Myskina has final say as Dementieva serve falters

Martina Navratilova was accused of demeaning both herself and women's tennis when she took a wild card entry into the singles at the French Open here at the age of 47. On reflection, Navratilova's first-round defeat, 6-1, 6-3, by the 19-year-old Gisela Dulko, of Argentina, seems a reasonable contribution to a disappointing women's tournament.

The nadir came on Saturday, when the first all-Russian Grand Slam final turned out to be woefully one-sided, Anastasia Myskina defeating Elena Dementieva, a fellow Muscovite, 6-1, 6-2, in 58 uninspiring minutes.

While some finals fail to live up to their billing, this one was an accurate representation of the two weeks of women's tennis that preceded it. Justine Henin-Hardenne, the defending champion and world No 1, tried to come back from illness too soon. The Williams sisters were not ready to rumble. Amelie Mauresmo sank into the clay under the burden of French expectation. Jennifer Capriati saw off Serena Williams and then folded against Myskina, who had dispatched Venus Williams.

Dementieva closed in on the final by eliminating the struggling Lindsay Davenport before freezing Mauresmo in her headlights - an ironic twist in the circumstances. A routine semi-final win against Paola Suarez did nothing to steel Dementieva for the emotional demands of her first major final. Mental strength can be as important as a reliable serve, and the embarrassed Dementieva had neither.

Midway through the second set, the softly-spoken Dementieva screached a volley of self-condemnation. "I said, 'I hate my serve'," she translated later, "which is true." In the interview room, she tearfully admitted: "I don't know how to serve." That is also true. Her round-arm deliveries are a joke on the WTA Tour, on which she is now ranked a career-high No 6.

Dementieva's coach, Olga Morozova, who was, until Saturday, the only Russian woman to compete in a Grand Slam singles final (she lost to Chris Evert in straight sets in 1974, both here and at Wimbledon), started working with Dementieva after being made redundant by the Lawn Tennis Association.

Reminding Morozova that something needs to be done about Dementieva's serve is stating the obvious. Ten double-faults in the final took her total to 67 for the tournament. When Dementieva advanced to the final at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Key Biscayne, Florida, in March, she was swatted by Serena Williams, 6-1, 6-1, in 50 minutes.

That was Serena's comeback tournament after knee injuries had kept her out of the game since Wimbledon. Dementieva, who had been fortunate to catch Venus Williams on a bad day in the quarter-finals, called to mind Gabriela Sabatini and Anna Kournikova at their worst in the league of dodgy servers. In her six matches in Key Biscayne, Dementieva hit three aces and double-faulted 57 times. She faced 69 break points and her serve was broken 30 times.

Reconstructing a serve takes time and patience, and Morozova is likely to wait for a lull in Dementieva's schedule, possibly after the US Open in September, before attempting a major overhaul of the technical problems.

Helping Dementieva to overcome her big-match nerves is also on the agenda. "I was waiting for this moment all my life, and I just couldn't handle the pressure," she said. Myskina capitalised. "I knew Elena was not going to serve well when she was nervous," she said.

As a victim of stage fright, Dementieva is in elevated company. Danny Kaye had to be pushed into the spotlight from the wings on his debut at the London Palladium. Rod Stewart is said to have hidden behind the speakers for the first couple of songs when he appeared with the Jeff Beck Group in New York. Jacques Brel vomited before the curtain went up and was close to vomiting after the curtain went down.

None of the above had much of a serve, either.

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