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The most head-turning headline to emerge from Doha came not from its champion or from the year-end #1 but from one of the WTA’s sturdiest anchors, who now seeks new seas to navigate.  Although her Beijing breakthrough remains the jewel in Dementieva’s crown, she enjoyed several other golden moments throughout a dramatic—and often melodramatic—career.  We revisit eight of her most meaningful achievements.

Amelia Island 2003:

Then ranked outside the top 20, Elena scored three consecutive victories over top-10 opponents en route to her first career title.  Conceding just one game to world #9 Hantuchova in the quarterfinals, the unproven Russian rallied from one-set deficits against both Henin and Davenport.  Down match point to the future four-time Roland Garros champion in the semis, Dementieva showed the stubborn tenacity that would characterize her finest performances as she matured.  Moreover, the title run on Amelia Island’s green clay portended the Russian’s evolution into a threat on all surfaces.  This trait comprised one of the key factors in her ability to maintain an elevated ranking for an exceptionally long period.

Roland Garros 2004:

At the vanguard of this year’s “Russian Revolution,” Dementieva formed half of the first all-Russian women’s major final in the Open era.  After surviving two three-setters in her first three rounds, Elena dominated Davenport and Mauresmo without dropping a set.  Despite her one-sided loss to Myskina in the championship match, she affirmed her position among the WTA elite by translating her imposing results from smaller tournaments to majors.  Numerous players struggle throughout their careers with this task, and many never actually accomplish it, but Dementieva burst into the spotlight at a major barely a year after her maiden title.

US Open 2004:

Even more challenging than an initial breakthrough is the mission of consolidating that breakthrough, which Dementieva fulfilled just two Slams later.  Although her compatriots Myskina, Sharapova, and Kuznetsova all claimed titles in 2004, many majors passed before any of them returned to a Slam title match; Sharapova waited more than two years and Kuznetsova more than four, while Myskina never returned to that momentous stage.  In contrast, Elena swiftly regrouped after losing her Wimbledon and Olympics openers in reach a second major final despite the pressure-soaked environment in New York.  Undeterred by the disastrous denouement of her Roland Garros final, Dementieva obtained another opportunity after edging Mauresmo and home hope Capriati in nail-biting third-set tiebreaks.  Perhaps mentally weary from those exertions, she delivered an unconvincing performance in the final against Kuznetsova.  Yet her resurgence between Paris and New York revealed one of Dementieva’s trademark characteristics, the talent for recovering from disappointment and continuing to compete with redoubled vigor.

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Fed Cup 2005:

Dementieva delivered every point for Russia in the Fed Cup final against France, which secured her nation’s second title in this competition.  Capturing the ever-critical opening point, she avenged her loss to Mary Pierce in the US Open semifinals with a dominant third set.  After another three-set triumph over Mauresmo handed Russia a 2-1 lead, Dementieva found herself harnessed to a youthful Safina for the championship-deciding doubles rubber.  Defying the hostile French crowd and accumulating fatigue, she scored her third three-set victory of a memorable weekend, especially meaningful for a player tied so closely to her origins.  Before the Russian team became a comically bloated collection of superstars, therefore, Dementieva’s star shone undimmed through the atmosphere of national team competition, which many observers have considered more intense than any other context in the sport.  (Dementieva retired with a sparkling 22-5 record in Fed Cup singles action and a 26-9 Fed Cup record overall.)

Indian Wells 2006:

Notorious for her unreliable serve, Elena proved that her versatile game could outweigh this flaw when she carved a path to the Indian Wells while averaging 13 double faults per match.  Despite effectively donating four service games in each encounter, she defused the fearsome arsenals of upstarts Mirza, Ivanovic, and Li Na.  After mustering little resistance in the first set of her semifinal with Henin, the Russian refused to crumble but instead wrested victory from the jaws of defeat by capturing two tight sets from the Belgian.  Having accumulated four three-set matches in the desert, she wilted on a windy Saturday against Sharapova.  By reaching the final at one of the calendar’s most pivotal non-majors, though, Dementieva demonstrated that she could compensate for her serving woes even against elite adversaries.  In order to fulfill her potential, she had learned the key lesson of minimizing her weaknesses and maximizing her strengths, most notably her movement, footwork, and return.

Kremlin Cup 2007:

Eyeing a final against Serena Williams at her home tournament, Dementieva could have been forgiven for a bit of trepidation.  She had lost both of her previous finals in Moscow, while Serena had won all eight of the sets that they had played and routed her in a double-breadstick Miami final.  After the Russian dropped a tight first set, many onlookers (including ourselves) expected her to fade swiftly thereafter, much as Kuznetsova had in a similar situation on the previous day.  But, unlike her compatriot, Dementieva preserved her focus into the second set and soon gained the upper hand in their baseline exchanges.  Having reversed the momentum, she did not relinquish her grasp upon the match, dropping just two games in the last two sets.  Despite its modest position on the calendar, the Kremlin Cup surely represented one of this proud Russian’s most personally meaningful titles.

Olympics 2008:

The crowning achievement of Elena’s career, the Beijing gold medal seemed a reward for her long years of patient, persevering labor in the shadow of the Williamses and the Belgians.  A silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics, the Russian finally captured what many Russians consider the ultimate prize in her sport.  After she conquered a promising teenager named Caroline Wozniacki, Dementieva fell behind Serena by a set and break in the quarterfinals.  Exploiting a brief lapse in the American’s concentration, she slipped away with the second set and established a comfortable lead in the decider before warding off Serena’s inevitable eleventh-hour surge.  Dementieva then overcame the challenge of defeating consecutive compatriots, rarely an easy task for her generation of Russians.  In the gold-medal match, a similar scenario unfolded when Safina dominated her in the first set and came within a point of serving for the title in the second set.  Steadfastly clinging to her serve when it mattered most, Elena elevated her performance late in the second set before frustrating an increasingly agitated Safina with stingy consistency in the third set.  With the gold medal eventually rested on her racket at 5-3, moreover, Dementieva didn’t flinch during the most vital service game of her career.

Wimbledon 2009:

Ruthlessly efficient through five rounds on her least favorite surface, Dementieva confronted two-time Wimbledon champion and four-time finalist Serena on the tournament’s final Thursday.  In the longest Wimbledon semifinal of the Open era, she implausibly matched or even surpassed Serena from the service line for most of three suspenseful sets.  Winning a first-set tiebreak from the world #2, Elena forced Serena to unleash her most spectacular form, and even then the American prevailed only by the narrowest of margins.  On match point at 4-5 in the final set, Dementieva chose a crosscourt pass with Williams hurtling towards the net rather than the riskier down-the-line gambit.  Her high-percentage tactic nearly reaped rewards when Serena’s tentative volley clipped the net…before nudging across the tape.  Nevertheless, this classic encounter demonstrated the Russian’s ability to threaten the most dominant player of her generation on the most prestigious stages in her sport.  Although a loss, this Wimbledon semifinal might have been Dementieva’s signature performance.

***

We return soon to preview the second edition of the Tournament of Champions in Bali, which has assembled an intriguingly diverse cast of past stars, future stars and someone who hovers between those categories:

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