She is a young, blond Russian tennis star. And she is not Anna Kurnikova. In fact, Yelena Dementieva, 19, seems the very antithesis of the publicity-seeking, endorsement-hoarding Kurnikova.
“I hate being paid much attention,” Dementieva said when her career began to skyrocket. “I am having a hard time putting up with this. I like to have more privacy. I like to have a more calm lifestyle.”
The Russian press is quick to try to show some kind of rivalry between Dementieva and the “Lolita of Tennis,” but Dementieva is just as quick to deny the rumors. “We are not rivals … if they want to make us rivals, this comes from the press. … I am trying to prove myself on the court and not off the court. As to the two of us, I think there is enough room out there for whomever plays good tennis. And there will be enough attention for everybody...”
Kurnikova is less diplomatic. When asked to comment on Dementieva’s recent results, Kournikova quipped: “It’s high time she began playing [well]. She is already 19...”
Last summer Dementieva advanced to her first career Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open, then went on to win the silver medal in singles at the Olympics. In October, she nearly defeated #1 ranked Martina Hingis in a breathtaking three-set match at Moscow’s Kremlin Cup (Hingis went on to win the Cup by defeating Kurnikova). By November she had climbed to be ranked by the WTA as the 12th best female player in the world (Kurnikova is ranked 8th).
Dementieva was brought into tennis at an early age by her mother Vera Semyonovna, an amateur tennis player. She made her debut at age seven at Moscow’s Spartak Club, where she was coached by Rauza Islanova (mother and first coach of Marat Safin). Today she is at the Central Red Army Club (CSKA) where she is coached by Sergei Pashkov.
In the past year, Dementieva has gone up against many of the world’s top tennis stars and more than held her own. “There are no players you cannot play,” she said. “There are just players whom you couldn’t play well against on this or that day, that’s it. Some players are easier to play, some are harder, but you can play them all. This is what the game is all about.”
Dementieva is proudest of her Olympic silver (she lost in the finals to Venus Williams). Grand Slam tournaments are played every year, she said, but “this is the tournament you will remember all your life.”
Without exception, observers and fellow players cite Dementieva’s determination and drive as the key to her rising star. 18-time USSR champion Anna Dmitrieva said Dementieva “has the main thing which is the essential quality for a champion: a strong character that helps her take the right decision at the decivisive moment.” President of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpishchev, said Dementieva has a “strong personality with a strong character. It is not for nothing that they call her a fighter to the bones.” Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who rarely finds anything good to say about women’s tennis, said he has respect for Dementieva’s talent, admitting “this girl” plays first class tennis and has a very good future.
Dementieva deflects much of the praise and redirects it toward her indefatigable mother, a former Russian literature teacher who accompanies her to all her tournaments. “ I think I was like soft supple clay in her hands,” she said. “Whatever I achieved on the court is because of her. Mom was the person who has been with me from the very beginning and will be there until the end. I know that she will never let me down, and will always be with me.”
Does she dream of someday being Number 1? “We are all probably trying to be number one,” she replies. “But if I don’t become number one in the world, I will not die as a result. Frankly, I am just playing and trying to improve my game, trying to keep making progress. The main thing is not to let my game decline … Some want to achieve results on the court, some want the fame, some just want to earn big money … I just want everything in moderation.”
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