‘The French Open is my favourite’

“The biggest goal this year is to win a Grand Slam title and reach the No. 1 position. I was pretty close to this a long time ago and I am still trying to do it,” Elena Dementieva tells Ayon Sengupta in this email interview.

There will always be individuals in every sport who won’t win majors, but still be stars. Elena Dementieva, too, is a star. She has shown commitment and dedication on tennis courts, but that top honour has always eluded her grasp. Now on the wrong side of 20 (an age not deemed ideal for big deeds on the circuit) time is running out for her.

But even if she fails in this last-ditch effort, she has already made a name for herself as one of the finest competitors on the tour, playing equally courageously in doubles, singles, or even non-WTA events like the Fed Cup and Olympics.

Despite this determination and tenacity, somehow, Dementieva has choked at the grandest of battles. In 2004 she lost to compatriots Anastasia Myskina and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the finals of the French Open and the U.S. Open respectively, and has since failed to hand herself another title shot at the Slams. Over the years, though, she has improved her game. More precisely, her serve, once the obvious liability of her game, has become much more dependable. That development in part allowed her to reach a career-high WTA ranking of No. 3 last year (she ended the year ranked No. 5). With two titles already in her kitty in 2010, crossing that final hurdle may not look so distant a dream any longer.

Excerpts from an email interview:

Question: Looking ahead to the rest of the year, what goals do you have?

Answer: Oh! It’s still the same. The biggest goal is to win a Grand Slam title and reach the No. 1 position. I was pretty close to this a long time ago and I am still trying to do it. It’s my biggest motivation this year.

Over the years you have adjusted your play a bit, whether your style or serve. Do you think this has contributed to your longevity on the circuit?

I think that has definitely been the key for me being so consistent for so many years. I always try to improve something in my game, try to work very hard and keep up with all the youngsters coming up on the tour. I think that’s what makes it so interesting, there’s always something to improve upon, something to work on. And I am still far from being perfect.

Any regrets in your career?

No, no. I don’t have any regrets. I have had a very good career and everything I was able to achieve has been a great experience in my life. No, I have no regrets in life.

Of the Grand Slams, which do you think you are most likely to win? Do you think any particular surface is really suitable for your style of game?

The French Open, that’s my favourite one. I like to play on clay courts; I love to play in Paris. And well that was my first final. I just keep it as one of the best memories of my life, so that’s the one I want to win. But I would like to play in all of them and win. Even on grass I feel a lot more comfortable now, after playing Wimbledon for 10 years. There’s no surface that I don’t like or don’t feel confident about.

So many great players have come from Russia over the years. Do you feel proud to be one of the top players from that part of the world for so many years?

I think this is probably the biggest motivation for all of us to keep up with the very high level of the game. And I think it’s never easy to be the only one in your country to play well, because there’s no one to keep you working harder, pushing harder. For Russia, you know, it has never been a problem. We have always had so many great players in the top-10, top 20s on the tour. It’s great to represent your country, it’s great to be in the Fed Cup team, it’s great to represent your country in the Olympic Games. I think it’s good to have this competition.

And speaking of the Olympics, where will winning the gold in Beijing be ranked in terms of career achievements?

The biggest. That’s not only the biggest achievement in my sporting career, but also in my life. I was dreaming as a little girl of winning an Olympic medal for my country. I was working so hard, I was dreaming all my life, and when I was there it was like a miracle happening. Every time I played a match, I cried. It’s still very emotional for me.

After (Anna) Kournikova, you were probably the next best player of that generation to come out of Russia and make it big on the circuit. Do you see yourself as someone who showed the path for many more to follow?

Well, I think I was probably the first player to come from Russia and play on the tour at the very highest level. Because, Anna was always outside, she was based in the States, and she was practising there. So I was the only one, who was coming from Moscow. And I was kind of an example, me and Anastasia (Myskina), for all the other Russian girls to feel that it’s okay to be born in Russia, to be raised in Russia, to practise in Russia, to pay tax in Russia and be on the tour!

What is it about Russia that it’s always generating a new crop of talented players every year? How is it possible?

Well, the Russians have always been a talented and athletic people. In tennis, when I started to play the game, we had some big players, but not in world rankings. And for me to have this kind of breakthrough, it was a big example for us to believe in ourselves. Belief is probably the biggest reason why we are able to play and compete with the best. It’s hard to see any other reason, because we are getting players from every corner of the country. We can’t say that one place is producing all the players. I think it has to be belief that’s helping us.

Of the other players from Russia, after you that is, who would you rate as the best ?

It’s a hard one because we have so many. And I am friends with most of them and I don’t want to pick one. But let me think. Oh, my gosh! It’s so hard. There are so many… (Ekaterina) Bychkova, (Anastasia) Pavlyuchenkova, they are big, they are very athletic, they have huge serves, and these girls are coming up on the tour. They have very solid baseline games and are tough competitors.

As one of the older players, do you ever look across the net and see players 10 years younger than you and feel strange about it?

I wish I can play my daughter. That’s bizarre, I really have to play against someone who is 10 or 12 years younger to me and it’s really strange. And now we have some moms there and that’s even more strange. You know, just thinking about me playing in Paris this time, I have to play against so many young girls, they are so hungry on court, so determined to play and win. It doesn’t make things easier for me.

Looking back at the years do you think the game has changed?

Oh, the game has changed a lot. I remember at the very beginning of my career it was a very defensive game, it was all about long rallies. The serve was never a big weapon and for some years I could stay in the top-10 without serving at all. Right now it feels like the game is very powerful, very solid, it’s like the serve is one of the biggest weapons for all players, you have to be fit and strong. It’s a very physical, very powerful game right now.

The best match of your career, if it’s possible to pick one…

It’s very difficult, I am thinking, I am thinking. Probably my match against Serena at Wimbledon (the clash in 2009 is the longest Wimbledon semi-final of the open era, lasting 2 hours 49 minutes. Serena prevailed 6–7 (7-4), 7–5, 8–6), that’s one of the best, if not the best. Though I lost, I felt the level of the game was right up there, the rallies, the emotions, and the match points.

The toughest player you have faced.

Probably Justine (Henin), yeah, it has to be her.

Favourite sport other than tennis…

I like everything about the Olympic Games. I like ice hockey, figure skating, basically any winter sports.

Favourite music band…

Russian bands. No, let’s put Beyonce, everyone knows about her.

Favourite city… Moscow. Favourite tournament… Roland Garros. Favourite outfit… Jeans. On court That’s a good one. Mini dress.

You’re one of the stylishly dressed players on court. Who would you regard as the most stylish?

I really like my dress, but I think Venus has very nice dresses, as well.

Do you have any thoughts about bringing your own clothing range out, designing your own clothes?

Well, I used to work with my sponsor for such a long time, and we worked together as a designer team to create something nice for every season. So I don’t think I could do it alone.