Is Dementieva Continuing a New Sporting Trend?

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There is no doubt what the biggest story in tennis has been this week. Elena Dementieva, the Russian Ice Queen, has left us almost as abruptly as she arrived.

Dementieva strove to show us that, after Kournikova, Russian women could actually compete at the top of the game and weren’t there to earn the WTA megabucks in sponsorship and marketing campaigns for their pinups.

And compete she did. She never lifted a major and many of her fans claim she is the greatest player of the last generation not to do so. But she does own an Olympic Gold as well as a Silver and that’s more than many could ever hope to achieve.

But we know how well she has done. We have followed her intense battles with Serena Williams over the years and admired her elegance and shot selection as she graced the worldwide courts in search of fame and glory.

What is very intriguing is her decision to hang her racquet up at 29. She is citing motherhood as her new dream. And few can deny her that wish. But this action hasn’t always been the case, and what does it mean about modern sport and the athletes that compete?

It is a well-argued cliché that the tennis tour has evolved in to a physically and mentally demanding money monster which can suck the life out of the most physically astute of athletes. To keep up with the Serenas and the Rogers you have to fight for every available ranking point and, in the case of many players, play through injury for fear of falling too far behind in the tables and the seedings for the major tournaments.

One shocking statistic following the early exits of Fernando Verdasco and Thomas Berdych this week was that they were both competing in their TWENTY SIXTH ATP Tournament of the year. No wonder they looked exhausted.

It makes it almost impossible for a lady chasing the Top 10 in the rankings to spend near enough as much time with her newborn kids as she would like. Kim Clijsters doesn’t play as many tournaments as she used to for this reason. But then she is good enough to play the big guns without as much practice anyway. Many others are not.

It mirrors the fight between career and family women in the twenty-first century and the usual debates over how to juggle work and children arise once more.

Elena Dementieva

But what about the other factors of modern sport? Dementieva reached two Grand Slam finals, two WTA Championships semi finals and was ranked at No. 3 in the world at her peak. She won 16 WTA Titles, a WTA Championships in doubles and amassed a career record of 575-271 (singles) and 152-85 (doubles). A good record, yet not the greatest. How much did she earn for her troubles in her twelve years on the tour? Answer: $14,117,437. And that was just prize money. She would have earned a bucket-load more through endorsements.

The modern sportsman earns so much in their short careers that they can afford to cut their terms short and not have to worry about their futures. This wasn’t the case even fifteen-twenty years ago where only the best of the best could expect to live over-comfortably after retirement, unless they chose to go in to coaching/punditry/another line of work of course.

In sports like American football, rugby, baseball and football, stars earn obscene amounts of money for a day’s work which makes them millionaires at such tender ages. The stories of when players go wrong are endless but it also means that they can almost pick and choose when to play without having to worry about their finances.

As fans we would never dream of finishing early as all we want is to experience being a top tennis pro for as long as possible. But imagine if you’re knees were starting to give you great pain and you were already sitting on $15m. Would you go on?

In recent years we have seen many early retirements in tennis. And the trend goes back too. From Bjorn Borg to Clijsters and Justine Henin we have been robbed of top talent at an “early age” but what does it say of those three that they later returned?

Now we also have Taylor Dent, James Blake, Rennae Stubbs and Lleyton Hewitt talking of possible quits.

Has Dementieva made a rash decision? Will she regret her choices and look to hit the comeback trail in two years’ time? Of course it will be harder for her being in the 30+ threshold by then but just look at Kimiko Date Krumm and you really do have to think twice about it.

It is not just tennis either. In football, top stars like Carlos Tevez have voiced exasperation at having to adapt to foreign cultures so often and all the travelling involved in modern day sport. They have voiced quit sentiments. Eric Cantona left early to become a film star, as did Vinnie Jones, while Ian Wright quit at the peak of his powers to chase a career in British television. Gavin Henson and Danny Cipriani of rugby fame have recently had spells out of the game to spend time with their celebrity families and chase television ventures. While in Formula One Michael Schumacher left and later returned to the sport.

Is this a trend that will continue as the years go by where stars become disillusioned with life in, and then out of, sport? Will we continue to be left shocked at the sudden departures of our favourites and then relieved later on as they announce their return? Will this make the sport more exciting?

It certainly fits in with the “instant gratification needs” of Western Society in these days of post-modern thinking. Jump in, earn a few million, try to win a Slam, move on to something new. Many tennis purists will argue that it undermines the sport and brings in a sort of circus atmosphere and I’d have to say this is probably my thinking too.

I am a hopeless sporting romantic and love the stories of hard graft and achievement against the odds. I love seeing the emersion of the likes of Roger and knowing there is greatness to come. I love the Goran Ivanisevic’s of the wildcard world winning Grand Slams and I love reading up on the stories of the likes of Ernests Gulbis coming from small towns in struggling countries escaping to fame and glory.

Will it ruin tennis? I don’t think so. But it will certainly mean a demise in the long-staying Champions of the Martina Navratilova ilk. Watch this space to see if Elena returns to us. That will give us an indication of if the trend is a bad thing or not.

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