Born October 15, 1981 in Moscow, Elena Dementieva's start in tennis was encircled with Russia's greatest. Her parents, Viatcheslav, an electrical engineer, and Vera, a teacher, both played recreational tennis. Their love for the game was such that they tried to enroll 7-year-old Elena and her brother in Moscow's most eminent sports clubs.
But the competition for spots was brutal. Dynamo and the Central Red Army Club both turned her down, citing minor imperfections in her movement. Finally she was accepted by the illustrious Spartak Club, where she was coached by Rauza Islanova, mother and trainer of Russian men's tennis great Marat Safin.
Elena's three years under Islanova were tough, but she keeps fond memories of her former coach. It was this toughness that forged Elena's hardy sportsmanship. "This desire to fight till the end was inherited from her because she was tough and preserved strict sports-like discipline," Dementieva said.
In domestic tournaments back home, she was usually the winner or at least a runner-up. Elena always remained among the top four women in her country, along with Anna Kournikova, Ekaterina Sysoeva, and Anastasia Myskina.
Under the wing of Sergei Pashkov in the Central Red Army Club (which gladly took her in this time), Elena grew as a player. She radically retransformed her technique and learned how to dominate the courts, developing her crushing two-handed backhand. On August 25, 1998, she turned professional.
Her rise in the sport was electrifying. Ranking #182 in 1998, she climbed to #62 in 1999, and hit #12 in 2000. That year, she represented Russia in the Sydney Olympics, leading her compatriots in the opening ceremonies. She went into the semi-finals with a strong game, where her only setback was a set down against Jelena Dokic. Elena recovered, beating Dokic 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
But Dementieva's skill and zeal were not enough to beat Venus Williams in the final. Elena ultimately went home with the silver medal.
That same year, she was named Most Improved Player at the Sanex WTA awards, which recognized that at only 19, she had made the semifinals at Indian Wells, the US Open, and the Chase Championships, where she defeated #1 Lindsay Davenport in the first round.
But 2001 was a rough year. Having peaked at #8, she began to fall in the rankings due to foot injuries and the loss of the aggressiveness that defined her game. But she still performed well in her Grand Slam games, proving that she wouldn't let hardships get the better of her. In fact, the year she became Russia's top player when in Miami, Lindsay Davenport retired from the semifinal with a bad ankle.
The Russian starlet recouped her mettle the following year. Her overall record held strong at 39-27, and she performed some of her career's best in Wimbledon and the French open -- she reached the fourth round in both.
But all this was simply revving her up for 2003. She started on the shaky side, losing at the Australian Open and Indian Wells within three games. But it was in April, at the Bausch & Lomb Championships in Amelia Island, Florida, that things changed.
Her old foe Lindsay Davenport dominated the first set of the final game and was leading the second one. But Elena tapped into her fighting spirit and won a game that lasted five deuces, going 5-4 in the second set. Davenport could not keep up. Elena won her first WTA title.
She had a poor showing at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, where she lost to Serena Williams, and in New Haven, where Davenport took her down again. But in September 2003, in Bali, and then in Shanghai Elena defeated Chandra Rubin in both finals. She finished 2003 #8.