Monday, 1 November 2010

Do Svidánija, Elena :’-)



Q: Why are you doing it?
ELENA DEMENTIEVA:  (Laughter.)  I need some support.  Why are you asking me these questions?
    I think it's the right time for me. I never wanted to wait until my ranking dropped and I'm not going to be able to go to the main draw.  I always wanted to leave this sport with a passion for it.  Tennis has been such a big part of my life, and always will be.
    To be honest with you, I mean, if I would be a man I would never stop playing.  But in the age 29; I have to think about something else.  I think I'm ready for the big change in my life.
    Still, it's very tough decision to make.  Very emotional.  I made the decision in the beginning of this season, so it was very hard coming to the tournaments knowing that this was my last one.  It was very emotional for me to play the whole year.
    But, I mean, that's decision like you know, it will happen to every athlete, and you have to get ready for this.



It’s not often that I’m prescient.


In fact most of what I say bears very little relation to reality.


But when Demmie went down to Stosur at NY this year – there was a feint but lingering whiff of despair in the air.




You didn’t need a MENSA-like emotional intelligence quotient to realise that so much more than a simple loss lay behind the way she despondently mouthed ‘no’ to her mother - heartbreak with a vivid suggestion of finality mixed in.


Not only was this completely out of character for one of the tour’s best known fighters– she seemed to be closing the door not just on any future hopes of Slam glory, but on tennis itself.


Knowing what I now know (that she had made up her mind at the very beginning of the season to pack it in), it makes perfect sense she would feel that loss so keenly: this was to be the last Slam match she would ever play.


Ditto her tearful retirement from RG – her 46th consecutive Slam appearance, and the one she’d felt herself best placed to win, even in her final year.


Well, I always had a dream of winning French Open, so starting you know, playing this season, I just wanted to give myself another try.  After Olympic Games, that was the biggest dream of mine.  I was so close.
    But I mean, I was pretty lucky.  I never had so many injuries during my career.  I was pretty healthy.  But that injury probably happened in the worst moment in my entire career.

Yeah, but, you know, I have no regrets.  I think I was practicing very hard; I was trying very hard; that was my way.
    If it didn't happen, it didn't happen, but I have nothing to blame myself.  I was very professional and I had nothing but tennis, tennis, tennis, and I did it with passion.
    So I have absolutely in regrets.  I have so many things to be proud of.  It was a very difficult and long way for me.  So, yeah, I just have very nice and unforgettable memories.


Ditto-Ditto her final ever tour win against (funnily enough) Sam Stosur just three days ago – the happy-screech she let out after three long sets (surprising at the time)was not unlike the one emitted after winning gold in Beijing – only now has the penny so heart-wrenchingly dropped.


As the season wore on and further losses followed (most recently to Polona Hercog in Luxembourg) I all but resigned myself to an inexorable, James Blake almost-but-not-quite-winding-down phase of her career.




Not once in my wildest dreams, however, did I imagine a retirement announcement would follow so soon.


Thinking back now, it all accords perfectly with Elena’s natural, unaffected, no-nonsense disposition – no emotionally-messy swan-song for her - no staged withdrawal dragged out mercilessly over the year.


The time was right. Her physicality/fitness, her most prized asset, had begun to fail her – what more was there to be done? And why need anyone else know about it?




-- ElenaD: Neither “classy” nor “nice”


*scrunchy-wincey face*


Yes, I’m afraid I really do struggle with those words.


With the frequency those superlatives are doled out you’d think we were living in Camelot itself – or some equally cosy-but-liberalised postmodern equivalent.


Well neither Lady Guinevere nor Audrey Hepburn has made an appearance in the top ten yet, so I’m assuming it’s the terms themselves that have been devalued.




Smile a lot, engage in tour pleasantries, but more importantly, possess the “right” sort of look (it helps if you score some big wins, though this is not strictly necessary) and you’re suddenly an “ambassador for the sport”. Whatever that means.

You see where I’m headed with this: the tendency is at it’s pug-ugliest when you can find nothing nice, nor classy, about the player you’re being invited to drum up. Not so much because they’ve done anything wrong as the plain absence of merit.


“Class” is, at least, quantifiable by how well you take defeat and so on, but what exactly is “nice”? And if we’re so intent on passing certain players off as “nice”, what, precisely, does that make legions of others that don’t make the cut? Not nice, presumably.


All this makes it rather difficult when someone really worthy of these labels shows up – only then is it plain to what degree they’ve been devalued.


I would have to say, therefore, that I never found Elena either “nice” or “classy” (she was too classy for that). Not as we’ve been primed to understand those terms.


She gave quite serious (sometimes stern) , honest and well-thought out responses to tricky questions posed in pressers. Not nice.


Q.  How do you want people remember you in the future? 

ELENA DEMENTIEVA:  Well, I don't know if I want people to remember me.  I'm sure I'm going to remember myself as Olympic champion.  That's the best thing could ever happen in my career.  That was the biggest goal, and I'm so proud of that moment.  It was unforgettable experience and unforgettable memories for me and my family.

I don't think about how people going to remember me.



She chose hard-won prize money over the million-dollar endorsements she could easily have had as a “leggy blond”.

Image clearly not “everything” ----> Not at all marketable ----> *So* not nice.


