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Russians set to take over women's tennis

June 17, 2004 11:54 IST
With Belgium's best two players unfit, the women's singles at Wimbledon will boil down to a contest between Russian grace and American gristle.

The withdrawal of Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, the world numbers one and two respectively, due to nagging health and fitness problems has left a big hole in the draw.

In their absence Russia's cortege of youthful contenders, led by newly-anointed French Open queen Anastasia Myskina, will take on the beef of the Williams sisters Serena and Venus and their battle-hardened cohorts Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport.

Only France's Amelie Mauresmo looks capable of breaking the Russo-American stranglehold.

However, the world number four's muscular frame belies a fragile mind and she undid much of her good work this year with a depressingly familiar loss of nerve in the French Open quarter-finals three weeks ago.

That defeat by eventual runner-up Elena Dementieva was indicative of the extraordinary strength in depth of Russian women's tennis, still celebrating after producing the first all-Russian grand slam final in history in Paris.

The march of the tsarinas is led by Myskina (world number three) and Dementieva (six) who spearhead a group of six Russians populating the top 15 of the latest women's rankings.

Svetlana Kuznetsova (nine), Nadia Petrova (12), Vera Zvonareva (14) and Maria Sharapova (15) are all likely to make an impression at the All England Club next week.

Most precocious of all is the elegant, 17-year-old Sharapova, who reached the French Open quarter-finals and proved her class on grass by winning her third tour title at Edgbaston last week.

Kuznetsova, who celebrates her 19th birthday during the Wimbledon fortnight, reached the quarter-finals on her debut last year and the 19-year-old

Zvonareva, like Sharapova, Myskina and Dementieva, made the fourth round.


Nonetheless their lack of experience relative to the Americans in winning grand slam titles is likely to tell at some stage.

The exception is Muscovite Myskina, whose dynamic French Open triumph proved she has the temperament to challenge for the biggest prizes.

"It was a major breakthrough in terms of self-belief for me," she said of her Paris win.

"I'm not the favourite (at Wimbledon)...but who says I can't reach the final just like I did in Paris?"

If the Russians are hungry, the American appetite appears a little diminished.

A Williams has won each of the last four Wimbledon singles crowns but the form of defending champion Serena, seeking her third successive Wimbledon crowns, is still brittle after her return from knee surgery in March.

Older sister Venus, crippled by an abdominal strain during her loss to Serena in last year's subdued final, is battling inner demons in a bid to recover the verve that brought her successive Wimbledon titles in 2000 and 2001.

Capriati and 1999 champion Davenport are both 28 and past their best, though still capable of inflicting widespread damage in the draw with their punishing power-hitting.

They are spring chickens compared with the 47-year-old Martina Navratilova who returns to Wimbledon singles action for the first time since 1994.

Judging by her comprehensive first-round defeat at the French Open last month, though, the grand old lady of Wimbledon has no chance of adding to her nine All England Club singles titles.

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