Year-end thoughts (cont.)
As this column shuts down through the holidays, here's a farewell to a couple of very interesting people who recently retired from tennis.
It was the destiny of Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova to leave Russia, capitalize on their looks and become two of the most sought-after athletes in the endorsement world. Not so with the intensely Russian Elena Dementieva. She had the looks and the talent -- infinitely more so than Kournikova -- but for her, America was merely another continent on tour.
For 23 years, Dementieva shared a bedroom with her older brother in their family's Moscow apartment. She played at the aging, rickety Central Red Army Club because it was considered the gold standard of Moscow tennis, and even though the family had little money and no car in the early years, she never once bemoaned her fate. She grew up reading Chekhov, Nabokov and Tolstoy, and as one confidant described it, "She became consumed with the idea that setback is good for the soul."
It was only at the insistence of her mother, Vera, that Elena got her own place, although the family connection remained. Vera picked out two apartments: one for herself, her husband and her son, and the other for Elena. For the glamour queens of Russian tennis, free time meant photo shoots in London, Paris and New York. Dementieva always gravitated back to Russia.
The magnificence of her accomplishments is well documented, as well as her crushing failures. I strongly disagree with the assessment that Dementieva had "matchless athleticism" within the tour's elite ranks, because her strengths were fitness, speed and strength. There were many more athletic players: Amelie Mauresmo, the Williams sisters and Francesca Schiavone, just for starters, all of them wondrous in their smooth-flowing movement. Dementieva was far too mechanical, never mastering the volley or even the simple execution of a rhythmic, effective serve. But she was always there, always in the semifinals, sometimes beyond, and although she didn't win a major, thank goodness she won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. No accomplishment means more in Russia, and nothing meant more to Dementieva than her homeland.
Then there's Taylor Dent, as gallant a man as the men's tour has seen in years. I'll never forget the first time I saw Dent, checked on his family connection, and realized that I once had a crush on his mom. This goes back to 1964, my first year at Santa Monica High. Although I was a decent striker of the ball, I was hardly a youth-tennis legend -- and thus I had no chance to make the team. Samohi, as we were called, didn't lose a match in my three years there. We were ranked No. 1 in the nation, the coach was Glenn Bassett (who went on to even greater glory at UCLA), and the team had such Southern California mainstays as Mike Talmadge, John Fort and Eddie Grubb, whose sister, the luminous Betty Ann, went on to be an excellent doubles player on the pro circuit.
I learned that Taylor Dent is a son of Betty Ann and Phil Dent, the sturdy Australian who reached the 1977 Wimbledon quarterfinals (losing to the upstart John McEnroe) during a long career. I was stunned at the sight of Taylor, who bears so much of his mother's countenance, and he became one of my favorites on tour with his swashbuckling, old-style tennis.
Few players have paid such a physical price. Dent retired at 29 in the wake of three back surgeries, each with career-ending implications. Most players, in the wake of such pain, would have come back as baseliners. Not Dent. He serve-and-volleyed to the end, saying, "It wasn't my nature. I like to be aggressive, attack and force the action. I don't like to hang back. That's just not my personality."
Looking back on Dent's Slam-free career, people said he should have played it "smarter" by joining the baseline brigade. Not a chance, Taylor. You played it right. None of that tedious monotony for you, even though a lot of those robots sent blazing returns right past you. Not enough athletes are true to their heart, and far too many tennis players cheat their natural athleticism by staying back. You played real tennis, and you were a pleasure to watch.
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