Ekaterina Makarova

From Russia with Love…That’s Slumping

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For the past 10 years, Russia has had a large number of players occupying the top spots in the WTA Tour rankings. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Russian women swept the medals with Elena Dementieva winning gold, Dinara Safina taking silver and Vera Zvonareva finishing with bronze. Four years later, the Olympic picture is much different for the Russian team. With Dementieva retired and Safina sidelined indefinitely with a back injury, the Russians no longer hold the vicegrip on the WTA rankings they once did. Russians occupied five of the top ten places in the world rankings in 2008; currently, there are only two in the top 20.

Rules for Olympic team nominations are as follows (courtesy of the ITF):

The main qualifying criteria is the ATP and WTA ranking lists as of June 11, 2012…Players must have also participated in two Fed Cup events from 2009 – 2012, one of which must have taken place in 2011-2012, and have a good standing with their National Olympic Committee. Each NOC can enter 6 men and 6 women athletes, with a maximum of 4 entries in the individual events, and 2 pairs in the doubles events. Any player in the world’s top 56 is eligible, and NOC’s have the option to enter players of a lower rank. Athletes are able to compete in both singles and doubles events. Doubles players within the top 10 rankings on 11 June are eligible provided that the number of players of the same nation doesn’t surpass the total of six.

Leaving #2 Maria Sharapova (W/L: 18-4 Best Result: F Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami) out of the equation, the win-loss records of the next five (singles rankings as of April 2nd) Russian women this year are a mixed bag at best:

#9 Vera Zvonareva W/L: 7-6 Best Result: QF Charleston

#21 Maria Kirilenko W/L: 14-7 Best Result: F Pattaya City

#22 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova W/L: 3-8 Best Result: R16 Brisbane

#25 Svetlana Kuznetsova W/L: 11-7 Best Result: R16 Brisbane, Doha

#35 Nadia Petrova W/L 5-6 Best Result: QF Charleston

Shamil Tarpishchev, Russia’s Fed Cup and Olympic team captain, expressed his concerns in a recent column for tennis.sport-express.ru. He specifically addressed team stalwarts Zvonareva and Kuznetsova, who had lost their opening round matches at the Sony Ericsson Open (l. to Muguruza Blanco and Benesova, respectively). Tarpishchev discussed Zvonareva’s bouts with injuries (shoulder and hip) and illness, as well as Kuznetsova’s lack of focus in winning positions.

Based off of these rankings, Russia’s four singles players would be Sharapova, Zvonareva, Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova. Pavlyuchenkova’s slump has been particularly alarming; the 21-year-old, who made the quarterfinals of both Roland Garros and the US Open last year, has lost in the first round of all but three events this season. The Russian who has had arguably the 2nd best season behind Sharapova in singles is #39 Ekaterina Makarova, who had a stunning run to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (d. Zvonareva, S. Williams en route, l. to Sharapova) and the fourth round in Miami (d. Pavlyuchenkova en route, l. to Sharapova). Going only by current rankings, she would not make the team, although her form this season should suggest otherwise.

Kirilenko, the 3rd Russian in the singles rankings, is also ranked in the top 10 in doubles. She, along with Elena Vesnina, would be directly qualified to compete with any partner in the doubles competition if the current rankings stand. However, Kuznetsova and Zvonareva partnered to win the Australian Open in doubles and Petrova is paired with Kirilenko to start the season; she is currently ranked 16th in doubles. Kirilenko and Petrova took home their biggest title as a pair in winning the Sony Ericsson Open (d. Kuzntsova/Zvonareva en route, d. Errani/Vinci for title). Vesnina competes in events with India’s Sania Mirza, and there is speculation that Vesnina would be left off the team.

With Roland Garros looming on the horizon, the race to the Olympics will be a big story throughout the European clay season. While the Russians are blessed with enormous depth, there are questions if their best players can round into form in time.