This is an interview with Elena from October 2000.
Get yourself some coffee, because its a very very VERY long interview.
' "I want neither big money nor big fame. I want everything in moderation."
So says Russian teenager Elena Dementieva, one of the rising stars on the women's tennis circuit. Recently, within a span of a month, Dementieva advanced to her first career Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open and won a silver medal in singles at the Olympics.
In an interview with SportsTicker contributing editor Mikhail Ivanov, Dementieva discusses her rise through the rankings, the Olympic experience, comparisons with another young Russian player -- Anna Kournikova -- and her career goals.
Q. Whose idea was it to get you into tennis?
A: My mother's. She enjoyed playing tennis as an amateur. She wasn't playing professionally because she started way too late. We made our debut with my brother Vsevolod at Spartak Club and were coached by Rauza Islanova (the mother and first coach of Marat Safin). We ended up at Spartak because we were turned down at Dynamo and the Central Red Army Club (CSKA), so Spartak was our last-ditch attempt. And they accepted me.
Q: Why did these other clubs turn you down?
A: In some clubs they said my movement and coordination weren't good enough, in some others they told me to come back in a year and practice more with the ball at home in the meantime.
Q: At what age did you start playing?
A: At age seven. I practiced with Islanova for three years. She was my first coach and I keep good memories of my time with her even though I had to part with her. She was very tough on us, but she educated us and forged our sports character. This desire to fight till the end was inherited from her because she was tough and preserved strict sports-like discipline.
Q: Did your path somehow cross with the new star of Russian men's tennis, Marat Safin, as a practice partner or something?
A: Of course. But not as a practice partner -- he always practiced separately. But we were all members of one group and had a good time together.
Q: Why did you leave Islanova?
A: When a coach has her own children playing tennis, especially on such a high level, it is obvious that she can't pay as much attention to other children. Plus, we had a big group. So we realized that the attention was focused on Marat, then on his sister Dinara.
Q: So you had ambitious plans from the very beginning.
A: She had little time left to practice with us 1-on-1. And each mother wanted more attention from the coach to her specific child.
Q: Did you have good results in juniors competition from the very beginning?
A: I participated in my very first international junior tournament in France (Les Petits Aces) for ages 14 and under and won it. Generally, I had good results in international junior tournaments. I was 13 back then. In domestic tournaments in Russia, we played so many tournaments and as a rule I was runner-up or winner. There were the four of us: Anna Kournikova, Ekaterina Sysoeva, me and Nastya Myskina and we were trading places, but these were the four who were at least in the semifinals for sure.
Q: You changed your club and now you were in the Central Red Army Club coached by Sergei Pashkov. How did your technique and your game change as a result?
A: Everything changed. He changed my technique, my whole game. The footwork, the technique of my strokes. I improved my movement on the courts. In the past, I was sort of running in semicircles, whereas now I am running down the ball on a diagonal. We worked a lot on this and it brought results.
Q: I remember last fall, in 1999, you were still playing the Kremlin Cup qualifying competition and reached the first round of the main draw, where you lost to Tatyana Panova. You were already ranked in the top 100. But what happened next? Could you recall the moment when you felt that you have a chance to break through to the group of the truly strong players? Any specific match or tournament you could recall?
A: There wasn't any such moment. I was just gradually, step by step, bit by bit moving ahead. As for the Moscow Ladies Open, I already played three times there and I had to play three times in the qualifier. It was my first-ever major tournament. When I passed through the qualifying rounds, it gave me a certain push forward. But the biggest push I had in my game, after which I could beat players from the top 30 and top 20, was my match against Venus Williams in the 1999 Fed Cup finals.
Q: Do you think Venus lost that match in the Fed Cup because she didn't prepare herself mentally enough? In the Sydney Olympics finals did you play a different Williams?
A: I think she wasn't quite prepared mentally, even though they had set a goal to beat us at love. She didn't know me. We played for the first time and she never saw me at tournaments because I didn't belong in such a high category of players. And, of course, she probably got used to seeing no resistance and was a bit lost when I began hitting back and even began attacking.
Q: You mean she hoped to win the match without much effort, but then when it didn't work she couldn't come back into the match?
A: Right. Well, actually she did come back into the match in the third set because I won 7-6 in the third. It was a tough set, but I was already in control and could lead the match to the victory.
