Slam in her sights

Nadia Petrova laughs a lot these days, and giggles, too. For the past two years, during which her fellow Russians Maria Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina and Svetlana Kuznetsova have all won grand slam titles and Elena Dementieva has appeared in two finals, Petrova has frequently represented the somewhat stern face of her country’s amazing and uplifting rise to the top of women’s tennis — but not any more.

After four titles this year, including three on clay, she will arrive from her Brussels training courts and drive into the Bois de Boulogne as the Russian number one, the world number three and the form favourite to win her first grand slam title.

She smiles broadly at the seeming incongruity: “You know, I have not changed the way I play. It’s more a change in myself.
I’m a bit more calm and a bit more patient. And I’m enjoying myself.” And this appears to be the key.

Petrova’s Muscovite parents were both international track and field athletes. She was marked out as having the physique and ability to be the cream of the Russian crop and a semifinal at the French Open three years ago appeared to confirm her emerging stature. Since then, and despite a further semifinal at Roland Garros, plus quarterfinals at the three other majors, the big breakthrough has failed to materialise.

Admittedly, injuries have continually stalled her, and she had to miss the recent Italian Open with a minor niggle, but all too often it has been a lack of confidence that has held her back. Crucially she now has a new coach, Tomas Iwanski from Poland, with whom she has complete empathy.

At the Australian Open this year, where she lost in the quarterfinals against Sharapova, she surprised everyone by claiming her then coach Alexander Mityaev was “too soft”.

She then took on the German Andy Fahlke, only to discover he was “too serious”. Iwanski, a friend since Petrova’s junior days, became her third coach this year, and the bond was immediate.

Petrova won the French Open junior title in 1998. ” I enjoy the city, I love the atmosphere of Roland Garros and I love the clay. Every single day I want to stay as long as possible.”

And this year she might, with the final a fortnight on Saturday, two days after her 24th birthday. “Tomas has changed my approach to winning. Sometimes in the past I have been satisfied with a few good wins, but now I want titles.”

Winning the title in Berlin this month, where she beat the reigning French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium in the final, has raised her confidence and expectations for Roland Garros, which starts, unusually, on Sunday. “It’s a chance. Sometimes when you want something too much it doesn’t happen and you get blown out. But I am thinking much more clearly now.”

Her father, Victor, a former leading hammer thrower, will be with her in Paris. “He is very relaxed and easy-going but can become very emotional,” she says. Nadejda Ilina, her mother and former Olympic 400m relay medal winner, is the driving force. “Every single day my Mama calls me asking about my health and how I am feeling. She always tells me what I should be doing, even though I don’t like it and have told her so many times. But you have to understand how she feels. She’s my mother.”

Although the rise of the Russian women appeared to take place in one mighty gust in 2004 with Myskina beating Dementieva in the French Open final, Sharapova winning Wimbledon and Kuznetsova defeating Dementieva in the US Open final, their various backgrounds are quite diverse, with Sharapova being the least Russian of them all, having moved to the United States when she was nine. She has also overshadowed them all in terms of publicity and earning power. “We are all individuals and we have all set our own goals. I’m happy for Maria,” said Petrova. A couple of decades ago this might have been called the party line.

There are four Russian women in the top 10, seven in the top 20 and 13 in the top 100. Clearly the overwhelming reason for this success has been the desire to break free of fiscal shackles and, without putting too fine a point on it, make a shed load of money as quickly as possible.

To date none of the Russian women has managed to dominate the game, and this at a time when the grand slam events are wide open, particularly with Serena Williams out of the equation. Hence the comeback of Martina Hingis.

“You have to learn how to win the big titles,” said Petrova. “Nobody can teach you.” She has the desire and talent. And now, or so it appears, she is temperamentally prepared. This French Open may be her moment. — Â

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