Dementieva emerges as a favorite
NEW YORK -- Still awash in the afterglow of her Olympics win in Beijing, Elena Dementieva soaked in the magnitude of her golden moment as she flew back to her native Russia two weeks ago. Upon landing at Sheremetyevo Airport in a Moscow suburb, she was greeted by fans waving signs, flowers and flags.
Back home for one day only, the world's fifth-ranked woman returned to her roots at the CSKA, the training facility known as the Soviet Army Club, where she practices. Unaware that the Olympic champions were going to have fountains named after them, Dementieva and her mother found the tribute surprising.
"We had an ocean of happiness when she won," says Dementieva's mother, Vera, through a translator. "But we did not have any idea about the fountain!"
Already a week into play at the U.S. Open, the 5-foot-11 Dementieva, defined best by her gentle features and rigid ground strokes, has continued her flowing success. Without dropping a set in her first four matches, she advanced to the quarterfinals Sunday night by beating China's Na Li 6-4, 6-1.
"It's not that I forgot about my Olympic games," Dementieva said. "I have to be ready to play first round because nobody could exclude me because I won in Beijing."
For all of the talk regarding jet lag and Olympics-sized rings under the travel-worn WTA stars, Dementieva has continued her history of translating Olympian experience into American success. In 2000, she became the first Russian woman to reach the Open semifinals, that after having won the silver medal in Sydney. Though dismissed in the first round of the 2004 games, she rebounded to reach the U.S. Open finals within the month, only to lose to compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova.
"I was not that tired [during the loss to Kuznetsova]," Dementieva said Sunday night. "The way Svetlana was playing that year, she was better than anyone."
In 2008, the year that the WTA has seen Justine Henin retire, Maria Sharapova injured and Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic play inconsistently, Dementieva has emerged as a favorite to claim the year's final Grand Slam. Able to steel herself behind a curtain of competitiveness, she chooses not to speak of being No. 1. Instead, she shifts discussion to her next match against Swiss southpaw Patty Schnyder. "I've got big experience against Patty," she said. "So hopefully it's going to help."
Already a success internationally, Dementieva marched into the Open as part of an army of 16 Russian women, the largest party from any individual country, but with three rounds remaining, only two survived the first week. Kuznetsova, a finalist last year and this year's No. 3 seed, bowed out to Slovenia's Katarina Srebotnik on Friday. No. 8 seed Vera Zvonareva lost in the second round and No. 10 Anna Chakvetadze lost her opener.
Despite her gold medal and a current hard-court win streak of 10 matches, Dementieva says the top Russian is No. 6 seed Dinara Safina, whose mother, Rauza Islanova, trained Dementieva from ages seven to 11 at the prestigious Spartak Club. "I believe she is the hottest on tour right now," said Dementieva, who defeated Safina for the gold in Beijing, and could face her next weekend if both advance to the final.
In the name of Mother Russia, and traveling with her Muscovite mother by her side, Dementieva has stayed up late to watch the night matches. On Sunday, she enjoyed her own time under the lights after struggling with her serve in the first set, but recovered for an easy straight-sets win that lasted just over an hour. When asked how her daughter would view a U.S. Open title to match her gold medal, Dementieva's mother said, "If you were to walk up to a random person on the street and tell them you won a Grand Slam, they may not know if you are talking about golf or another sport. But if you walked up to that person and said you won a gold medal, there would be instant recognition. We prioritized in scheduling for the gold."
With each new event, Dementieva's mother says, a new hope springs. In Queens, Dementieva hopes her fountain of success does not run dry until another title is pumped out.