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Sunday, September 12, 2004

Better Get Used to It

I had posted earlier on the women's final in the U.S. Open, and I had speculated that the two Russian women who made the final had nothing on two more glamorous and notorious Russian women who didn't (one bowed out early, the other was a never-was who had retired months ago). I speculated that the final would be boring, that CBS would be bumming, and that the affair would be a lead balloon that would further defeat the cause of tennis in the U.S.

And while I still reluctantly conclude that I may be right, I enjoyed watching the U.S. women's final last night on CBS. True, there were no Americans in the match, as Jen and Lindsey and Serena and Venus were all absent, and true the telegenic Maria Sharapova was absent. Ditto for former #1 Justin Henin-Hardienne and current #1 Amelie Mauresmo, and for injured top-10 player Kim Clijsters. What you had was a match between the crafty Eva Dementieva, the #6 seed, who had baffled her opponents with a three-quarters motion serve that could bearly break 80 mph and more frequently was in the mid-70s (reminiscent of watching Jamie Moyer pitch for the Mariners and throwing three speeds -- slow, slower and slowest), against 19 year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova, a free-swinging, hard-hitting player who counts among her mentors Martina Navratilova and Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario and whose parents are cycling coaches in Russia (her brother won a silver in cycling at the Atlanta Olympics). This player knows only one way to play -- hard.

It was a good match between the elegant 5'11" Dementieva and the relatively sawed-off 5'7" (or so) Kuznetsova, and the latter was the first opponent of Dementieva in this tournament who refused to get baffled by the softball serves and took advantage of them at every opportunity. The result: Kuznetsova in a straight-set victory, and she earned the observation from CBS's commentator Mary Carrillo that she may be the best Russian women's player, better than Sharapova (who won Wimbledon), Dementieva, Anastasis Myskina (who won the French Open), Nadia Petrova (who made it into the fourth round at Flushing Meadow) or Vera Zvonareva.

And that's saying a whole lot right there.

And what's more, these Russian women are young and hungry, and their best tennis is ahead of them. That's something you cannot say about Capriati, Davenport or even Venus Williams. And, as much as I like her athletic ability and her game, it regrettably may be something that you could say about Serena Williams as well.

I still believe that when she's concentrating totally on tennis, there's no one who can beat Serena Williams today. Except that's the problem, Serena's a very bright woman, has many interests, including designing, and she and her sister always have had designs to go to college. She's not totally focusing on tennis, and she has had her share of injuries, the types of injuries that wear young women who have played hours of tennis a day for years since they were young kids totally down and ultimately forces them off the tennis map. The Russian women, by contrast, don't seem to have the off-court distractions (everyone has her nagging injuries, and Dementieva probably has a shoulder that could use surgery, so that she can try to find a serve that is comparable to other top-10 players), and, as a result, could be concentrating better on tennis and working harder at it than Serena Williams.

Because for every meeting Serena takes with someone on a promotional idea, for every hour she sits at the design table, some of those Russian women (it remains to be seen whether Sharapova falls prey to the same distractions) are focusing on tennis all of the time. Kuznetsova seems like one of those women, and she's only 19 and is more jock than she is glamor girl. And she'll get better. And then Serena will have to determine whether she wants to be atop the tennis world, a rather parochial pursuit, or a well-rounded person, which may not give her some of the limelight that to which she has grown accustomed. And that's a hard call.

No matter how you slice it (or serve it at 120 m.p.h.), Serena Williams probably will be the sole American contender in a few years and for a few years, out there facing Sharapova, Myskina, Kuznetsova and the rest.

This may be a good thing for women's tennis, but not necessarily such a good thing for the major networks.

Unless, of course, Serena Williams stays focused and Maria Sharapova continues to play well, proving that she's Anna Kournikova with a game. If that happens, there will be great tennis.

And great television.

And if not, and Kuznetsova and others take charge, that could be pretty good too.

It just may take the organized tennis world a little longer to figure it out.


Blogger natalie said...

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