Mistress of the X's and O's
Elena Dementieva made the Pacific Life Open semis earlier today, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in her chances against the Little Backhand that Quit, Justine Henin-Hardenne (BTW: my sources tell me that Mauresmo is livid over the Australian affair and isn't even on speaking terms with Henin-Hardenne).
I probably shouldn’t even be writing about Demetieva, but I like her and what the ‘ell, it’s my blog, right?
If you saw Elena beat Ana Ivanovic in three today, you may have noticed something extraordinary. A few times on key points, Elena missed her first serve. Then, instead of going with that truly bizarre, sidearm, sidespin, what-on-earth? slice second serve we see so often, she tried to smoke it – hit it as hard - harder, it seemed - than her first serve. I got a kick out of her explanation for that:
”I don’t like it when people attack me from my second serve, so I’m just trying to hit the ball. . . I don’t want that people – my second serve, people can go for the winner and I just don’t want this.”
And when it was pointed out that her strategy almost ensured that she would lose the point, she blithely replied, “Yeah, I don’t care.”
So, how novel is that? It may seem like Dementieva is biting off her nose to spite her face, but this strategy borders on genius. If she serves up a beach ball and invites her opponent to tee off, one or more of four things are likely to happen - and all of them are bad for Dementieva:
1 – The crowd goes “Ooooooh” at the service return winner and makes Dementieva feel foolish
2 - Opponent looks great to crowd – and Dementieva.
3 – Opponent starts to confuse herself with (pre-Hollywood) Serena Williams.
4 – Opponent gets a good look at Dementieva’s biggest weakness.
However, if Dementieva tries to burn in a second second serve, one or more of four things is likely to happen, at least three of which are good for Dementieva:
1 – The crowd goes “Ooooooh” as she hits an ace and feels better about her serve.
2 – She hits a service winner to win the point.
3 – She hits a double fault.
4 - She puts the ball in play and takes control of the point.
Now, I’m not sure if this example of Cartesian brilliance can be attributed to Dementieva’s coach, mainly because Dementieva’s coach is also her roommate, best friend, Go Fish partner and sock washer, her mom Vera. And nobody I’ve talked to has waxed poetic on Vera’s coaching skills.
Dementieva came up through the same Russian club system that produced many of her gifted peers, including Anna Kournikova and Anastasia Myskina, and that she received a lot of help from the Russian federation. Early on as a pro, she was coached by everyone’s favorite Russian, pioneering OOlga Morozova. So how did mom, a teacher, become the mistress of the X's and O's?
I admit, I never asked. So I have no answer to that. But on mom's watch, things have gotten kind of whacky, First, you've got the problems Elena has with her serve (although I tend to think that by this point, it’s unfixable. More importantly, look at her resume. This is a girl who’s just 24, but has been in two Grand Slam finals (she failed to close the deal against beatable opponents in both)and two other semis. Plus, her ranking history has fluctuated pretty dramatically for a woman of her caliber.
Doesn’t that scream, Get a coach!?
Sigh. Dementieva is original – so much so that I think she borders on the eccentric. She’s a bit of a loose cannon in interviews and people invariably find her as unpredictable as she is refreshing. I have a sneaky feeling she also might be too cheap to spring for the 250K it probably would cost for salary and expenses for a solid, traveling coach. Sure, she’s making tons of dough, but you know how people can be. . .
Anyway, I wanted to pursue this theme of her relation with Vera, so Lisa Dillman of The Los Angeles Times and I double-teamed Elena on the subject with a bunch of questions. She said she loves having her mother around all the time, and when Lisa surmised that they must avoid the classic mother/daughter conflicts, she replied:
“. . .Sometimes we have a fight. Sometimes we can argue against each other, with each other, about the situation during the match or the match that I played badly. But it's okay. I mean, that's the process. It's not always she tells me, I'm doing it. It's all about talking and find the right decision.”
Elena made it sound like she spends so much time with Vera that I asked if she invites her mother out when she goes out to dinner with friends, or other players.A And if not, did she feel conflicted, or even guilty?
She didn’t quite understand the question, but answered:
“People are usually very surprised when they see me without my mom. They're always, ‘Where is your mom? She's not with you? What's wrong?’ When I'm playing San Diego, she always stay home because she loves gardening so much, and that's a good time for her to stay home in the country village. Everyone, every single player comes to me, ‘Where is your mom? You broke up? You don't work together any more or what?’
No, but yeah, I think like everyone, you know, sometimes we need a break, she needs some quiet time without me, without tennis, because it's very stressful for her to be with me and watch a match like this one by sitting one place, not being able to help me. Yeah, sometimes she needs a break.”
Note that she emphasizes that Vera is the one who needs the break. I guess she must get tired getting her butt whipped at Uno.
Still, somebody must have come up with the impeccable logic driving the serve strategy, and I doubt it was Morozova.