By J. Quinn Martin
Elena Dementyeva, doesn’t let pressure get to her easily. Currently ranked number six in the world, the steely 22-year-old tennis star didn’t get the jitters when she played her first pro tournament in 1998, and she wasn’t nervous when she faced down Russian rival Anastasia Myskina in the French Open finals earlier this year.
And yet Dementyeva, who captured the silver medal in Sydney four years ago, says she was awfully tense on July 3 - the day she was charged with carrying the Olympic flame through the streets of Moscow. "I knew all I had to do was jog 300 meters down Tverskaya with the torch, but I was terrified. I didn’t sleep at all the night before," she said after a recent training session at the CSKA sports complex where she has trained for almost a decade. "I just couldn’t fully comprehend that I had been invited to touch the most sacred object for all athletes. It was really unbelievable."
Dementyeva’s jitters underscore the fact that, for this particular Russian tennis queen, the Olympic Games are paramount. The Grand Slams come around one after another, year after year, she said, but the Olympics are special. "It’s the atmosphere of the Olympic village, being so close to so many great sportsmen, the spirit of victory, and patriotism when you are fighting for your country. The feeling you have when the whole country is supporting you can’t be compared with anything. I felt so proud when I was standing on top of that podium in Sydney."
Since taking second at the French Open earlier this year, her best finish in a Grand Slam tournament to date, the 5’ 11’’ crosscourt forehand specialist has had one thing on her mind: winning a medal in Athens.
Dementyeva got her start in tennis at age seven, and at the time was turned down by CSKA and most of the other top training clubs in Moscow. She enrolled at the Spartak sports club as a last-ditch option, and for three years remained there under the tutelage of a coach named Rauza Islanova. Dementyeva eventually left and signed up with CSKA because her mother felt she wasn’t getting enough attention; Islanova, it seemed, was always doting over an up-and-comer named Anastasia Myskina, and her own son, a shy little boy named Marat Safin.
Safin, of course, went on to win the U.S. Open a decade later, and Myskina has become one of the top-ranked womens players in the world. But, unlike Myskina and Safin, who both live abroad, Dementyeva has chosen to stay at home in Moscow, continuing to train at CSKA, a decision that has helped make her one of the darlings of the Russian sports world. "I’m a patriot," she says. "Perhaps this is rare for tennis players, but I love my country." Despite constant offers to train at exclusive clubs in Europe and America, she claims she has no desire to move abroad. She lives in the same apartment in central Moscow’s Taganka region where she was born, along with her father, an electrical engineer, her mother, who left her job as a teacher to travel with Elena, and her brother Vsevolod, who recently graduated from Moscow’s prestigious Bauman Institute.
"In 2000, no one really expected that I would get a medal," Dementyeva admits. In August in Athens, though, the pressure will be on for her to repeat her previous Olympic achievement. There, she’ll be battling it out against the other top players in the world, many of whom are her Russian compatriates. She and her former nemesis, Myskina, will be playing together as partners in the Doubles competition. Dementyeva vows that she has been training hard, with the singular objective of coming back home to Russia with another Olympic medal. She also promises to get some sleep the night before the competition, just to be on the safe side.