BACKSPIN SPECIAL: The Best of Dementieva
The elusive chase is officially over. Elena Dementieva will never win a grand slam singles crown. She voluntarily ended her quest today in Doha, making the surprise announcement that she was retiring, effective immediately. And, thus, the 29-year old Russian puts a final period on the end of a career that always seemed to come up just short.
Elena in Her Beijing Glory
The career of the former world #3, two-time slam singles finalist, and Olympic Gold and Silver Medalist will forever be debated around tennis corners. Is she a Hall of Famer, or simply a member of The Hall of the Very Good? Will her season-by-season consistency (her string of forty-six straight slam appearances finally ended earlier this season), participation in Russia's leading Fed Cup role in the 2000's and all-around likability eventually trump her failure to lift "the big one" on a grand slam stage and usher her into Newport?
Today, it would appear the answer might be "no."
It's unfortunate, for Dementieva will now close the book on a career that was essentially "one match away" from immortality. Fittingly, she announced her retirement today at the season-ending championships after losing a round robin match one day after having secured a victory that had, for at least a few hours, kept alive her hopes of advancing to the semifinals of what she knew would be her last tournament. As it turned out, naturally, she came up one win short of doing so.
As far as this space goes, while Dementieva has never existed on the top shelf of "Backspin personalities" ala the Belgians, Williams Sisters, Jankovic, Sharapova and a few others, she's always been a consistent (though oft-frustrating) presence. I've said in the past that there would be few in the tennis world who wouldn't smile if Dementieva were to finally be able to be called a "grand slam champion." It'll never happen now, and I'd hazard a guess to say that there are few tonight who aren't at least a little bit sad about that fact.
"It is so emotional. It's so hard to say goodbye. I am going to miss you so much." - Dementieva, today in Doha
What follows is a Backspin history of Elena (aka "Punch-Drunk," aka "Punch-Sober"), in link form, from 2003-10. Looking back, I'm happy that I was able to write about each of her sixteen career tour singles titles.
Before that, though, are two telling excerpts from the past year in which I discussed the star-crossed nature of Dementieva's career:
October 24, 2009: "The Decade's Best: Players #11-15" (Dementieva #15)
Though she ranks on the bottom rung of this particular five-player (#11-15) ladder, Dementieva is the one woman who isn't somewhat "anonymous" to semi-casual followers of the sport. And that says a great deal about what she HAS managed to accomplish in her career, even while playing most of it with a serve that at times seemed to be something MORE than a simple liability. Still, that ugly serve, which she's only in recent seasons found a way to improve and turn into a sometimes-weapon, is probably THE reason why she's arguably the best women's player in the world to so far still be missing a grand slam singles championship. Nonethless, the two-time slam finalist ('04 Roland Garros & U.S. Open) and Olympic Gold ('08) and Silver ('04) Medalist with the crisp groundstrokes that have traditionally been the envy of most of the women on tour is without question one of the top players of the decade.
It took Dementieva until age 21 (in 2003) to finally win her first career tour singles title, as I had come to refer to her in this space as "Punch-Drunk" because of her propensity to take the 1st set against lesser-ranked opponents only to stumble around and ultimately squander the match, but she's since become a regular WTA titlist. Morphing into "Punch-Sober," she's now won fourteen titles (second on the all-time Russian list behind Maria Sharapova) and is ending the decade with four consecutive multiple-title seasons, the longest current streak on tour. A Top 20 player since 2000, she's been a year-end Top 10er every year except one ('07) since 2003. After having reached a career-high #4 ranking on the back on her two slam runner-up results in '04, she returned to the spot in '08 before bettering it in '09 (#3). Still in pursuit of that elusive slam championship, her RU's have been joined by an additional four slam SF, three QF and ten 4th Round results over the years. In 2009, she narrowly missed a third slam final appearance when she failed to convert match point in the Wimbledon semis against eventual champion Serena Williams in one of the classic matches of the 2000's.
While not a regular doubles participant, Dementieva has had her share of success outside of singles, as well. She's won six tour titles, including a Season-Ending Championships title in '02 (with Janette Husarova), and slam Doubles RU results at the '02 and '05 U.S. Open. In 2003, she reached a career-high doubles rank of #5.
