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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

Russian Olympians fight to stay focused after success in Beijing


Staff writer

Olympic gold-medal winner Elena Dementieva admits she is having trouble focusing on her game after the euphoria of Beijing, but losing finalist Dinara Safina has no such problems heading into this week's Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo.

World No. 5 Safina is learning to clear her mind after struggling to keep a lid on her emotions earlier in her career, and is keeping her Olympic achievement in perspective as she prepares to battle a field containing six of the world's top 10 players at Ariake Coliseum.

"The Olympic medal means a lot, but as I have had so much success this year getting to the final of the French Open, it is tough to compare the French Open and the Olympics," Safina said.

"Success this year came a little bit unexpectedly, but maybe it was because I was always tough on myself. I wanted to do well, and maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself.

"At one point I said, 'OK, just let it go, relax and let's see what happens.' I started to play my game, sticking to my routine and working hard day by day."

For Dementieva, letting go has not been so easy.

The world No. 4 followed up her success in Beijing with a semifinal defeat at the U.S. Open, and admits she was suffering from an Olympic hangover at Flushing Meadows.

"The thing is it was quite difficult to play in the U.S. Open because there was not enough time to rest and recover, and it was a very special moment in my career so I couldn't think about anything else," she said.

"Since the first time I played, I really wanted to win the gold medal. There is nothing better in sport. I was very proud for my country and for my family that I was able to do this.

"I was trying to be professional afterward, but it was difficult to do so. I will never forget this moment, but I need to move on and concentrate on the rest of my career."

Vera Zvonareva won bronze to complete a clean sweep for the Russians in Beijing, and the significance of the achievement was not lost on Dementieva.

"For Russia there is nothing bigger than the Olympics, and for me also," she said.

"Some players have their own opinions but that is the way I feel. That never happened before with three girls. I can't compare the tournaments because when you play for your country it is a different feeling. There is nothing like it."

But while Dementieva revels in glory for her country, Safina is more focused on ridding her individual game of the mood swings that have characterized her career.

The 22-year-old says the turning point came with a win over Dementieva in the final of the German Open in May.

"In Berlin I just said I am going to do what my coach tells me, and it doesn't matter if I win or lose," Safina said.

"If you win the match but don't do the right thing, then you stay in the same place. There I was doing the right thing, and it just proved that I had to listen to my coach. Now I have a lot of trust in my coach and he doesn't even have to tell me to listen to him."

The two Russians have played each other four times this year, but Dementieva plays down talk of a rivalry.

"It is not about competition between me and Safina," she said. "Everyone wants to be No. 1.

"This year we had a lot of matches and some tight matches, and it is amazing how well she is playing this year. She beat most of the top-10 players, which is great for her."

Dementieva knows the strength of this year's Japanese event could have a big effect on the world rankings, and thinks the seesaw battle for the top can only be good for tennis.

"I think for the first time for a long time we have a situation where it is quite open for a few players," she said.

"I think it will be interesting for the crowd and for the players as well. We will see a lot of competition, and a lot of players can become No. 1, which is very interesting for the sport."

The tournament also holds special significance for Dementieva, marking her first success in a Tier 1 event when she beat Martina Hingis in 2006.

"It is very exciting to be here and come back to this event," she said.

"I remember that tournament when I beat Martina Hingis, and it was a very special moment for me. I feel like people here support me and that is why it is always a pleasure to play here."

Morita upsets Svazay

Wild-card entrant Ayumi Morita shocked world No. 19 Agnes Szavay in the first round of the Toray Pan Pacific Open on Tuesday, while former Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo crashed out after blowing four match points at Tokyo's Ariake Coliseum.

Morita, seeded 162nd in the world, took an early lead before crumbling on service for the first set at 6-5. The 18-year-old then threw away one set point in the tiebreak to hand the initiative to her Hungarian opponent.

But Morita came storming back in the second, taking a four-game lead before overcoming a late wobble to tie the match at one set each. The Gunma Prefecture native then closed out the match to win 6-7 (7-9), 7-5, 6-4 and book a second-round clash against China's Na Li or Russian world No. 7 Svetlana Kuznetsova.

"This is a big confidence-booster for me," Morita said after the match. "I have had so many matches this year where I couldn't play my best, so to be able to play like this today was great."

I was given the chance with the wild card, so I really wanted to do my best. Now I understand at this level that if you give even a little bit, you lose. You have to focus on every single point."

Aiko Nakamura failed to match her compatriot's success, losing to Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 6-4.

"My opponent is a top-10 player so she made very few mistakes," Nakamura said. "I was trying to do everything I could, but I just couldn't bring to mind how to win the shots."

Ai Sugiyama also lost her doubles match with Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia, going down 4-6, 4-6 to Vania King of the United States and Nadia Petrova of Russia.

Former world No. 1 Mauresmo looked certain of overcoming Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova when she dominated the first set 6-0.

But Cibulkova came back strongly to win the second 6-1, setting up a tense finale that saw the Frenchwoman fail to take advantage of three match points with the score at 5-4.

Cibulkova survived to take the match into a final tiebreak, where Mauresmo again spurned the opportunity to wrap up the victory, this time with fatal consequences as she slumped to a 6-0, 1-6, 6-7 (8-10) loss.

"It's always frustrating to lose when you have match points," she said after the match.

"The last one I am still thinking about a little bit more because I didn't make her play it. I just put the return straight out. I let myself down in the second set by letting her get back into the match."

Mauresmo, who has struggled with injuries and has seen her world ranking tumble to 23, also admitted she seriously thought about quitting the sport last year.

"I was asking myself a lot of questions because I felt physically I wasn't where I should have been," she said. "I had doubts that I could compete, but I thought I could still do it. I still love it and I don't feel like stopping now. Sometimes it is not going to work as well as I want, but I think if I work on my game I can improve. It's a challenge."

Italy's Flavia Pennetta, Mauresmo's conqueror in the U.S. Open earlier this month, beat Israel's Shahar Peer 6-4, 6-4 to set up a second-round clash with world No. 2 Jelena Jankovic, the highest-ranking seed in the competition.

In other games, world No. 39 Kaia Kanepi of Estonia beat No. 13 Anna Chakvetadze of Russia 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, while France's Marion Bartoli beat Maria Kirilenko of Russia 6-2, 6-2.



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