Q: And what about your final against Venus in Sydney?
A: That was a totally different ballgame. She already knew me, no smiles on her face, she was very serious and focused. Well, what else is there to say? Fitness-wise, she is very well prepared. Physically she is stronger than me. I guess she is the strongest player on the women's tour physically.
Q: There is a widespread opinion that the Williams sisters are not very sociable or friendly in communicating with other players. Have you noticed this?
A: No, I didn't notice any hostility. But they indeed tend to stay within the family circle, they are not very outgoing or ready to communicate with other players. The sisters like to communicate with each other. Some players like to socialize, to exchange a couple of words, to get friendly but they seem to be more introverted, focused on themselves.
Q: How was Venus after her victory? Did she congratulate you after the finals on your silver medal?
A: Yes, she did, everything went fine.
Q: Back to the Fed Cup and what came after. Any milestones in your career you would like to single out?
A: The next major milestone was the semifinals in Indian Wells. I did really well there. I went there to play four tournaments in America and we thought I would be on top of my game at the Lipton. But I flew in and acclimated quickly and was at the peak of my form at Indian Wells. I beat Anke Huber in the second round. Then I was to play the winner of Kournikova-Nathalie Dechy. I expected to play Kournikova, but Dechy won in three sets. In the next round Dechy was really tired and I beat her in the quarterfinals rather easily. Then I was beaten by Lindsay Davenport. It was our second match with her after the Fed Cup finals. Back then I was somewhere in the top 50, but after this tournament I climbed up to about No. 35 in the world. Then I played the remaining three tournaments in America, did rather well and went up to No. 30.
Q: Unlike the ATP, the WTA did not give any points to players for the Olympics. Do you think that was fair?
A: We have a different system of counting points in the rankings in men's and women's tennis. We have to have a tournament of the same category the following year for us to defend our points. And since we will not have the Olympics next year, it is logical in principle. Though it's a pity because I played well in Sydney and I want those points! I could have scored more, and could be knocking on the door of the top 10, ranked like 11th or 12th.
Q: Do you think your current ranking (19th) reflects your true level as a player?
A: I think I deserve that spot, at least at the present. Tennis is a sport where a month from now you can be in poor shape and drop in the rankings, but now I feel I have showed good results, so why not?
Q: Let's look back at the U.S. Open. What were the most important matches and victories of special importance and value to you?
A: At the U.S. Open I was, of course, jittery. But the opponents knew me and were well prepared. As far as (Conchita) Martinez goes, I think she didn't expect me to play such aggressive tennis. For me it was a very important match because I remember losing to her at the previous U.S. Open in the same round. I was so upset about that loss - I lost 6-4 in the third set. And here we were again playing each other in the third round. I understood it's easier for me to play her on hard court than on clay, and I had a strict plan for the match I could put into practice.
Q: What was that plan?
A: I was trying to play an aggressive game, making her run from corner to corner.
Q: What about the matches after the victory over Martinez?
A: I had a very tough match against Lilia Osterloh. I won 7-6 in the third set. It was real hot, 95 degrees, and we played 3 1/2 hours. It was a terrible match. I was so worn out in this heat and I probably lost control, and probably relaxed. Meanwhile, she loosened up and realized she had nothing to lose so she played her game. I think it's a miracle I beat her on that day. After that I beat (Anke) Huber and lost to Lindsay.
Q: The semifinal against Lindsay, you lost it because you were short of stamina and experience or what?
A: It was a very interesting match. Because I was down 2-5 and then I saved three consecutive match points, then another match point and then I was able get her into rallies. I was very close to winning the second set, but I ended up losing the tiebreak. I wavered in the end. I just didn't have the confidence I could win.
Q: And why did she let you come back, did she waver?
A: I just got back into the match. I totally loosened up and relaxed. At the beginning I was sort of petrified, paralyzed. I couldn't hit my strokes, she was putting pressure on me with her strokes, these deep strong strokes with pace and spin. When I realized the match is over, then I saved the match points, the fans got fired up. I began getting my balls in, and she was amazed that she was letting a match go out of control, a match she thought she already won and thought she was already in the finals. And I think she wavered, slowed down the pace of her game. I think I had a chance to win the second set.
Q: Then the Olympics. You always planned to go there?
