the Horde:

2004 Roland Garros champ Anastasia Myskina entered '05 with visions of a #1 ranking in her head, but ended up sleepwalking through matches as her mind was elsewhere with a nude photo lawsuit and her mother's illness causing her to be wishing for matches to end almost as soon as they'd begun. The Czarina's defense of her RG title ended in the 1st Round. '04 U.S. Open titlist Svetlana Kuznetsova opened the year as the subject of a failed drug test rumor, then ended it as a 1st Round loser at Flushing Meadows and without a title to her name. Poor, Contessova.

It didn't end there, either. Two-time 2004 slam runner-up Elena Dementieva went title-less, as well. Elena Bovina was on the injured list for most of the season. Vera Zvonareva always seemed to be on the verge of an emotional breakdown on the court; while Evgenia Linetskaya had a nagging wrist injury and off-court problems that are just too disturbing to go into here.

But with such a vast collection of talent, it wasn't all bad news for the Horde last season. Versatile Nadia Petrova ended the year in the Top 10 for the first time after finally, at 23, claiming her long-overdue first WTA title in Linz. Dinara Safina finally began to look ready to consistently cash in on her genes (at least she's on the court more often than her stunningly-talented-but-even-more-stunningly-flighty big bro' Marat) and the season ranked #20. Maria Kirilenko made her first steps to outdistance the "other Maria" tag by winning her first WTA title in Beijing. By the end of the year, things even began to brighten for the other lagging members of the Horde, too, as Myskina got her head straight, had a great 4Q and won a title, while Dementieva got her "biggest" career win over a striving-for-#1 Kim Clijsters in October.

In the end, though, as Sharapova goes, so goes the Revolution.

After soaring to such heights in '04, 2005 might be seen as a "step down" for the Supernova. But that says more about what's now expected of the 18-year old than anything else. After all, she was briefly ranked #1 in the world (the first Russian woman to do so), won a Tier I and reached three grand slam singles semifinals last year. But the big points that she always seemed to win a year earlier often eluded her last season, beginning when she blew match points against Serena Williams in the Australian Open SF. She was later unceremoniously bageled by Lindsay Davenport in a hardcourt match, and chest and back injuries became a recurring stopper in the final months of the year.

2006 is already beginning on a bad note for Sharapova, as an injury has forced her to pull out of an Aussie Open tuneup, as the tremendous pressure her powerful shots are putting on her lithe body might be taking its toll. Injuries will likely continue to be a lingering problem as '06 goes on as Sharapova might still be in the process of strengthening and conditioning a physique that's changed (she's grown several inches) since she won Wimbledon as a 17-year old. Sharapova will be trying to implement a more aggressive net game into match play this year, something which will likely take some time to perfect. With so much change taking place, 2006 might be an even less successful year for Sharapova than her "quiet" 2005. Oh, she'll still be a solid Top 10 player, maybe even Top 5. But her 2004 slam success won't be replicated in 2006.

But could it be that the next eleven months will only be the calm before the storm? There's certainly precedent for such a theory, played out a few years ago by none other than Serena Williams. During the 2005 season, I made this same comparison... and nothing that's occurred has made me think it still isn't a somewhat likely scenario. Here it is:

Serena won her first slam title earlier than anyone ever expected, as a 17-year old at the 1999 U.S. Open. Sharapova won her first slam title earlier than anyone ever expected, as a 17-year old at the 2004 Wimbledon... Serena went through the next two seasons (2000-01) without winning another slam, as her body and game took some time to get in sync. Sharapova is already half-way through the two-year "drought" period, and might duplicate it as her body and game get into sync over the next year... In the season in which she turned 20 (2002), Serena saw everything come together as she put together one of the sweetest extended runs in tennis history, starting with the U.S. Open that year, she won four straight (for her "Serena Slam") and five of the next six slam championships. In 2007, Sharapova will turn 20 years old.

Could Sharapova, who not ironically defeated Serena to claim her '04 Wimbledon crown, be about to trace directly over the pattern that Serena drew from 1999-03? Will 2007-08 see a new catchy alliterative phrase enter the tennis lexicon as the Supernova shoots for her own chapter in history?

Think about it, come 2007-08, Davenport will likely be out of the sport. Mary Pierce may be, as well. Clijsters, too, if her comments about retirement are to be believed. Amelie Mauresmo will be pushing 30. Venus and Serena? They'll be young enough to be contending for slam titles, but one never knows which version of either will show up from season to season. It could be that, by then, Sharapova could be battling Justine Henin-Hardenne, a few Russians and the current group of up-and-coming teenagers for all the big titles. It'd be hard not to like her chances in those conditions (at every slam other than Roland Garros, at least). 2006 won't be Sharapova's year, but her best could be right around the corner.

The brightness of the far-from-dead Russian Revolution's future hasn't diminished, either. The Revolution isn't over, it's just in a slight "hibernation" phase. Remember, the Horde is still deeper in talent than the fields from any other nation, and will be for quite some time. Even with some of the top players going though '04 without winning titles, there were six different Russian champs in '05 (more than any nation, and with the #2 U.S.'s four including two players -- Davenport and Amy Frazier -- who'll both be 30 by mid-2006). Team Russia defended it's Fed Cup title last year, too. And the ITF tour is already giving signs of the potential of the next wave of "Hordettes," as 16-year old Alisa Kleybanova and 18-year old Elena Tchalova both won three titles.

There are still a great number of thrills to come for the Russians, and for everyone thrilled to watch them try to be great. The breadth of the group's success in 2004 might be difficult to ever match, but rest assured that the future of the Revolution is in good hands.

1.Myskina has already experienced her career-high moment at RG, and in '06 will settle into her career's hand-in-glove position -- good for nipping-at-the-heels of the Top 10 and 2-3 titles. Meanwhile, Petrova, whose varied game is capable of more than she's accomplished to date, will ride her '05 surge to a slam RU result in '06.
2.Dementieva will win a Tier I title, but inconsistency and poor slam results will make 2006 an ultimately disappointing year for Punch-Sober
3.Over 25 WTA singles finalists will be Russians, and 10 different Horde members will win titles in 2006, including first-timers Anna Chakvetadze and Ekaterina Bychkova
4.The number of Russians in the Top 10 will drop to two, Sharapova and Petrova, with Myskina and Dementieva just missing out. Kuznetsova won't "reverse the curse," but she'll slowly regain her footing and begin to somewhat resemble her '04 self again come the U.S. Open Series.
5.2006 will be another slam-less one for Sharapova, but she'll reach one slam SF (Wimbledon) and win a Tier I before ending an injury-marred year with a title in the WTA Championships. It'll send her into 2007 on an emotional high. She'll turn 20 mid-way through that season and by the time '08 begins, a new tennis phrase (don't say it too loudly, now...whisper if you have to) will enter the lexicon as she revs up to attempt to make history... can you say, "Sharapova Slam?" (Or, around here at Backspin, "Supernova Slam?")

All for now.


NEXT: How many Acts does the Williams story have left?


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