The Russians aren't coming; they're here

NEW YORK -- On a windswept Saturday afternoon, Maria Sharapova -- warming up just a few feet from her supposed beau Andy Roddick in Arthur Ashe Stadium -- struggled to keep her formidable forehand in the court. In the cozy players' main-floor lounge, Nadia Petrova watched a replay of the rousing Andre Agassi-James Blake 2005 quarterfinal. Meanwhile, upstairs in the main lounge Marat Safin smiled as he had his picture taken with an admirer.

They've been contesting the United States Open for well over a century, but this year's version could well be titled the Moscow Invitational.

Heading into third-round action Saturday, four Russian men were still alive and a staggering 10 on the women's side. That's not even counting Kaia Kanepi from Estonia and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus -- former properties of the USSR -- and Tatiana Golovin, who plays for France but was born in Moscow.

For those of you counting at home, that would make the score Russia 14, USA 7. And it is worth noting that No. 11 seed Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 French Open champion, got bounced in the first round by Azarenka.

In the previous 119 U.S. Opens, women from another country have never outnumbered Americans. This year, however, 19 Russian women were in the main draw, and only 18 Americans; and seven of those (including Serena Williams) were granted wild cards by the United States Tennis Association.

Last week, for the first time in the 31 years the WTA has ranked players, no American was in the top 10.

The Russians aren't just coming, they're already here.

"They're on the way up as a tennis nation and we're on the way down," said CBS analyst Pam Shriver, who also doubles as an analyst for ESPN. "I think it goes back to the 1980s, when Russia turned up its capitalistic juices. No sport goes with capitalism like tennis.

"More recently, I think [Anna] Kournikova's success really jump-started things."

There could be worse role models for young Russian girls when Kournikova broke into the top 10 six years ago and earned millions in endorsements -- without ever winning a major tournament.

Sixteen women who list Russia as their home country are ranked in the top 100, including six of the top 13: Sharapova (No. 4), Elena Dementieva (5), Petrova (6), Svetlana Kuznetsova (7), Myskina (12) and Dinara Safina (13).

Sharapova, all things considered, has the best chance to win this title. At the age of 17, she was a surprise winner at Wimbledon and it suggested the promise of more, much more. But in something of a sophomore jinx, Sharapova has plateaued, going 0-for-the-last-8 Grand Slams. She has reached the semifinals five times in that span and, interestingly, lost to five different opponents -- Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Amelie Mauresmo, Serena Williams and Venus Williams.

Clijsters (wrist injury) and Venus Williams (arm injury) are missing in action and the other three are in less-than-perfect health. Serena Williams and Henin-Hardenne have missed time with knee injuries and Mauresmo has been troubled by an ailing shoulder. In a parting-of-the-Red-Sea sort of way, this opens up the draw for Sharapova.

"I haven't really come into a tournament feeling -- until now -- feeling great," Sharapova said. "I've either had an injury coming in or I haven't had enough matches. This time I really feel like I'm coming in with confidence.

"I feel healthy. At this point I've realized that being healthy is probably the most important thing."

Sharapova dismantled Michaella Krajicek and Emilie Loit in the first two rounds. She has lost all of one game in her last three sets and is serving better than anyone. The average speed of her first serve has been 103 mph, better than the usual suspects of Nicole Vaidisova (101.5), Serena Williams (96) and Lindsay Davenport (92). Sharapova, statistically speaking, is also returning serve better than anyone.

One thing that gets lost in her success is her relatively young age. She's just 19, significantly younger than her chief competitors: Mauresmo is 27, Henin-Hardenne is 24 and Serena Williams turns 25 later this month.

"I definitely feel stronger this year," Sharapova said. "But those are just words. A whole year brings a lot of experience to my game. Hopefully, that will show here."

Looking at the draw, Sharapova, seeded No. 3, could see the No. 5-seeded Petrova in the quarterfinals. Her opponent in the semifinals could be the winner of a potential round-of-16 match between the No. 1-seeded Mauresmo and unseeded Serena. Presumably, Henin-Hardenne would await in the final.

In 2004, the Russian women announced themselves with victories in the last three Grand Slams. Myskina won the French Open, Sharapova won Wimbledon and Kuznetsova won the U.S. Open. This year, they're 0-for-3 with one to play.

"It's definitely good to see the Russians doing well," Sharapova said. "I mean, we've had a really good year. '04 was one of the best for our country. Hopefully, we'll finish it off in a good way this year."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.