A: Yes. When I was below the top 50, I wanted badly to be selected to the national team, and when I realized I was selected, I was preparing myself.
Q: What were the highlights for you in Sydney?
A: The toughest match that I recall best was the one in the second round against Kristie Boogert. I had never played her before, and her ranking is much lower than mine. But before the match I was told that Conchita Martinez, who I was supposed to play in the next round, lost to Karina Habsudova, and that Lindsay Davenport, who was also in my part of the draw, withdrew from the tournament. So, I was so fired up and happy, I went on court very focused and won the first set very easily but then I lost my concentration. They made us play at 7 p.m. and it's hard to keep focused in the evening, because you always practice in the mornings. I wasn't used to being physically active at that time. But I finally pulled it out, winning 7-5 in the third set.
Q: In the semifinals you played Jelena Dokic, the Australian favorite. How did it feel to play against a hostile crowd?
A: Well, even though the crowd supported her, they were also applauding my good strokes. So I didn't feel as much pressure from the crowd as it happens, say, in Italy when you are playing an Italian. Of course, it was tough, and there were some wrong calls and she was cheered up. But, you know, she also was tired because she felt the pressure on her, she was an Australian who was supposed to play great, she was the last Australian left in the Olympic tennis tournament. So it was tough for her as well.
Q: And what does that silver Olympic medal mean for you both as a player and a Russian citizen?
A: It probably means everything I have been dreaming about all my life -- to win an Olympic medal.
Q: An Olympic medal is more important to you than a Grand Slam title?
A: Yes, exactly. I am choosing the Olympics because this is the tournament you will remember all your life, probably the only Olympic tournament I will ever play. I don't know whether I will play another Olympic tournament. You never know what the future has in store, nobody knows. The Grand Slam tournaments follow each other, but when you play at the Olympics, you have a different feeling.
Q: How did you end up marching in the very first row of the Russian national team at the opening ceremony in Sydney? Whose idea was it? Somebody must have thought, Hey, Russia must have a pretty face in the front row of the team.
A: (Laughter) It was a very funny story. On the eve of the opening ceremony Alexander Kalivod (the general secretary of the Russian Tennis Federation) comes up to me and says, `Lena, what do you say to a proposal to follow the flag?' I said, `Of course, I can.' I just didn't realize what he meant. I thought we are all following the flag, right? But I didn't realize I would be marching right after our flag bearer. So Kalivod said, `OK, deal.' And he ran away quickly. I assumed everybody refused to follow the flag. I would also have refused if I knew what he meant. And when we were all lined up before the ceremony, and they told me, `You are marching by the flag,' I was agape.
Q: So how did your family and friends react?
A: My mom was stunned when she saw me on TV. She didn't know about it. She told me, `We were ready to look for you in the middle of the column, but then we saw you in the very front.'
Q: The Olympics were indeed something special for you.
A: I was proud of following the flag, that inspired me. And then my roommate in the Olympic village was Irina Karavaeva, our gold medalist in the trampoline. This also inspired me. So I had many inspiring moments at the Olympics which boosted my morale. I am telling you -- all these WTA tournaments will be erased from memory sooner or later but the Olympics will stay.
Q: Do you feel you have been accepted in the elite company of the best tennis players -- amongst players like Hingis, Davenport and company?
A: I think after I played each of them, they began paying closer attention to me, began preparing. It's not like it used to be when it seemed to me they went out on the court without even warming up.
Q: You are not a player of Hingis' caliber yet. What areas do you need to improve your game -- your serve, your volley?
A: I think so. I think my serve is a serious impediment to my game. I lack a good serve, I lack the volleying. Even though I am a solid baseliner, these volleys are essential. The Hingis-like timely winning volley, I lack this.
Q: How would you explain this phenomenon typical of the current generation of Russian players? They are all solid baseliners but poor servers and volleyers.
A: It's hard to say. In my early years we didn't pay much attention to the volley or the serve. Now that I recall our practice sessions, we never devoted any practice entirely to the volley and the serve. If we have 10 minutes left at the end of the practice session, then maybe we practice the serve and that's it. And if we practiced the volley for five minutes that was already good enough.
Q: And what are you doing to improve your serve? Are you trying the jump serve? Are you trying to change the whole movement on your serve?
