Russians Vs the rest

While the girls from Moscow and Siberia won three of the four majors in 2004, Serena in Melbourne, Justine Henin-Hardenne in Paris and Venus at Wimbledon marked the return of the old guard this year. The future of women's tennis will depend on how this dynamic plays itself out in the US Open, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

WHILE the power structure in women's tennis is ossified in terms of nationality, at the level of players it still is very fluid. Three different ladies — two Americans and a Belgian — have won the first three Grand Slams of the year.

Serena Williams in Melbourne, her sister Venus at Wimbledon and Justine Henin-Hardenne at Paris in between marked a return to the old world order threatened by last year's invasion of Russians. The girls from Moscow and Siberia had won three of the four majors in 2004.

How this dynamic plays itself out in the US Open, which starts on August 29 at the USTA National Tennis Center, will determine ladies' tennis's future not just in terms of quality of play but also advertising, popularity vis a vis men's tennis, and coverage.

The US Open has had a history of equal rights. In 1973, for the first time men's winner John Newcombe and women's champion Margaret Court closed fingers on cheques that had the same numbers written on them. The 2001 women's final between the Williams sisters was the first to occupy a primetime slot on television.

Marquee names, classic rivalries, and the establishing of eras take sport beyond its constructs and aesthetics to where it survives — public memory and collective consciousness.

The advent of women from the erstwhile USSR, from clubs like Spartak Moscow whose courts are not even resurfaced regularly has given the game the impetus it needed to re-engineer itself to the new millennium. In a short span, it has whipped up the kind of interest Navratilova-Evert matches used to.

"It has surprised me as much as it has surprised everyone," said Elena Dementieva, one of the early landers, last year when she made the US Open final against eventual winner Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. "I know there are a lot of us (Russians) and that we play very good, but to see another Russian final in a Grand Slam, two Grand Slams already won by Russian girls, that's amazing."

Dementieva was also one step from the French title against Anastasia Myskina, fellow ball-pounder in Moscow when they were young and used to compete for pizzas. Both Dementieva and Myskina, in their early twenties, were link women — they carried the ball dropped by poster-girl Anna Kournikova and handed it to Maria Sharapova.

But that was last year. The Russian Revolution has seemingly spluttered in 2005.

At Flushing Meadows, they will look to annex territory. Thirteen of them have gained direct entry; the US has the same number.

Sharapova recently displaced Lindsay Davenport to become the first Russian to be number one women's player in the world. The six-foot tall blonde has battled a right chest muscle injury in the run-up and pulled out of her quarterfinal against Daniela Hantuchova in the JP Morgan Chase Open. If fit she will be tough to stop.

Sharapova has the tools to win on Deco Turf. She flattens her groundstrokes at will and wins a lot of free points on her serve. Her biggest weakness — her movement up and down which Hennin-Hardenne exploited at the French this year — will not be as much of a liability because the true bounce on this surface pardons only the very best drop shots.

And she has lost to the eventual champion in every major this year.

What sets her apart even from her Russian compatriots is what gnarled coaches in sweaty gyms drill into their wards: It's not how hard you punch, it's how bad you want. Defending champion Kuznetsova surprised many last year. She is Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario with a weapon — a nasty forehand. The daughter of two world-class cyclists, Kuznetsova is a magnificent athlete and is ranked in the top five. If she takes the title though it will be another surprise.

Of the other Russians, Myskina has dropped from the highs of last year. She battled personal tragedy to guts her way through a tough match at Wimbledon and reached the quarters but has done little else. Dementieva has worked on a serve that refused to take to the air and her two-handed backhand return still evokes gasps.

Both look good for the quarterfinals. The other `ovas', as they are sometimes called, by the sheer weight of their numbers will ensure Russians go into the second week. Watch out for Anna Chakvetadze, 18, who made the third round last year and has looked impressive so far.

The state of Americans is more interesting. In contrast to the breakthroughs by their former Cold War foes, the list of Americans is well-thumbed. The Williams sisters and Davenport, who have five of the last seven US titles, will lead a charge they know almost by rote. Serena fought off injury, nerves, Sharapova, and Davenport to win the first Grand Slam of the year.

Venus came through unseen like a horse thrusting a stealthy nose at Wimbledon. Her dogfight with Sharapova was beautiful for its rawness and desire. And Davenport, who despite her lack of movement is often just a stride and a swipe away from most balls, was vanquished in a nerve-wracking final. The sisters have been criticised for dabbling in other spheres, losing focus. Only a fool will write them off.

It will be Davenport's last attempt — an emotional moment for a graceful champion. France's Amelie Mauresmo remains one of the best players never to have won a Grand Slam. Experts say she lacks mental toughness. At Wimbledon she served and volleyed her way till Davenport stopped her. Athleticism and a sublime single-handed backhand will make her, despite being French, a popular champion.

Two prime contenders will be the pair of dissimilar Belgians. Henin-Hardenne shook off a mysterious sapping illness to return in style at Roland Garros. The slight 23-year-old is a master tactician and unlike Martina Hingis has managed to mix it with the heaviest of hitters. She won this title in 2003.

But Kim Clijsters could be the real success story. Pilloried by many for not being able to win a major, the woman from Bree is the best retriever in the game and plays percentage cross-court tennis. She also had an enviable 26-match winning streak in the US and a 13-1 record this year against Russians.

A new-found maturity is seen by many to provide the edge. She played it down. "I want to give myself another opportunity to get into a Grand Slam final but I can't say that maturity has helped me yet because I don't know," said Clijsters.

For a shock or two, look no further than Serbia's Anna Ivanovic, Greece's Eleni Daniilidou, and India's Sania Mirza.

All three have the game and the attitude to blow a hole in the draw. And maybe tweak the power structure.