Tennis

September 09, 2007

Backsliding
Is the Russian revolution over? At the U.S. Open, that country's most gifted players continued to disappoint

IT'S NOW OFFICIAL: Marat Safin has been written off. You could tell by the Where did it all go wrong? questions he took during his brief stay at the 2007 U.S. Open, the dismissive tone that even he uses when describing his career. Seven years ago Safin crushed Pete Sampras in the men's final at Flushing Meadows and heard the great American declare him the sport's next dominant force. "See," Safin said last Friday after losing his second-round match in three weak sets to Stanislas Wawrinka, "even the geniuses make the mistakes. He was wrong."

Safin is 27, is ranked 25th and could well play for years, but that isn't the point. Still arguably the most talented player alive next to Roger Federer, he exists these days mainly as the exemplar of a growing tennis type: the Underachieving Russian. On Saturday defending women's champion Maria Sharapova crashed out of the year's final major in the same limp fashion by which she'd exited the three others, beaten 6--2 in the third set by Agnieszka Radwanska. "It really is just a tennis match," Sharapova said. "Some days you win, and some days you lose."

Did success spoil the Russian tennis revolution? In 2004 Anastasia Myskina won the French Open, Sharapova won Wimbledon, Svetlana Kuznetzova won the U.S. Open, and Elena Dementieva lost in two of those finals. Since then only No. 2--ranked Sharapova has made good on her breakthrough. There's still no national delegation deeper or more gifted, but the first week of the Open saw a parade of losses: Dementieva, Nadia Petrova, Dinara Safina (Marat's sister) and Vera Zvonareva. Sharapova is the richest woman athlete alive, but her time in Queens was notable mostly for her bejeweled evening dress and the garish black purse she lugged on court, large enough to hold millions.

It's an aptly enduring image. Safin; Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the two-time Slam winner whose mercenary jaunts from Tashkent to Doha to Lyon earned him nearly $24 million; and workhorse Nikolay Davydenko, currently embroiled in the ATP's gambling investigation, provide mean fodder for the conceit that the greatest Russian talents have more interest in tennis winnings than winning tennis. Such criticism is an easy shot, coming from those unfamiliar with the hardscrabble imperatives of post-Soviet life.

"People wonder why I didn't win the five Grand Slams, 10 Grand Slams, why I win only two," says Safin, whose career earnings exceed $13 million. "But if people look at me when I was 17 and had no money and my mother gave me only $500 to go to Roland Garros and the French Open.... To come from having nothing, zero, and to become what I achieve right until now, it's a long way."

Raised in Florida from age nine, Sharapova, now 20, might well have the drive to break that mold. "Maria's different," says CBS analyst Mary Carillo. "I don't consider her a typical Russian. Considering she's made so much money and is so famous, I think she very much wants to be a great tennis player." We'll soon find out.

AMERICAN TENNIS

The Next Big Things

At 4:14 p.m. ET last Saturday, Roger Federer floated a backhand long and found himself surrounded by a noise not heard in years. John Isner had just won their first-set tiebreaker 7--4, and the roar of the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium went beyond cheers; it sounded like the moment American fans have long been waiting for.

The 6'9 1/2" Isner would lose the match, but he put a scare into the best player of the age, legitimized his dizzying rise (from No. 839 in June to the top 150) and showed he has more than one massive weapon. "Not just a guy who can serve," Federer said afterward. "He can do more, and I knew the danger."

Isner (below) wasn't acting alone. With 18-year-old Donald Young finally showing Grand Slam grit in his third-round loss to 10th-ranked Feliciano López, the conversation about American men's tennis turned on a new question: Who has more upside?

Long the gifted prodigy, the compact (5'9", 145 pounds) Young has beefed up his serve to more than 130 mph. "It's a question of him getting comfortable on tour, getting stronger," says four-time Slam winner Jim Courier. "He's definitely top 20 material."

Courier says the same about Isner, 22, but he also describes Isner's uncanny poise as "mind-bending" and adds that Isner's serve will make him dangerous "until his arm falls off." Who will make the next big noise? For now, you've got to go with Big John.

ONLY AT SI.COM Submit your tennis questions to Jon Wertheim.

PHOTOJULIE JACOBSON/AP (SHARAPOVA)AGONY OF DEFEAT Both Sharapova (far left) and Safin suffered early exits. PHOTOCHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES (SAFIN)[See caption above] PHOTOCLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES (ISNER)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)