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Elena Dementieva: An Appreciation

Dementieva stops Serena

Today, perennial world top ten tennis player Elena Dementieva abruptly announced her retirement from the sport. She’s 29 years old, and I guess the passion to keep running around the court and hitting all of those screaming line drives just wasn’t there any more.

I read the news just before I was scheduled to pick up the kids, and it took me by surprise — and I was further surprised to discover that I had an emotional reaction to her departure. I’m a rabid tennis fan, but why will I miss her, in particular?

This wonderful piece on the tennis.com site sums up my feelings pretty well. (Read some of the comments to see how much hard-core tennis fans love her.) Dementieva has (had?) a relentless ground game, with her sturdy legs as often unbreachable foundation. Gifted with astonishing speed, timing, and athleticism, she could stand toe-to-toe with anyone, as her titanic battle with Serena Williams at 2009 Wimbledon showed. Running Williams all over the court, Dementieva was a match point away from sending the iron-willed American crashing out of the tournament she eventually won. As was too-typical of Dementieva, she’d given the sport a great match (probably the best of the year) but fallen just short.

Indeed, except for the Olympics — a gold medal in a 2008 and a mostly forgotten silver medal from 2000 — Dementieva’s career is already being summed up as “almost.” Because she had made it to two Grand Slam finals, seven semifinals and a few more quarterfinals, most of us kept waiting for her to bag one. (Please, just one!) She had one last chance this year, with a relatively weak trio of women standing between her and a French Open championship, but she was forced to retire with an injury during her semifinal against eventual tournament winner Francesca Schiavone.

She was the classic underdog, and that status was given epic stature by the one shocking weakness in her game: her serve. For years, it was, well…it was terrible. I can recall watching a U.S. Open semifinal she played against Jennifer Capriati where her second serves were floating in — or out — at a speed that would have embarrassed some weekend players (not me, though). People were actually laughing. Yet she won that match, and developed the amazing ability to shrug off the worst kind of serving woes — including numerous double faults, many at the most crucial times — and soldier on. Her ability to thrive in such a competitive environment without the most reliable weapon — the only shot the player completely controls — was the subject of endless fascination, and tended to humanize her in a way rare for top athletes.

She won’t make the Hall of Fame. No Grand Slam titles (tennis snobs don’t care much about the Olympics), and a career-high ranking of three aren’t quite good enough. Yet she’ll leave a void. As she announced her retirement at the year-end tournament followed only by real tennis nuts, all of her top fellow players stood on the court — and cried. So did the two women in the broadcast booth, Lindsey Davenport and Corina Morariu, who’d played against her and watched her long and impressive career. A more honest, intelligent, and likable player you won’t find.

Tennis will miss her, and so will I. Let’s end on an Olympic high note (her victory screech is so heartfelt):

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