Dementieva serves the answers
August 14, 2007
The player roundtable sessions with reporters before a big tournament such as the Rogers Cup are a bit like improvisational theatre - you never know what will happen.
World No. 1 Justine Henin, No. 3 Jelena Jankovic and No. 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova were all available yesterday but the most fun was at the table where Elena Dementieva sat awaiting reporters.
The tall Russian - 5 feet 11 inches - is one of the best athletes on the women's tour. Now 25, she ranked as high as No. 4 in 2004 and reached the finals of both the French and U.S. Opens that same year.
She has also become infamous for her serving problems, going through periods when she hits gaggles of double faults and/or just slices her serve in at unflatteringly slow speeds.
It is kind of the elephant in the living room with Dementieva, now ranked No. 17, and The Globe and Mail reporter and the representative of a Japanese publication who sat down with her were meticulous about steering the conversation to other subjects.
The Japanese reporter, claiming there are more than 25,000 Japanese who come to the Rogers Cup just to see women's tennis, informed Dementieva she was "the second most recognized and popular player in Japan."
"That's surprising," she reacted, guessing that Japanese player Ai Sugiyama was first before being informed that it was "Roger" (no last name required).
The Japanese reporter then said: "The problem with the Japanese people is that they're intimidated by people like you. How can you suggest people from Japan might be less scared of you?"
Caught off-guard, Dementieva said: "Oh really, they're scared of me? Why, because I'm too tall?"
He explained: "Because you're taller, you're tough and you're so beautiful."
"I don't know what to say," the blond-haired Dementieva said, adding with her infectious giggle, "I'm not that scary."
Talk turned to what she does with her time off, and she said: "When I have time off, I'm always watching hockey."
The reason for that is because her boyfriend and fellow Russian, Maxim Afinogenov, is a forward with the Buffalo Sabres.
By that time, a hockey reporter had joined the group. When asked who was the fastest skater on the Sabres, he confirmed it was indeed Afinogenov, who is fleet and has amazing acceleration.
When asked to join speculation about who might be a faster player in the NHL, Dementieva declined, saying with a laugh that gave away her bias, "I can't answer that question."
Just about then, the elephant in the living room emerged when a new person arrived at the table and said, "Has anyone asked about your serve?"
That twitchy stroke is comparable to having the yips in golf. In Miami in 2004, she hit 57 double faults in six matches.
"Not yet," she replied with good humour.
"I've watched you a number of times, especially in New York at the U.S. Open," the questioner went on. "You were only hitting 55 miles an hour. If you just cranked that up ..."
"Help," Dementieva said with a laugh, "he's trying to embarrass me. I think it's time to go for lunch."
The Japanese reporter turned the conversation back to hockey, asking her what she most enjoyed about watching the game ... "the skill, the power?"
"I just like to watch Max play," she confessed.
Dementieva goes to a lot of games and said she does get recognized.
A Buffalo journalist had joined in and talk turned to the western New York metropolis.
"I came from Buffalo an hour ago," Dementieva said. "I spend a lot of time in Buffalo and Toronto."
When the hockey scribe suggested there was really no downtown in Buffalo, Dementieva got defensive. "It is not only about the buildings or downtown," she insisted, "it's about the people you meet. It's about the Buffalo Sabres, the team, the spirit."
With another of her girlish giggles, she added: "It's not only about the Manhattan look. For me, it's one of the good cities that I know."
Depending on how Canadian players do this week, Dementieva could be as close as some locals get to having one of their own playing in the late stages of this year's Rogers Cup.