A: No, frankly I wouldn't want to change the movement altogether because it always involved huge breaks and declines in one's game which I can't afford now. I just want to take up more fitness exercises, build up my shoulders.
Q: You think that would help?
A: I think so. Because I have the right height, so I wonder why the ball is flying so slow.
Q: How would you define your style of game? "I am an aggressive baseliner who prefers playing on -- "
A: On hard courts.
Q: Is it true you hate grass?
A: Yes, I hate it. I am OK with all other surfaces. I prefer hard but I also enjoy playing on clay and supreme, but I don't think grass is really made for tennis.
Q: Why so?
A: Because it is too uneven a surface, too much depends on a lucky bounce.
Q: Which type of a player do you dislike playing against because of their style?
A: The first two times I played Davenport, I said, `That's it, I can't play her. I don't want to play her anymore.' I just couldn't fathom how I could beat her. I couldn't cope with her strokes, I couldn't do anything. She was hitting too deep with spin and pace. But then I played her for the third time and I realized that I can actually play her. And I realized there are no players you cannot play. There are just players whom you couldn't play well on this or that day, that's it. Some players are easier to play, some are harder, but you can play them all. This is what the game is all about.
Q: How did it feel to be among such Russian tennis stars as Safin and Kafelnikov in Sydney? How does a guy like Kafelnikov treat you?
A: Well, they all congratulated me, of course. I have good relationships with Zhenya (Kafelnikov) and Marat. With Marat, we have known each other since way back when.
Q: Kafelnikov is often labeled by the press as not being sociable or friendly enough. Can you dispel this myth?
A: Yes, I will, because he is a very nice guy to talk to. If sometimes he is not very nice to the journalists it is because he has so much exposure and attention as any top player of any country. And it is hard to play a match, then give 15 interviews, answer 150 questions, and try to smile. This is way too much.
Q: Have you started to feel the burden of stardom and attention from the press?
A: Yes, I do feel the pressure from the press. I mean, after each match we have to hold a press conference. Sometimes you play a match and you would rather fall flat on your bed, but this is a must. So you just have to do it.
Q: Your mom mentioned one American photographer who gave you a hard time at the U.S. Open.
A: Oh, yeah. One guy kept harassing me, `I want to have a picture of you.' But I know that he was trying to shoot me when I was sort of casual -- with my hair not combed or something, so I said, `Sorry, no. I am going to practice now.' But he would follow me anyway, anywhere. If I was doing my fitness exercises, here he was again. So I just stopped paying attention to him.
Q: Why are you often aghast at the media for trying to draw a parallel between you and Kournikova? There's a feeling within the Russian press, `At last we have a player in women's tennis who proves herself on the court and not like the other one.' Why do you avoid such questions?
A. I am not avoiding it. I am just saying that we are not rivals, that if they want to make us rivals, this comes from the press.
Q: But they want to make you rivals not only on court but off the court too, appearance-wise and all. Is the title of `Tennis Lolita' not tempting to you?
A: I am not at all tempted by the title of `Tennis Lolita.' I am trying to prove myself on the court and not off the court. As to the two of us, I think there is enough room out there for whoever plays good tennis. And there will be enough attention for everybody.
Q: What about the show biz side of tennis?
A: Frankly, I am not much of a model for show business. I hate being paid much attention. I don't like too much attention. I am having a hard time putting up with this. I like to have more privacy. I like to have a more calm lifestyle.
Q: Back to the court, to who do you owe your recent breakthrough in tennis?
A: Of course, to my mom.
Q: What role did she play in your development?
A: I think I was like soft supple clay in her hands. Whatever I achieved on the court is because of her. Mom was the person who has been with me from the very beginning and will be till the end. I know that she will never let me down, and will always be with me.
Q: How are you spending your earnings?
A: We are paying back the sponsor, we pay the coaches a salary, we have many other costs. My mother is dealing with all the financial issues.
Q: Who agreed to sponsor you? Was it a firm or an individual?
A: An individual from Moscow. He believed in me and sponsored me. We just parted because we were of different opinions regarding the contract we had had between us. But we parted on amicable terms. We are paying back our debt and our relations end on this.
Q: Why didn't you attract other sponsors in terms of endorsements, like Nike? Is your mom or somebody else working on this?
A: There were offers. But I was focused on tennis and had no time. Quite possibly in the future I will sign a contract if I have offers.
