It was hard for me to write this because I was never a fan of Elena Dementieva.
I always find reports of player retirements a bit like eulogies: full of praises, nostalgia and reminiscence. Come to think of it, retirement from sport is a bit like a reincarnation of sorts – the passing of one life as a tennis player to another, as a woman, man, wife, mother, as some other professional, or a different type of tennis professional, be it coach or commentator. But life as a professional tennis player comes to an end.
When you happen to be a fan of a particular player, the praises, nostalgia and memories come naturally. It’s putting your emotions down in words that’s the hard part. But when you’ve never been a fan of a particular player, you’re stuck in an odd situation where you might still not be a fan, but you’re nonetheless left with an Elena Dementieva-shaped hole in your tennis universe. If I come out singing praises, does that make me a hypocrite? If I hold on to my critical judgements, does that make me mean-spirited and small-minded?
Those are the kind of thoughts going through my mind as I type this. So I’m going to try and write this as honestly as I can.
I was never a fan of Elena Dementieva because, quite simply, she wasn’t my cuppa tea. I like my players with a little fire in their belly. The likes of Roger, Rafa, Serena, Venus, Maria are all fierce, independent individuals. What makes them that much more special than the rest is that they smell blood and see fear more keenly than anyone else, and they never hesitate to deliver the knockout blow when they get the chance on the big stage of a slam.
Elena Dementieva, despite having the seemingly complete package of talent and hard work, didn’t have that kind of killer in her.
She made the latter stages of slams frequently, but when push came to shove, Dementieva backed off. The match point she had against Serena during last year’s Wimbledon semifinal was probably the best illustration of that. Everything was on her side that day, including the serve, and when the opportunity for a knockout blow presented itself, Dementieva went cross court on match point. Hindsight would reveal going down the line to be the stroke of inspiration and dare she needed then and found wanting.
See? It’s easy for me to say this, because I was never a fan.
But despite all my misgivings about Dementieva throughout her career, it was only upon her retirement that I discovered how much deeper an impression she had left on me, without my knowing.
Needless to say, she was one talented player. Just how good was she? Look not to her notoriously unreliable serve. In some ways, Dementieva’s serve was the most obvious proof of just how good the rest of her game was. Despite what should’ve been a fatal flaw in her game, Dementieva made two slam finals, many more semifinals, and has beaten the best players of her generation during her 13 year career. She did so by making the biggest liability in her game as irrelevant as possible.
That’s not to say that the serve didn’t make things difficult for her, it’s to say that in a truly Darwinian evolutionary manner, Dementieva worked with the biggest weakness in her game and made the rest of her game dependable enough for her to be a constant fixture in the WTA Top 10.
That’s how much of a good player she was.
Another aspect of Elena Dementieva that has left me with a lasting impression was her personality. It’s no secret that I enjoy most of the “divas” in tennis – the Williamses, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic … I like them for the simple reason that they amuse me, and tennis is nothing if not entertainment.
Elena Dementieva wasn’t amusing. She wasn’t a Maria or even an Ana. As an incredibly beautiful woman, she was relatively uncommercialised. She attended less parties, had less sponsors and did less photo shoots than many other women on tour, far less than what she could’ve had if she pursued such a path. But she didn’t, and I don’t think it was the result of bad marketing. I think it was a principled stance by her against taking the easier, but less rewarding, path.
Because of this stance and because of the way she carried herself throughout her career, anyone who knew anything about tennis saw Dementieva as the consummate professional athlete, not a celebrity. I say this without passing a judgement on those who do commercialise their careers, for there is no single way, or “right way” of making a career for yourself in this situation. But in women’s tennis, Dementieva has always been a constant reference point against the ‘Tennis Diva’, a demonstration that beauty doesn’t have to be branded and sold for money, that professionalism and an unwavering work ethic can be the motivating principle of one’s career.
For that, what I could not give her in devotion, I give in respect.
Lastly, in retirement, Elena Dementieva reminded me of a different type of story line. What I mean is that there are movies with happy endings. There are movies with tragic ones. And then there are those that are just “middle of the road” and leave you with the Bittersweet Symphony stuck in your head on replay.
At some point during her career, half the tennis world began to wish that Dementieva would finally win the slam she seems to so deserve. It would’ve been a fairy tale ending, had she managed a win after trying so hard for so long and coming so close so many times.
But having achieved much in her career, Dementieva retired without ever winning a slam. She retired in a typical Dementieva fashion, without any warning, without a year of Safin-esque build up. She went relatively quietly, citing a reason many women know rather well: the inescapable fact of biology, also known as Wouldn’t-It-Be-Great-If-Men-Had-Uteri?
“If I was a man, I would never stop playing,” Dementieva said. “But at the age 29, I have to think about something else. I think I’m ready for a big change in my life.”
It wasn’t the fairy tale we had hoped for, but it certainly wasn’t tragic or regretful. It was the bittersweet symphony that’s life and sometimes, none of it fits into the neat equation of Talent + Hard Work = Success. Sometimes, you try and try and try and you never quite get the happy ending you deserve because it just is what it is.
Elena Dementieva, one of the finest players of her generation, never won a slam in her career. Doesn’t make it a bad story. Doesn’t make it an unsuccessful career. Doesn’t make it a life of regrets. I hazard a good guess that the glass is more than half full for Elena.
Unlike Clijsters, Henin or Hingis, she leaves this sport as Mauresmo did last year, with no sense of unfinished business. That’s partly the reason why to this day, I hold on to a small hope that Hingis might stage another come back. But in the case of Dementieva and Mauresmo? I know they won’t.
So I guess that’s goodbye then, Miss Dementieva. I wish you luck in your future endeavours, knowing that if you bring your diligence, talent and sensibility to whatever you choose to do in the future, you probably won’t need luck to succeed.