New Russians into Australian Open quarterfinals
When the Australian Open started, there was little doubt that Russian women would make a strong showing into the quarterfinals.
Among the contenders were No. 2 Dinara Safina, No. 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 5 Elena Dementieva and three-time Grand Slam singles champion Maria Sharapova, whose seeding had slipping to No. 14 due to time off the tour because of a shoulder injury.
But as of Sunday, the four marquee Russian players had been eliminated, leaving the spotlight focused on three others whose names might be less familiar - Maria Kirilenko, Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova.
Kirilenko, who upset Sharapova in the first round, won her fourth-round match Sunday when Safina pulled out because of a back injury and limped off the court.
Safina was facing set point, trailing 4-5 and serving at 30-40 when she retired.
``It's really, really terrible,'' Safina said at a post-match news conference, saying she seemed to be suffering a flare-up of a back injury that ended last year's season in October and halted her hold on the No. 1 ranking she owned for much of 2009.
``The physio asked me to lie on the table, I said I cannot lie. I cannot make any movement. Whatever I try to move it hurts terribly,'' said Safina, who was a finalist at the French Open and last year's Australian Open.
The 22-year-old Kirilenko, who is ranked No. 58, will be making her first appearance at a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
``I'm feeling bad for Dinara,'' said Kirilenko, adding she would have preferred not to have won by default but she was nonetheless ``happy about it.''
No. 9 Zvonareva plays her fourth-round match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on Monday.
Then there's Petrova, the 27-year-old who first sent home U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters after a stunning 6-0, 6-1 upset in the third round and followed up Sunday with a victory over Kuznetsova, the French Open champion.
Petrova has equaled her best run at the Australian Open by reaching the last eight. She's never gone further than the semifinals at a major.
As a young player, Petrova looked set to become a star with her big serve and solid groundstrokes.
In 2003, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, knocking off Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati on the way.
But she was upstaged in 2004 by other Russians. Sharapova won Wimbledon that year, Anastasia Myskina won the French Open, and Kuznetsova took home the trophy at the U.S. Open.
Petrova attributes some of her resurgence to the fighting spirit of Russian players.
``There's a lot of competition between us,'' said the No. 19-seeded Petrova. ``There's a lot of us, obviously ... Everyone of us wants to be the No. 1 in our country.''
On paper, Sunday's match looked close. Petrova had 25 winners compared with Kuznetsova's 22, and 47 unforced errors with Kuznetsova's 55.
But Petrova held her nerve, while Kuznetsova let frustration get the best of her.
``I was doing too many unforced errors. I didn't serve good. I was just struggling to find my game,'' Kuznetsova said. ``I lost confidence, I was very frustrated.''
``Definitely she's getting confidence and she's playing at her best level that I've seen her at lately,'' Kuznetsova added.
Petrova agrees that her game is the best it's been in years - and much of it is mental.
``I'm working hard and digging deep, because I know there's still a lot to accomplish,'' she said. ``I really want to finally be a complete player. I want to quit tennis knowing that I've done everything possible, that I developed as much as I could and I gave 100 percent.''
She will face a quarterfinal against Justine Henin, who continued her comeback to Grand Slams by beating compatriot Yanina Wickmayer, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3.