Q: You play with a Prince racket, you wear Nike, yet you have no contract with either of these firms?
A: There are offers. The contract with the Prince I had, they lost it. Prince representatives I mean.
Q: You mean they physically lost the paper it was written on?
Q: That's funny.
A: Yeah, funny indeed. They told me, `We lost your contract.' I said, `It's OK, no big issue.' (Laughter). They never paid me. I didn't say anything, I am just planning to switch to another racket company.
Q: Which one? Commercial secret?
A: No, I want to switch to Wilson. I have established good relations with Wilson, they are ready to develop a racket especially for me, so I think I will be working with them. I hope to work with them.
Q: I suppose the contract with Wilson won't be lost?
A: (Laughter). I don't know what the future has in store. But I hope so.
Q: What are your immediate plans?
A: I am going to Zurich, don't know yet if I will play Linz. Then I will play in Moscow, then Leipzig, and then if I make it in the top 16, I will go to New York for the Masters. I am ranked 13th among candidates for the Masters, so I have a chance. If not, then that's it. I will take a two-month break from tournaments.
Q: Tell me more about your family.
A: I was born in Moscow. My mother Vera is traveling with me on the tour. She used to be a teacher in a college. My father Vyacheslav is an engineer and my elder brother Vsevolod is a student at the Baumansky Institute (a prestigious technical school in Moscow).
Q: But he did play tennis too?
A: Yes, Seva played great. My parents just found it too hard to have us both play tennis -- to accompany us to different tournaments for boys and girls. It was all separate.
Q: You graduated from a secondary school in Moscow and specialized in French?
A: Right. I graduated last year. My education came to a halt.
Q: Do you plan to continue your education sometime later?
A: I would like to. Because the longer it drags on, the more time passes and the harder it will be for me to began studying. It will be tough to go back to school when your are a grownup. I would like to be working with languages. Initially I wanted to take up journalism but having met with so many journalists and having had so many contacts with the press I gave up on the idea. I just realized it is not a job for me.
Q: What are your immediate goals in tennis?
A: I am not setting any goal to make it to the top 10 or the top 5. We are all probably trying to be No. 1. But if I don't become No. 1 in the world, I will not die as a result, frankly. I am just playing and trying to improve my game, trying to keep making progress. The main thing is not to have declines in my game.
Q: How do you feel abroad? Do you feel homesick after a few weeks away?
A: Even though I like Paris and I love Australia, I don't like America. I feel like going back home from the very first day there. Everything is different there, I don't understand the people who live there, and they probably don't understand me. I think we are totally different.
Q: What about your hobbies, favorite pastimes?
A: I have little time left for those. I do collect cactuses and Svarowski figures -- these crystal things.
Q: Why cactuses?
A: (Laughter). Don't know, but I kinda like them. They need little care. You leave, forget to water them, but they are still okay.
A: Two cats.
Q: A boyfriend?
A: No boyfriend. I haven't met a young man yet who I like.
Q: No special site on the Internet?
A: No, didn't open any.
Q: So none of this "Anna-mania" or "Elena-mania" thing?
A: No, no manias.
Q: What do you envision for yourself when your playing career is over?
A: I wouldn't like to dive into family affairs headstrong and be occupied only with children. I would like also to live for myself. I wouldn't want my career to relate to tennis after I quit playing. But I understand it would be very hard for me to do something else since tennis is my life. It's all I know.
Q: You must have heard about Nathalie Tauziat's book "The Underside of Women's Tennis." In it she writes that the show biz side of tennis regrettably eclipses the sport itself. Do you agree?
A: I think it all depends on the individual. Some want to achieve results on the court, some want the fame, some just want to earn big money.
Q: And you?
A: I want neither big money nor big fame. I want everything in moderation.'
WELL-DONE to anybody who managed to read through the ENTIRE interview. You should get a medal of some sort.
What do you think about what Elena said right at the beginning (if you can remember that far back
). Where Elena said it was her mothers idea for Elena to go into tennis.
I have also read an interview where Elena said she is only playing because of her mother. It sounds to me like Elena was pushed into doing something that she 'might' not want to do. 'IF' that is the case, then it certainly explains why she does not seem to have the right attitude about having to do the hard work that is needed for her to expand her game.
What do you think?