When Dementieva faced Anastasia Myskina in the Roland Garros final in '04, it was the first time two Russians faced off for a slam crown (Dementieva faced another countrywoman, Svetlana Kuznetsova, in the U.S. Open final that summer, too). It was fitting that Dementieva participated in both historic matches, considering she's appeared in more all-Russian tour finals (11) than any other Hordette. Her six wins in those matches also tops the list. So, that she's missing a slam singles title on her resume will remain a sore point, even if Dementieva forever holds to her initial belief that her Olympic Gold in Beijing last year was as good or better than winning an actual slam title. I'm sure she was sincere when she said it... but, if given the opportunity in the future, it's more than likely that she might reconsider, too.
February 15, 2010: "A Case for The Hall of the Very Good?"
With Elena Dementieva, it's so often been about how good she COULD be... if only.
As good as the Russian HAS been through the years, she seems forever destined to be the "best player who never... (fill in the blank as you wish)." To never win a slam. To never reach #1. To never develop the serve that enabled the rest of her game to flourish BECAUSE of it rather than IN SPITE of it.
Ah, that serve. It used to be the ugliest thing you'd ever see on a tennis court, this side of a certain Belgian Barbie's desire to be publicly embraced. For years, it prevented Dementieva from taking advantage of perhaps the game's best groundstrokes. Yet, still, she found a way to win. In 2004, while her countrywomen Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova became the first (and, so far, still the only) Russian women to win slam titles, Dementieva was the only Hordette to reach two slam finals that year. She's finished in the Top 10 six times in the last seven years (and seems well-positioned to do so again in '10), and the only time she didn't she just missed the mark as the year-end #11.
With her serve holding her back in key moments early in her career, Dementieva often had a difficult time closing out matches. She earned her original Backspin moniker of "Punch-Drunk" because of the way she stumbled from pillar to post after taking one set leads over lesser-ranked players, only to eventually lose in three sets as she attempted to drag her serve over the finish line. In her first four career singles finals, she went 0-4. After so many of her countrywomen won their maiden tour titles as teenagers (Dinara Safina was 16, as was Sharapova, while Kuznetsova was 17, and Myskina and Vera Zvonareva both 18), it took Dementieva until she was 21 before she finally did it at Amelia Island in 2003.
She did it the hard way, too, overcoming match point against Justine Henin in the SF, then a 6-2/4-2 deficit against Lindsay Davenport in the A.I. final. Playing from behind, she was able to do what so many hard ball-striking players have traditionally been able to do -- hit with abandon, having nothing to lose. It worked for her, and "Punch-Sober" was born as she began to often come from a set down to defeat those lesser-ranked players who she'd so often squandered leads against in the past. Infused with new confidence, she soon began to win those matches in straight sets.
She still couldn't win "the big one," though. Then came the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
With her serve, after a long struggle, no longer the liability it once was, when the Russians hogged the tennis Medal stand in China it was Dementieva who was finally at the top of the heap. What still stands as her career-best moment might have provided the stepping stone to that elusivie grand slam success, too. But it still hasn't happened. She held match point in the Wimbledon SF against Serena Williams last year, but lost while Williams went on to win the title. At this year's Australian Open, just days after defeating Serena in Sydney, Dementieva was taken out by an unseeded wild card in the 2nd Round. Her name? Henin, the same person the Russian had successfully gone through for her initial tour breakthrough seven years earlier.
While eventual finalist Henin was undertaking a second go 'round as a slam champion, Dementieva was once again cut off at the pass before she could take her first.
This weekend, Dementieva added a title in the Paris indoors to her Week 2 crown in Sydney to give herself two titles in the young season's first six weeks for the second straight season. Naturally, she did it in classic Punch-Sober style, coming back from a set down against both Melanie Oudin and Lucie Safarova in the semifinal and final.
Even without a slam title, Dementieva has had a wonderful career. But has it been a "great" one? The way her career has played out, it's oh-so-close to being a non-issue. If only she'd had better match toughness early in her career. If only she'd developed her serve earlier. If only she'd been able to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that were seized by the other Russians back in 2004, or by other slam winners who were "lucky" enough to rise during the brief interludes when either the Williams Sisters or Henin were injured, retired or otherwised engaged. But the star-crossed Dementieva has always seemed to be a step behind, and seen players cut in line in front of her to steal the glory "meant" for her. She's gone forty-five slams without winning a title. No woman has even won her first later in a career.
At age 28 and still "in search of," it's time to start crunching the numbers for Dementieva's potential for post-career honors. Is she Hall of Fame-worthy, or just Hall "of the Very Good" eligible? Does she need to win a slam to make that historical leap? Is she fated to be the "best player without a slam," the "best player to never reach #1" AND the "best player not enshrined in Newport," too?
