With an all-Russian ladies’ final taking place last week at the venerable Roland Garros stadium last week for the French Open, Russia should have been steeped in glory. Unfortunately, such was — as is so often the case for Russia — far from the case. Russian women suffered an amazing, unprecedented humiliation, and then there was their performance on the actual tennis courts of Roland Garros, which was even worse.
Russian Dinara Safina should have had to face Ana Ivanovic, last year’s champion, in her quarter-finals match. But she didn’t, as Ivanovic fell apart long before that, in humiliating fashion. Safina should then have had to face Venus Williams, last year’s Wimbledon champion, in her semi-finals match. But Williams, too, was eliminated without Safina needing to see a single one of her deadly serves, fastest on the tour. Failing Williams, Safina should have met the only female Russian player ever to have won more than one grand slam title, Maria Sharapova, but that didn’t happen either. Sharapova was brutally crushed in her quarter-finals contest by the lowly #20 seed, winning only 2 of 14 games played. This meant that to reach the finals Safina never had to play a single known, dangerous player and did not meet a top-15 opponent in the semis.
Instead, Safina was served up a series of insignificant opponents who she pulverized, until she finally met, for the first time, an opponent seeded in the top 25 in the quarter finals. When that happened, she promptly lost the first set of the match, winning only one of seven games played, and though she won the second set the tally of games stood 7-10 against her. Safina won the match with 13 games to her lowly opponent’s 12. She then moved on to the semi-finals where she faced a much lower seeded opponent than in the quarters. That, to put it mildly, is not how it’s supposed to work.
But this is how it’s almost always been with Russian winners of grand slam tournaments. In fact, Sharapova is the only “Russian” in tennis history to win a slam by beating a non-Russian in the finals. When Russians win slams, it’s inevitably because of a freak string of luck that helps them avoid confrontations with the world’s great players and places one against the other in the ultimate match.
Here’s just how desperately screwed up the women’s game is right now: If world #2 Serena Williams had beaten Safina in the in French Open finals this year, she would have won that last three grand slam titles in a row yet she would not have taken the #1 rankingfrom Safina, who would never have won a single grand slam event in her entire career. A system like that seems to say to the fans: Get lost! And they’re doing just that.
Only too painfully aware that Safina isn’t exactly the Great White Hope of women’s tennis, in unprecedented and stunning fashion the official tournament website carried an article asking visitors to comment on whether Safina, ranked #1 in the world, deserved her lofty status, or whether another player was the “true” number one. This shocking insult to the world’s top-ranked player and the tournament’s highest seed tells you all you need to know about the state of the women’s game and the Russian who is its leading face.
It was clear, of course, that she didn’t really deserve her status. No player does who gets it without first ever once winning a grand slam title, and given the fact that Safina was obliterated and humiliated by world #2 Serena Williams at this year’s first Grand Slam event in Australia, Safina was even more stunningly undeserving of her status. But it’s one thing for that to be true, quite another for the organizers of a grand slam event to publicize it so directly. Clearly, tournament organizers are worried that Safina’s status places the sport’s very reputation in serious danger.
They’re right to be worried. Because far more important than her lack of credentials is her lack of game, personality and style. Tennis fans have no desire to watch grand slam events get contested by the likes of Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina. These players have no personalities, no style, and most of all nothing spectacular in their games. They achieve their ratings not by winning great victories but by grinding out losses in many tournaments over the course of the year. It’s simply absurd that Williams, who has won the last two grand slam events in succession and outclasses Safina by a country mile, isn’t ranked number one, and more than that it’s bad for the sport.
A review of other Russian female performance at Roland Garros reveals an even more appalling scene of carnage.
Russia had seven players among the 32 tournament seeds. Two of Russia’s top four seeds, Nadia Petrova and Elena Dementieva, lost before the fourth round had even begun, failing to reach the second week of competition. Petrova lost to an unseeded opponent, Dementieva, seeded #4, lost to the #30 seed. Three of the other five seeds, #23 Alisa Kleybanova and #26 Anna Chakvetadze and #27 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, were likewise ejected in the first week, only one of them losing to a seeded opponent. As noted above, Maria Shamapova also went down to humiliating defeat, though she did better than most of her more “Russian” countrymen (Sharapova has lived most of her life in the US and pays her taxes there, not to Russia).
This meant that only Russia’s first and third seeds — Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova — survived the tournament’s first week, while more than two-thirds of its seeds were eliminated. Both, however, made it to the finals, but they could hardly have done otherwise, given the freakishly obscure opponents they faced in their semi-finals matches, though Kuznetsova at least could claim credit for a really tough and impressive quarter-finals victory over Serena. Safina’s road to the finals was an embarrassing cakewalk over patsies.
Little wonder, then, that the match produced by Kuznetsova and Safina was brutally unwatchable, one of the worst grand slam finals in tennis history. Safina, the so-called “world #1,” fell apart like a cheap suit, but Kuznetsova was only slightly better. In the first set, the two players offered fans twice as many unforced errors as winners, and Safina was broken twice to lose 4-6. Both players went through the entire match with that rabbit-in-the-headlights, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here look on their faces that only serves to remind those who paid premium prices for tickets how cruelly they’d been cheated. Safina served five double faults, missed 40% of her first serves and did not serve a single ace. She only got worse in the second set, and it wasn’t nerves (this was Safina’s second French Open final and second grand slam final this year). TV camera’s repeatedly showed her coach shaking his head and frowning in disgust; even he rejected the “#1 player” in the world. She double-faulted on championship point, losing the second set 2-6. By the time the match mercifully ended, the pair of Russians had offered fans just barely an hour of tennis with a stunning 44 unforced errors to just 23 winners. It was truly ghastly from start to finish, a national disgrace for Russia.
It was, to say the least, not good news for the sport: Ask any tennis fan whether he’d pay money to watch Safina and Kuznetsova contest the finals. The look of dejection you will see on that face will speak far more eloquently than any words could do, which was of course the reason the tourament organizers themselves were forced to acknowledge the issue.
Svetlana Kuznetsova became only the second Russian woman in tennis history to win more than one grand-slam title, and she actually lives and learned her game in Russia (unlike Safina, who lives abroad and learned her game in Spain). But she only did it, just the way she won her first title, by getting to face a pathetic fellow Russian in the finals who handed her the victory, and that was the extent of the good news for Russia, which was once again exposed as a serious toxin in the bloodstream of the woman’s tennis game, it’s #1-ranked player a total fraud. The sport will not survive many more travesties like this one.