The 2004 WTA season was categorized by the arrival of the Russians.
Fifteen tour titles were won by Russians that year, while Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova bagged three of the four major titles. Elena Dementieva finished runner-up twice and the foursome sat comfortably inside the year-end top 10 rankings. Myskina’s triumph at Roland Garros over Dementieva made her the first Russian woman to win a Grand Slam, but is largely considered the forgotten one of the quartet. Sharapova and Kuznetsova both went on to win other major titles in their careers and Dementieva was the gold-medalist at the 2008 Olympics.
Justine Henin-Hardenne was the other Grand Slam champion in 2004, as she won her third major title at the Australian Open. At the start of the clay court season, Henin was affected by infection of a strain of cytomegalovirus; the virus often left her sleeping up to 18 hours a day and she was in no shape to play competitive tennis. Nonetheless, she decided to defend her French Open title but as top seed, was upset in the second round by Tathiana Garbin. She took three months off from competition and returned to competitive tennis at the Olympics in Athens. She did not face a seeded player en route to the semifinals, where she would face off against Myskina, the woman who was now holding her Roland Garros crown.
Henin’s Road to the SF:
R1: d. Barbora Strycova (CZE) 6-3, 6-4
R2: d. Maria Vento-Kabchi (VEN) 6-2, 6-1
R3: d. Nicole Pratt (AUS) 6-1, 6-0
QF: d. Mary Pierce (FRA) 6-4, 6-4
Myskina’s Road to the SF:
R1: d. Magui Serna (ESP) 6-0, 6-1
R2: d. Kristina Brandi (PUR) 6-2, 3-6, 6-4
R3: d. Eleni Daniilidou (GRE) 7-5, 6-4
QF: d. (11) Francesca Schiavone (ITA) 6-1, 6-2
The match is in its entirety on Youtube, and it’s not a bad way to spend three hours.
However, if you don’t have the time to watch the whole match, the highlights below are a manageable eight minutes.
The match, which featured 17 (SEVENTEEN!) breaks of serve, started off well for the Russian as she held and broke for a *2-0 lead. However, the top-seeded Henin hit right back to get the match back on serve; the next five games went with serve until Henin broke through to take a *5-4 lead, only to be broken in the next game. Henin converted her 11th break point of the set to lead *6-5 and would hold easily to take the opening set in 55 minutes.
Henin would take a 2-0* lead in the second set and would keep her break advantage until the eighth game when Myskina drew level at *4-4. Henin broke agin to serve for the match, but Myskina ran off three games in a row to level the match at one set apiece.
Although she was broken in the opening game of the third set, Myskina ran off five games in a row behind three breaks of serve to take a *5-1 lead. Despite the huge lead, Myskina would never have a match point; Henin would break the Russian’s serve in the seventh and ninth games to draw even, and would break serve once again in the thirteenth game to wrap up the 7-5, 5-7, 8-6 win in two hours, 44 minutes.
The crushing defeat was too much for Myskina to handle less than 24 hours later, as she came away empty-handed from Athens; unseeded Alicia Molik beat her in the bronze medal match, 6-3, 6-4, while Henin went on to take the gold over Amelie Mauresmo, 6-3, 6-3.
Was the result the Athens the beginning of the end for Myskina? Possibly. A few weeks later at the US Open, Myskina went down tamely to then 17-year-old countrywoman Anna Chakvetadze, 7-6(3), 6-3. Following that loss, Myskina admitted to ESPN the wounds were still fresh:
“When I was here the first few days, I was still crying about this match against Justine…But if you’re here, you have to think about the U.S. Open. Maybe that was my mistake, still thinking about Athens.”
Myskina would rebound to win the Tier I title in Moscow in October and led Russia to the 2004 Fed Cup title against France, winning all three matches she played without dropping a set. She defeated Tatiana Golovin and Nathalie Dechy in singles before teaming up with Vera Zvonareva to clinch the doubles over Marion Bartoli and Emilie Loit. (That was the second and last time Bartoli ever played Fed Cup for France, but that’s another story.) She would finish 2004 as the No. 3 player in the world.
In 2005, Myskina became the first women’s champion at Roland Garros to lose in the opening round of her title defense, as she was defeated 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 by Maria Sanchez Lorenzo. She would fall out of the top 10 in August. Russia would defend their Fed Cup title in 2005, but the 3-2 result was a complete 180 for Myskina individually. She dropped both matches she played against Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce.
In 2006, Myskina suffered her worst career defeat in terms of ranking to that point, falling to the then-No. 309 Agnieszka Radwanska in Warsaw. In 2007, she played only two singles matches, once of which was a 6-1, 6-0 defeat at the hands of Meghann Shaughnessy at Roland Garros, the site of her greatest career triumph.
Injuries played their part in the demise of Myskina’s career but one can’t help but wonder how much the defeat to Henin in Athens stuck with her to the end. She had a chance to become Russia’s first Olympic medalist in women’s tennis, to distinguish herself from her peers at home.
She didn’t get a chance to do any of that, and four years later, Russia swept the medals in Beijing — with Dementieva taking gold, Dinara Safina taking silver and Vera Zvonareva bringing home bronze.