The next generation of Russian talent has been slow to match, let alone supplant, the old guard. With Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Ekaterina Makarova still making major waves, the women’s game is yet to relive the level of whole-“horded” dominance that saw the country monopolize the Top 10 and the Beijing Olympic podium in the late 2000s. 23-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has been the best of the younger bunch, but erratic play and surprising losses have both conspired to keep the former junior champion from consistent senior success.
Where talent has receded, so has tournament. The once-vital Kremlin Cup has been dwarfed by its placement in the schedule, now an opening act for the WTA Finals. With the Top 8 announced well in advance this year, many of the would-be qualifiers who had entered to ensure a place in Singapore withdrew, leaving the field that remained barren of big names. Pavlyuchenkova, whose own up-and-down season locked her out of the Year-End Championships, played the Kremlin Cup along with Makarova, doubles partner Elena Vesnina, and another Russian, one in the midst of a meteoric comeback.
At just 24, Vitalia Diatchenko is a veritable contemporary of Pavlyuchenkova, but hardly the household name. Inching towards the Top 100 in 2011, the hard-hitting Russian injured her knee at this very tournament. Months became years as Diatchenko was off the court for nearly all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Returning last fall, she rebuilt her ranking on the ITF circuit and endured more bad luck along the way. Though she captured a $100K Challenger this summer in Kazakhstan, the win – and points that came with it – arrived too late for the US Open cut-off, preventing the Russian from playing a Grand Slam tournament for which she had successfully qualified in the past.
Diatchenko arrived at this year’s Kremlin Cup having won seventeen of her last twenty matches, but without a WTA main draw win in over two years. Benefiting from a retirement in the first round, the qualifier faced troubled top seed Dominika Cibulkova for a spot in the quarterfinals. The Australian Open finalist has been a shadow of her former self since failing to capture an International event in Kuala Lumpur, winning back-to-back matches just once outside of the Grand Slam tournaments.
Cibulkova was ripe, and Diatchenko was due.
That the Russian hits with two hands on both sides makes comparisons to 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli inevitable but, in this case, they aren’t wholly unfounded. Diatchenko hugs the baseline and cracks winners evenly off both wings much like the French former No. 7. By the end of the nearly two hour second round encounter, the qualifier had hit thirty-three winners to the always-aggressive Cibulkova’s eight. The Russian survived a late-match hiccup to take the titanic struggle in three sets, deny the Slovak an alternate slot in Singapore, and reach her first-ever WTA quarterfinal.
It was there that Diatchenko met compatriot Pavlyuchenkova for an all-Russian affair that, lacking the starpower of the Myskina/Dementievas of yesteryear, took place in front of a near-empty Center Court crowd. Another long match saw Diatchenko taking the initiative, making another powerful and ostensibly elite opponent look positively passive. Evening the match at a set apiece, the elder Russian took a 0-30 lead on the Pavlyuchenkova serve, but inexperience allowed that advantage to slip. This year’s Paris Indoors champion eventually regained her composure, ending Diatchenko’s fairytale run 6-3 in the third.
Vitalia Diatchenko came full circle this week, at a tournament that once catalyzed a long and undoubtedly traumatic hiatus. But it was far from a case of status quo. Once able to hang with the outer reaches of the rest, the older and wiser Russian played with some of the best over six grueling sets, winning – and eventually losing – on her own terms. Combine the kind of career-affirming tennis she played in Moscow with the long string of wins she earned just to grab a seat at the table, and the next generation of Russian talent may have been slow to arrive, but swift to ascend.