Their most famous compatriot may not be here, but you would still not get much of a price backing a Russian to win the women's singles at the US Open. In the absence of Maria Sharapova, who is nursing a shoulder injury, a host of other Russians fancied their chances as the tournament got under way yesterday.
Dinara Safina has been one of the players of the summer, reaching the finals of the French Open and the Olympics and winning tournaments in Los Angeles and Montreal, while Elena Dementieva has been playing some of the best tennis of her life. Dementieva beat Safina over three sets in the Olympic final and began her campaign here yesterday with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over the Uzbek, Akgul Amanmuradova (below).
The match was a complete contrast of styles, both in terms of their tennis and appearance. Dementieva, with her long blonde hair and slim figure, is one of the most elegant players in the women's game, though she can crash the ball as hard as anyone with her stylish ground strokes.
Amanmuradova, a 24-year-old making her first appearance at Flushing Meadows, has a much more powerful frame, but although she bludgeoned her fair share of winners the world No 78 lacked the variety of her opponent's game. When she threw in the occasional drop shot Dementieva nearly always read her intentions and chased the ball down.
The first set was close, nevertheless, both players holding serve until Dementieva broke in a marathon ninth game. Amanmuradova saved three break points but could do little about the fourth as Dementieva struck a beautifully executed backhand cross-court pass.
Amanmuradova was first to break in the second set, going 5-3 up when Dementieva struck a forehand long. The Uzbek had two set points in the following game but appeared to wilt under pressure as Dementieva broke back. At 5-5 the Russian broke again, winning the game to love with a superb forehand winning pass down the line, and served out to secure victory in an hour and 28 minutes. She now plays France's Pauline Parmentier, a 6-3, 7-6 winner over New Zealand's Marina Erakovic.
When Dementieva reached two Grand Slam finals in 2004, losing to her fellow Russians Anastasia Myskina at the French Open and Svetlana Kuznetsova here, a bright future beckoned, but a semi-final appearance at the 2005 US Open was her best Grand Slam performance in the following three years.
The last six months, however, have been the most productive period of the Muscovite's career. After winning the title in Dubai, beating Ana Ivanovic and Kuznetsova along the way, she has reached the finals in Berlin and Istanbul, the semi-finals at Wimbledon, where she lost to Venus Williams, plus two more semi-finals and two quarter-finals.
Dementieva described winning the Olympic title as the biggest moment of her life. "Journalists were always asking me what was more important for me, Grand Slam tournaments or the Olympic Games," she said. "Obviously, it's the Olympic Games. They're so much more important to me. I cannot even compare Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympic Games. The Games are so much bigger. To be an Olympic champion is the pinnacle of my career."
Asked what her next target would be, Dementieva replied: "I'm not sure that I'll be playing another Olympic Games, so that was the biggest goal in my career. Right now, I don't know what to dream about. There are a lot of things that I can achieve in tennis, by winning a Grand Slam or becoming No 1, but there is nothing compared to the gold medal, nothing."
For a while yesterday another Russian woman looked capable of becoming the first to knock out a seed here, but Anastasia Pivovarova was unable to sustain her game against Patty Schnyder. The No 15 seed won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.