Here was a player that actually preferred getting rough and dirty and worse still, seemed to harbour an unfashionable enjoyment of her chosen sport. Really not classy Elena.


-- “Best player never to have won a Slam”


Surely now as bad as the posthumous Oscar for “Lifetime Achievement”. The Academy’s way of saying sorry to have missed out on you.


It actually brings into focus, quite brutally, what you haven’t achieved. Close, but no cigar.




Elena’s frailties were well known – I rooted for her because, rather than in spite of them. Fed, Rafa and Serena all have their place, but I’ve always liked my players flawed and I like to see them striving to overcome those flaws – the more powerfully juxtaposed they are alongside their immense talent the better (Think Marat. Think Sveta).


It’s why she’ll likely remain my second fave WTA player for many years to come (Sveta’s queer mix of on-court genius, unceremonious cool and gangsta rap means she comes first. God knows how I’ll cope when she retires).


Her serve stank for the better part of her career. Let there be no illusions as to how debilitating this actually was. This was far more ‘schlock-horror’ than the kind of service yips that continue to plague Ana or Masha (both of whom had perfectly competent serves pre 2008), which have always been more ‘symptomatic’ than they are ‘systemic’.


Yet she played with that debilitation through an iridescent era that included The Williamses, Henin, Masha, Kim, Amelie, Davenport – all (perhaps with the exception of Lindsay) in their prime.




She didn’t have winning records against any of them – but was still able to beat all of them multiple times (5-7 against Serena).


You’ll hear much of her unimpeachable professionalism and work ethic, and how good she was at making the most of a limited game. Not that any of that isn’t true, but it feels too much like selling her short (mainly, I suspect, because it is).


You’ll also hear a lot of commentary on how Elena worked extraordinarily hard to make up for her calamitous serve, this most peculiar of failings (one which should, by rights, have precluded her from ever being a factor given the competition she was up against) and was able to maintain her top ten standing over the best part of a decade largely by shoring up other facets of her game.


I disagree.


For one thing, and as much as I luuurve her, Elena didn’t have that many facets in her game to shore up.


Her greatest strengths – her fitness and timing off the ground -- were pure talent. No denying she worked hard to maintain and improve both, but they were as organic to her as the air we breath.


Perhaps fittingly, the biggest demonstration of this organic talent was destined to come not, sadly, in the form of a Slam, but in career statistics that make your eyes water.




Career statistics that could not have been born of anything other than organic talent.


Career statistics that make you wonder what might have been had she been in her prime in these past few years of less lacquered competition.


It’s certainly difficult to see someone who “merely works hard” (and I mean that in the most flattering sense possible to Daveed Ferrer or Shahar Peer) producing results like these against the players she did:


» 10 out of the last 11 WTA Championships


» 46 consecutive Slam appearances ending at RG 2010 during which she made 3 quarters, 7 semis and 2 finals.


» top ten 7 out of the last 8 years (328 career weeks inside the Top 10)


» Career high world #3


Or, for that matter, a match like this:



Wimby 2009 is held up, depending on who you speak with, as either the “best match of her career”, or as a perfect example of the kind of frailty that precluded her from being “Slam material”.


I’m not sure it’s either.


There’s an unfortunate (if understandable) tendency to sanctify admittedly powerful moments beyond their worth, just as there is to stigmatise players beyond their measure.


The truth is, Elena had played as well as this against the top players many times in her career, though this was likely the most visible of those.


As to the infamous, fateful (has the word ever carried so much weight?) decision not to go down the line in that glorious summer of 2009, I’ve always thought of it as a moment of madness. True, it cost her a spot in the final, but it’s not that different to the kind of errant nonsense we’ve seen from either one of the Williamses or Justine 1.0 many times over.


The other, somewhat inconvenient, point to remember is that had Elena gone down the line, she would still have had to go through Venus in the final – whom she was a significantly less flattering 2-8 against at the time.


If we are to entertain any regrets, let it not be for this moment of madness, let it not even be for the USO 2004 (Sveta was simply that good). RG 2004, however, like one Mr Coria that same year, is a title she ought have made her own.


I have no regrets because, you know, that was my way.  That's the way I played.  I was far away from being perfect, but, you know, I had a great fighting spirit.  Even without good serve, I was struggling for so many matches, but I was fighting and I was never give up.  I was giving 100% on the court no matter who well I was playing.  This is what I like.

    You don't have to be perfect, but you have to try very hard, and I did all the time.



And yet, as a fan I’m left with a bitter aftertaste.






I wish her well of course. But I also feel like that cat put out in a winters night after spending all day luxuriating by the fire.


Or like that kid that drops his ice cream on the pavement after crowing over everyone else (there’s one in every family in every country).


My player was clearly better than everyone else’s :’-(


Mostly, however, I feel stone cold – which is funny, as I’ve never been a fan of farewell tours: they mostly end up being a fare-thee-well-but-get-thee-on-with-it tour.


It’s babies of course.


And I’m told the man responsible is Maxim Afinogenov.


So that’s what you call yourself. >:- (





You’ve only just deprived us of one the most professional, thoughtful, fittest, well-mannered, intelligent, honest, beautiful, cleanest strikers and best timers of the ball this generation’s seen.


(Images: Getty)

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