- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

PARIS (AP) — As children, Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva played for a slice of pizza. Now the French Open title and $1million are at stake today in the first all-Russian Grand Slam final.

Myskina and Dementieva are tied 4-all since turning professional and are 3-all in WTA Tour events, but their friendly rivalry dates back much further. The two 22-year-old first-time Grand Slam finalists were born three months apart and grew up playing juniors together at the Spartak club in Moscow.

“One time we were young, we were maybe 9 or 10 years old, and we were playing for pizza,” Dementieva said yesterday. “But this time it’s going to be [the] Roland Garros trophy.”

The winner will earn $1.02million and be the first female from Russia to claim a major title. The last Russian woman to reach the final of a Grand Slam event was Olga Morozova, who lost to Chris Evert in the French Open and Wimbledon finals in 1974. Morozova now coaches Dementieva.

Russian newspapers splashed huge portraits of Dementieva and Myskina across their front pages, reflecting the nation’s delight at having two of its own playing for the title.

Both players said former Russian president Boris Yeltsin phoned them Thursday night to say he planned to attend the final. Yeltsin’s office in Moscow said it was not aware of the plans.

With five players among the top 13 on the WTA Tour, Russian women have been on the verge of a Grand Slam breakthrough for some time. But few expected it to be Myskina and Dementieva this year at Roland Garros.

Dementieva, seeded ninth, began the tournament with a modest 10-9 record in 2004, including a first-round loss in the Australian Open. Myskina, seeded sixth, arrived in Paris with one match victory in four previous appearances at the French.

As children, the two took lessons from the mother of former U.S. Open champion Marat Safin. As juniors, Dementieva said, Myskina used to win their matches.

“When we had to play for something, she was always better,” Dementieva said. “I was better in practice.”

Dementieva estimated they have met 30 times. The competition was sometimes heated, Myskina said.

“I was complaining that she was cheating because we played without a chair umpire, and she was complaining that I was cheating,” Myskina said. “It was kind of interesting.”

Myskina eliminated Venus Williams and 2001 champion Jennifer Capriati en route to the final. Dementieva beat fan favorite Amelie Mauresmo of France, then drubbed Paola Suarez in the semifinals.

Of the two finalists, Dementieva has the stronger groundstrokes but the weaker serve. Myskina has the greater variety in shots but said they may not be the deciding factor.

“Who’s going to be mentally stronger can win the match,” Myskina said. “I think the mental side is more important. The physical, of course, is important, but the mental is more.”

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