- Richard Pagliaro, Tennis.com
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Back in the days when Boris Yeltsin was the team cheerleader, Russia captured four Fed Cup championships in a five-year span and seemed to be building a dynasty as five of the WTA's 2008 season-ending top 10 -- Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova -- were Russian.
Injuries and retirements have depleted the Russian ranks, but two of the world's top four players are Russian and three finalists in the past six Grand Slam finals have represented the nation.
Here's a look at the top-five-ranked Russian women, their 2011 performance and prospects for 2012.
No. 2 Maria Sharapova
2011 review: The player behind the brand won two titles, reached the quarterfinals or better in nine of 13 tournaments and reclaimed her reputation as a major contender in advancing to her first Grand Slam final in three and a half years at Wimbledon. Despite a decade on tour, time lost to a creaky shoulder and a serve that frequently flirts with the top of the tape, a scrappy Sharapova still shows the love of a good fight. The Rome champ is most daring during the most precarious points of a match: She posted a 12-1 record in three-set matches with her lone loss coming against Flavia Pennetta in the third round of the U.S. Open. The Siberian-born, Bradenton-bred baseliner ended 2010 ranked No. 18 and will finish 2011 with her first season-ending top-five ranking in four years.
2012 preview: Maintaining her health and strengthening a sometime suspect serve are Sharapova's primary priorities. She'll likely never hit hellacious kick serves on the level of a Samantha Stosur, but the 6-foot-2 Sharapova should be able to serve with more spin to gain more margin for error. A stubborn Sharapova views playing it safer as about as palatable as root canal surgery. "I feel like I have to get a high percentage of first serves, but my opponent gains tremendous amount of confidence on their return. So it's kind of a lose-lose situation," Sharapova said at the U.S. Open. If you don't hold you can't win. Still, Sharapova possesses an explosive return and hits one of the biggest balls on tour, and she has the guts to go for it when it matters most. If she stays healthy, Sharapova should maintain a top-five spot and challenge for her fourth career major.
No. 4 Vera Zvonareva
2011 review: She opened the season with her second trip to the Australian Open semifinals and beat Caroline Wozniacki to win Doha, but Zvonareva failed to surpass the fourth round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and fell to Stosur in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. A year after she made successive major finals at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, Zvonareva couldn't quite step up to take advantage of the absences of Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters and make a final push toward the top spot.
2012 preview: Zvonareva's greatest strength may be her lack of a significant weakness. She does just about everything well and can break open points with her bold, two-handed backhand, though she lacks an overwhelming weapon. She can hold her own between the lines, but must win the battle between the ears to retain her top-five spot. Zvonareva continues to try to channel the emotional eruptions that have plagued her in the past into positive energy; when she's successful she can play with just about anyone, and when she melts down, she's vulnerable.
No. 16 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
2011 review: Pavlyuchenkova posted the best major result of her career at Roland Garros, where she knocked off the second-seeded Zvonareva and held a 6-1, 4-1 lead over Francesca Schiavone before bowing to the defending champion. Pavlyuchenkova paused after Paris in posting a 5-6 mark but bounced back with a run to the U.S. Open quarters. The former U.S. Open junior champion is 8-6 versus top-20 opponents this season compared to a 4-12 mark versus the top-20 last year.
2012 preview: She still needs to refine the rough edges of her game, get fitter, faster and sharpen her shot selection, but if she does, Pavlyuchenkova possesses the power to pose problems for top players. She is a top-10 talent who has improved her ranking every year and should continue her rise.
No. 19 Svetlana Kuznetsova
2011 review: Sveta is the Sisyphus of women's tennis in getting close to completing a breakthrough win only to see the boulder of expectation barreling back at her. The two-time Grand Slam champion is only 26 and should be entering her prime (three of the four reigning Grand Slam champions are older), yet she hasn't won a title in 14 months and reached her lone final of the season in February at Dubai. Showing the shot-making skills that carried her to the 2004 U.S. Open title, Kuznetsova pounded her way to a 7-6, 4-1 lead over Wozniacki at Flushing Meadows then hit the wall as the fitter No. 1 won 12 of the final 14 games. Kuznetsova remains a titanic talent but has a reputation for physically faltering and/or mentally imploding in longer matches -- she is 10-10 in three-setters, including squandering six match points losing to Francesca Schiavone in a 4-hour, 44-minute Australian Open epic and has won just two of her past six three-set matches.
2012 preview: Her mood swings can be as ferocious as her forehand swing, so forecasting Kuznetsova's future can be as easy as landing a lob during a typhoon. An enigmatic, explosive player, she must get into better shape and establish an identity by defining the type of tennis she wants to play. Kuznetsova is so versatile she can hug the baseline and dictate play with her serve and forehand. She can also back off the baseline and rely on her heavy topspin to play a higher-percentage style or step into the court and apply the net skills she's displayed in winning 14 doubles titles to adopt a more attacking game. The problem is she doesn't always seem committed to a clearly defined game plan and can be frustrated by quick counterpunchers. If she can develop the conditioning and tactics to take advantage of her versatility, Kuznetsova can master a major again, though lately she seems more likely to follow a career track similar to compatriot Marat Safin as a player capable of spiking to successful heights and succumbing to maddening periods of underachieving play.
No. 27 Maria Kirilenko
2011 review: Stumbling out of the blocks to a 5-9 start, Kirilenko has posted a 20-11 record since May. She gave eventual U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur a tough test before losing 6-2, 6-7 (15), 6-3 in an electrifying Flushing Meadows fourth-round match. Kirilenko beat Stosur and former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic back-to-back to reach the Tokyo quarters. The Australian Open doubles finalist has won three of her five career singles titles on Asian soil.
2012 preview: In an era when many players chant the "I just gotta play my game" mantra (translation: I have one style of play), Kirilenko is refreshing in that she's an accomplished doubles player who often uses the entire court. She can compete on any surface, and her versatility enables her to strategically downshift. Though she can serve bigger than her 5-8, 132-pound frame suggests, the slender Moscow native often faces a strength disparity against opponents who hit a bigger ball and lacks the consistent kill shot to consistently threaten the game's premier power players. At age 24, her best tennis should still be ahead. Kirilenko could reside in the 15-25 ranges of the rankings.
Don't look now, but the Russian stranglehold on the game is slowly returning. And it goes well beyond Maria Sharapova.