October 11, 2008

From Russia With Love

Russia hasn't been the source of the the most inspiring headlines recently. They started a war with the Republic of Georgia, suspended trading in their stock exchange, and offered Venezuela a big chunk of money to buy weapons and develop its military. And that's just since August.

But on the tennis courts this week, Russians were showing off their best stuff.

Men and women were both battling in Moscow's Kremlin Cup where the likes of Dinara Safina, her brother Marat Safin, and compatriots Nikolay Davydenko, Elena Dimentieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and others took their opportunity to seize homecourt advantage.

It's already been a pretty good year for the Russian women -- and little of the good news comes from the country's most recognizable star, Maria Sharapova. They occupy half of the top ten spots, won the Fed Cup last month, and swept the Olympic medals.

Incidentally the Beijing medalists -- Elena, Dinara and Vera Zvonareva -- also took three of the four semifinal spots in Moscow. Dementieva ended up losing a hard battle to Jelena Jankovic, preventing an all-Russian final and frustrating me again, but Vera's decisive victory over Safina puts her in her sixth final of the year.

Russian men on the other hand have struggled a bit more this year. Defending Moscow champion Davydenko holds the highest ranking at #5, but the only interesting title he's earned this year was at the ATP Masters Series in Miami. Nevertheless Russians took five of the eight seeds at the Kremlin Cup, and two will meet in the finals on Sunday -- though not necessarily the two you might expect.

Those who know me know that Marat Safin is far from my favorite player -- I've never quite forgiven him for beating my all-time favorite Pete Sampras in the finals of the 2000 U.S. Open. Since then his career has been a series of ups and downs. He was ranked #1 for six non-consecutive weeks in 2000 and 2001 but fell as low as #104 in 2006. He started this year at #57, dropped to #93 and is currently #40. As further proof of his struggles, Marat hasn't won a single single's title since the '05 Australian Open -- or even played in a final since 2006.

The vindictive side of me is ecstatic that he hasn't been able to regain his former glory -- the objective side is shocked that such a talented and strong competitor hasn't had more success against the top ten players.

In the finals Marat is taking on Igor Kunitsyn, a twenty-seven year old who just broke into the top 100 in May. But he's shown his own mettle in Moscow, beating Dimitri Tursynov, Robby Ginepri and Fabrice Santoro on his way to the finals. A win here would not only be the first ATP singles title of his career, but also rocket him into the top fifty rankings.

You can guess who I'm rooting for.

Sunday's final holds important implications for all players involved. Jelena, I'm sure, is eager to win her third tournament in a row, her first while ranked at the top; a victory for Vera could vault ahead of Venus Williams in the rankings. Marat is hungry for his first championship in almost four years, and Igor for his first ever.

We'll see if two Russians will be able to walk away with trophies in their native land. But in any case this week's play has highlighted the country's drive, ability and talent.

And, love 'em or hate 'em, they sure are fun to watch!

'Til next time, serve well and play hard!

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