Dementieva still chasing that one elusive goal
by Matt Cronin, FOXSports.com
If Elena Dementieva makes it back to the French Open final this year, she won't be overcome by the nerves that hindered her in 2004 when she saw a familiar face across the net.
Elena Dementieva is hoping for another shot at the French Open title.
(Al Bello / Getty Images)
"Anastasia (Myskina), my friend, is not playing anymore," Dementieva told FOXSports.com with a hearty laugh. "Seriously, if it comes to the final, I think I have the experience to handle it much better than I did before."
The world No. 3 — her best-ever ranking — is now 27 years old, 10 years into her career and with a much firmer grip on what it takes to win major events. Last summer, she achieved a lifelong goal — what she says was her most cherished dream — by winning the Olympic gold medal.
In Beijing she was well prepared, trusted her shots, didn't allow the negative thoughts of how she might lose enter her head. She outran Serena Williams, Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina to win the precious hardware. She had finally achieved something she had publicly declared she was capable of doing. The tireless groundstroker was no longer the WTA Tour's most discussed underachiever.
"The Olympics was such a special event and I was able to display all of my skills," she said. "I knew I had to get ready, prepare my game. I guess that's what I have to do at the Grand Slams because that's the biggest goal of my career now. I have to peak at one. No matter what."
The top seed at this week's Family Circle Cup in South Carolina, Dementieva has reached two major finals (the 2004 French and U.S. Opens) and the semifinals of the other two majors (the 2009 Australian Open and 2008 Wimbledon).
Given that she was brought up on clay, her Slam résumé shows an impressive arsenal that runs counter to the opinion that Dementieva can't be considered a great player due to a weak serve. Without a doubt, a soft, swerving side-armed serve all but ruined her chances against Myskina in Paris in a desultory 6-1, 6-2 loss, and against another Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, in a straight-set defeat in the 2004 U.S. Open final.
But she cured much of that problem in 2007, and she's developed a very respectable hard first serve down the T and a serviceable kick second serve. What has plagued Dementieva at the majors is that, deep in the tournaments, she's been unable to sustain the hard, relentless, deep groundstroking that got her there in the first place.
Dementieva came into her contest with Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals riding a 15-match winning streak, as well as a three-match run over the younger Williams. But she let Serena take it to her from the opening bell and couldn't dig herself into rallies. Dementieva lost the match, 6-3, 6-4.
"I have no regrets," Dementieva said. "People tell me if I didn't play Auckland or win Sydney, that I could have saved energy for Australia, but it's very difficult to predict. ... Serena was playing great and she knows how to improve her game going into the semifinals or finals of the Grand Slams. For me, I need to learn how to improve my level during the Grand Slams."
Even six weeks before the first ball is tossed in Paris, it's clear that the WTA has no dominant player. Serena has declared winning a second French Open title her top priority, but she has struggled there since 2003. Dinara Safina — who came back from two match points down to take down a gagging Dementieva at last year's Roland Garros — will rise to the top spot next week, this after losing early at Indian Wells and Miami when she could have seized the top spot rather than backing into it.
"It's not that we don't really have a dominant player right now, it's that the level of competition is getting much tougher," Dementieva said. "From 10 years ago, it increased a lot from first and second round matches with players from top 50 or top 100 being good. It's really hard to be on top and to keep the position for a long time. We are going to see a lot of different No. 1's this year."
Two women who reached No. 1 and lost it during the last year — Jelena Jankovic and reigning French Open champion Ana Ivanovic — have struggled. After a teeth-clenching first three months where she admitted she had lost all her confidence, Jankovic won her first title in Marbella last week. But Ivanovic has played only one decent tournament this year — Indian Wells, where she lost in the final.
Dementieva is very taken by No. 8 Azarenka, the teenager who stomped Serena and won Miami. She also propped No. 12 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, another teenager who won a title in Ponte Vedra Beach last week.
"Azarenka has been really impressive and Wozniacki has improved a lot since last year," she said. "Those are the two young players to keep an eye on."
Dementieva grew up on tour with the Williams sisters, whom she has had some choice words for in the past but whom she respects a great deal. That's why she's not counting America's twin pillars out of winning the French Open, even while many others feel that as they've aged, the surface has become too slippery for them to properly set up for their money shots.
"Serena has a pretty good chance and loves to play on clay," she said. "After hardcourts, I think clay is her favorite surface. For Venus, it's grass and hard courts, and she's never had great results on clay, but she's a great athlete and she can do it."
Dementieva may have been better off taking a substantial break after Australia because at Indian Wells and Miami, she admitted she was mentally exhausted and lost early. But she says she has her energy back now and has the next major dead in her sights.
The next five weeks will all be about putting in the work, honing her shots and making sure that when she lands at Charles De Gaulle Airport, she's clear in her head and has a spring in her step.
"I love to play on clay courts, but it's a different experience when it comes to Grand Slams," she said. "You have to be really fit and no matter how fit you are, you need a little bit of luck, because during two weeks, anything can happen to you."
Dementieva believes she can avenge her 2004 performance this year; she's shown herself in reaching the last three final fours that she knows how to negotiate the tricky first weeks. Now, it's about proving she can lay down her best cards when it's only the other favorites left sitting at the table. "To win a Slam and become No. 1 have always been goals in my mind, and those are still my motivation," Dementieva said. "As long as I have the confidence, I can do well at the French, but I have to find my confidence first."