Elena steals Anna's thunder

US Open: Dementieva leaves Kournikova in shade and with Safin puts Russian game in sunlight

Thrusting into my hand a cardboard fan bearing the face of the Golden One and the message "Kournikova.com", the promotions girl outside the US Open gates warned: "Gonna be hot today." How right she was. Nothing to do with Anna K, who has departed still in search of a singles title. The heat was generated by Venus Williams and Martina Hingis, who served up one of the classic women's matches of all time in the semi-finals.

Thrusting into my hand a cardboard fan bearing the face of the Golden One and the message "Kournikova.com", the promotions girl outside the US Open gates warned: "Gonna be hot today." How right she was. Nothing to do with Anna K, who has departed still in search of a singles title. The heat was generated by Venus Williams and Martina Hingis, who served up one of the classic women's matches of all time in the semi-finals.

They painted the lines with shots of sheer genius and spattered the court with their perspiration in a contest which had everything. Unfortunately, the rules of tennis dictate that it had to have a loser, too.

"Lots of people expected a great match and I think we gave the crowd a good show," said Hingis, managing a smile. "I was very close to winning it but I just wasn't able to do it. In a way Venus deserved to win because she has had a very good streak of tournaments."

Naturally, Venus agreed. "Oh boy, that was a pretty unbelievable comeback from 3-5 down in the final set," she said. "I was making too many errors but I just kept fighting and eventually things worked out. I just kept slugging away. The only time I didn't have a good time out there was when I was making all those errors.

"I have got a pretty big heart these days, I guess. I really don't want to lose. I deserve to be in the final and I just needed to go ahead and get it done." Venus will go away from this event still trailing Hingis and Davenport in the world rankings but is unfazed by that, too. "I am still No 3 but in my heart I don't feel I am walking out against two players who are better than me."

John McEnroe, who has been trawling for a Battle of the Sexes contest with Venus or sister Serena, must have been quietly pleased that Venus has swatted his offer out of sight as the Wimbledon champion unveiled an astonishing sequence of incredible winners en route to her 25th successive victory.

Perhaps the biggest crush of the tournament was created by Kournikova's autograph session in the stadium grounds. As the New York Daily News reported, "There were guys in T-shirts, guys in ties, old men, young men, teenagers with their buddies, husbands with their wives. They pushed, they shoved, they trampled flowers and they knocked over chairs. 'I saw her shoulder,' one man yelled to his friend. 'I did. Hey, that's more than most people can say'." It is more than most people can dispute that this tournament has thrust to the forefront of the women's game another Russian, Elena Dementieva, who seems to have a better chance of winning tournaments than Kournikova.

Dementieva is pretty, too, but that spot on the dial is already taken so Elena has wisely opted for the tennis alternative. After being in danger of early humiliation in Friday's semi-final against Lindsay Davenport, Dementieva pulled herself together to display the full range of her considerable talent, providing the sort of tennis which saw off Venus Williams in last year's Fed Cup final.

It was a magic carpet ride at Flushing Meadows for the unseeded 18-year-old, born in the same year and the same city, Moscow, as Kournikova. Another fast-rising Russian, Anastasia Myskina, ranked 49th compared to Dementieva's 25, forecast: "Elena will be a top 10 player. She hits the ball so hard, just like the Williams sisters. She also believes she can live with the top players."

Dementieva has soared from 182nd in the world at the end of 1998 to 62 in 1999. Of her matches with the likes of Davenport, Dementieva admitted, "It's amazing. Two years ago I was watching them on TV."

Dementieva is fluent in French, not quite so proficient at English, but she was able to enunciate her dissatisfaction at one of those loaded questions which smug Americans like to lob at people from countries like hers. "Do you ever think about training in the United States?" she was asked. "Not as a permanent resident, but because the weather is better year-round."

"You know, I love Moscow," Dementieva replied. "I have been born there. This is my country, my city. I prefer to stay there. I can't say that I love USA. Maybe for vacation it's good, but for life I prefer to stay in Moscow."

She took up tennis aged seven at the Spartak Club, where her coach was Rausa Islanova, the mother of Marat Safin, who shares the record with Elena of becoming the first Russian man and woman to reach the US Open semi-finals in the same year.

Dementieva's game is improving fast. She is powerful off both wings and has a potent cross-court forehand. She needs to generate more pace on her serve and, as a true European base-liner, she needs to work on volleying. But her movement for someone who stands 5ft 11in is exceptional and her aggressive attitude is something which matches the best women on the WTA tour. "She plays smart and simple," said her defeated quarter-final opponent, Anke Huber.

Things are improving for Dementieva, who revealed that she has finally been approached by people wanting to sponsor and endorse her. There is, of course, still a long way to go before she approaches the earning potential of Kournikova. So what does she think about that. "I don't think about Kournikova," she insisted. "I only think about my game."

* Vince Spadea will replace Andre Agassi in the US men's singles squad for the Olympic Games. Pete Sampras and Jan-Michael Gambill, who had declined, were again approached after Agassi's withdrawal but said no. Spadea, 119 in the rankings, was next in line to join Todd Martin, Michael Chang and Jeff Tarango in the singles team.

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