Personally, in my mind, I consider the full impact of Dementieva's career to be more "Hall of Fame"-ish than, say, Kuznetsova's, if only for her ability to overcome so much (that serve) in order to succeed, while Kuznetsova seems to somewhat "waste" her superior talent for mulitple-year spans that are bookended by slam titles. While Kuznetsova often drifts, Dementieva remains solid, if not spectacular in the season's four biggest tournaments. But, with two slams on her resume, Kuznetsova is a virtual Newport lock. Dementieva... not so much. One title shouldn't mean so much, but it does.
Minus any other career landmarks, it's a non-issue (see Iva Majoli, and probably Myskina), but when you're dancing on the HOF/Hall of Very Good fence like Dementieva it could mean everything. In many ways, Dementieva is this generation's version of Conchita Martinez. Martinez was a very good player, a leader along with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the rise of Spanish tennis in the late 1980's/early 1990's, who was a consistent threat but never climbed higher than #2 in the rankings. If not for her oddball Wimbledon title in '94 (defeating no less than a 37-year old Martina Navratilova in what was her last major final) Martinezmight have no chance of reaching Newport. With it, along with her Fed Cup play, she stands a good chance to eventually make the cut.
Dementieva, too, has played a key, though often supporting (ala Martinez's to ASV), role in the Russian tennis revolution. She's second behind only Sharapova in career titles by her countrywomen, and has easily been the most consistent, healthiest, season-long performer amongst the Hordettes through the years. She's the only Russian woman to have a singles Gold Medal, but is that prize enough to secure a HOF announcement down the line if she never wins anything bigger?
She might have to hope so.
Of course, there's something to be said for being the "best never to..." rather than to disappear within the ranks of one-time slam champs that are often lost to history once the last of their generation hangs up their rackets. There's a certain "cache" to it that keeps a player's name active in ongoing discussions in the sport. But believing that notion that might be a case of trying too hard to put a shine on a semi-tarnished resume, sort of like what Dementieva did when she said after winning the Gold Medal that it was actually "better" than winning a slam. It's easy to say such a thing when you've never done the latter, and fear you might never do so.
Dementieva's chances of correcting that aren't finished, but they ARE dwindling. Fast.
December: "2003 Top 10 Most Intriguing Questions"
February 10: "Round and Round, Round by Round"
April 14: (Jelena-Dokic.com's "Jelena Corner") "Dear Elena... / Punch-Drunk Love"
April 21: "The Tale of Punch-Drunk & Wonder Girl" (1st career title - Amelia Island)
September 15: "Zombies, Punch-Drunk & Me" (birth of "Punch-Sober" - Bali title)
September 22: "Honor Thy Elena" (back-to-back titles - Shanghai title)
June 7: "Anastasia the Great" (RG Final)
September 14: "Finally a Bride" (U.S. Open Final)
October 4: "The Asian Assault" (Hasselt title)
January 10: "Act 1, Scene 1" (Hong Kong exhibition title)
April 25: "Another Swiss Miss? (and other Fed Cup Afterthoughts)"
September 8: "U.S. Open Day 10: The Wonderful, Horrible Serve of Elena Dementieva"
September 18: "Twice as Nice" (Fed Cup Final)
February 6: "Punch-Sober Also Rises" (Tokyo title)
August14: "Soberly Punching Away" (Los Angeles title)
May26: "Bare Bones Backspin" (Istanbul title)
October 15: "How Smart We Were / How Dumb We Were" (Moscow title)
March 3: "S.R.O. on the S.E.T." (Dubai title)
August 17: "A Horde o' Plenty" (Beijing Gold Medal)
October 27: "Championis Contagiosis?" (Luxembourg title)
January 11: "Act 1, Scene 1 (2009)" (Auckland title)
January 18: "Bare Bones Backspin" (Sydney title)
January 24: "Oz Day 6: "Elena's Latest Escape"
January 29: "Oz Day 11: "Old Habits Die Hard"
July 2: "Wimbledon Day 10: Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Final" (SF vs. Serena)
August 24: "T-Minus One Week" (Toronto title / U.S. Open Series title)
October 24: "The Decade's Best: Players #11-15" (Dementieva #15)
January 16: "Bare Bones Backspin" (Sydney title)
January 20: "Oz Day 3: "A Rolling Henin 2.0 Gathers No Moss"
February 15: "A Case for The Hall of the Very Good?" (Paris title)
June 1: "Roland Garros Day 10: "A Crazy Tale of Two Russians"
September 6: "U.S. Open Day 7 3/4: Zombie Queen, Thy Name is Sam" (vs. Stosur until 1:35am)
Good bye, Punch-Sober.
All for now.