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Russians Look to Revive at Acura Classic

Matthew Cronin

The elite Russian women abandoned the US Open Series kickoff at the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, but they are out in force this week at the Acura Classic at the La Costa Resort and Spa in San Diego.

It’s been a good, but not great year for the Russians – no Slam crowns but plenty of other titles.

Third seed Nadia Petrova stormed through the clay court warm-up season, second seed Maria Sharapova grabbed the Indian Wells crown and reached two Slam semis and Elena Dementieva performed her usual hero’s duty in Fed Cup.

Dementieva, petrova, and Sharapova lead an elite field of Russians at the Acura Classic.

When the final draw came out in San Diego, there 10 Russians amongst the 56 players, including seeds Sharapova, Petrova, Dementieva, Dinara Safina and Maria Kirilenko.

Safina and Kirilenko were quickly booted from the tournament on day one. But the rest are in good positions to make strong runs to the end of the week.

Since they stunned the tennis world by taking three out of four Grand Slams in 2004 – Anastasia Myskina won the French Open, Sharapova took Wimbledon and Svetlana Kuznetsova grabbed the US Open --- the Russians have become a consistent, elite force on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.

But 2006 has been the year of a Frenchwoman, two time Slam champ Amelie Mauresmo, and to a lesser degree, the season of a Belgian, Justine Henin-Hardenne, who won her third Roland Garros crown and reached two other Slam finals.

Click photo: Petrova is trying to keep her rock solid chin up after an emotionally draining last two months.

But the Russians are standout hard courts players and expected to begin to make hay in San Diego this week.

“This is one of my favorite parts of the year,” said two-time US Open finalist Dementieva. “I had a nice rest after Wimbledon and feel like I’m hitting the ball really well. I’m excited about how I can do hard courts. It’s always been a surface I’ve been comfortable on.”

Petrova is trying to keep her rock solid chin up after an emotionally draining last two months. The Slam-less daughter of an Olympian came in the French Open as the sexy pick, after winning three-clay court crowns (Amelia Island, Charleston and Berlin), then got hurt and was stunned in the first round by Akiko Morigami. She missed Wimbledon but now is back healthy and happy.

"I'm really looking forward to the next few moths,” she said. “I was unlucky with the injuries but I think that all the hard work has finally paid off. My ultimate dream is to win a Grand Slam."

With two teen sensations in her quarter of the draw --- Ana Ivanovic and Nicole Vaidisova -- Petrova won’t have an easy time of advancing to her first Acura final.

Click photo: Petrova could face Ana Ivanovic who looked good crushing Morigami in the first round.

Even if she gets past those two, she’ll like have to play either top seed Kim Clijsters or former champion Martina Hingis in the semis, either which is sure to test her movement and consistency.

One of the smartest players on tour, Hingis was devastated by Clijsters at this year’s French Open, but still believes in her heart that she can make a run at the top five again.

After taking three years off due to injury and burnout she returned to the tour in January and has already climbed up to No. 13 in the rankings.

On Tuesday, she was given the Acura Classic Corina Morariu Comeback Award.

“It was like hearing a fairytale story of my career,” said the five time Grand Slam champion.” “It was emotional. It seems like such a long time ago. Now that I’m back, I feel like a rookie again.”

Petrova is hoping that that greenhorn feeling continues for Hingis if she faces her on Saturday.

Hingis was given the Acura Classic Corina Morariu Comeback Award in an emotional on-court ceremony.

Dementieva has a little bit easier road, as she’ll face up and down American Ashley Harkleroad in the second round and is in the streaky Patty Schnyder’s quarter.

She won her first Tier I title early this year in Tokyo by blasting Hingis in the final and recently reached her first Wimbledon quarterfinal.

“I like how I’ve played this year,” she said. “The big goal is the US Open. I love the hardcourts and have had my best results on them. I believe in my game on the surface.”

Sharapova won her first major title on U.S. hard courts back in March in the desert and then reached the final of Tier I Miami two weeks later. But all off her positive momentum disappeared in April, when she badly twisted her ankle and missed the entire clay court season leading up to the French Open.

There, she lost a big lead to Dinara Safina in the fourth round. At Wimbledon, she was out stroked and out-thought by eventual champion Amelie Mauresmo in the Wimbledon semis.

"I tactically didn't not play smart especially in the third set when I had the momentum," the 19-year-old said. "I need to adjust to the situations better. Top players have plans in their pockets and are not one-dimensional. When things were going my way, I stopped and I was brain dead. But that's something that you learn and hopefully the next time it will naturally be there."

Sharapova says she’s 100 percent healthy for the first time since March and is hoping to win her first US Open Series title. She’s a tremendous ball striker who’s conditioning has improved a ton, but she can still be moved around and when she’s not serving big and is having trouble reading her foe's serves, she can’t unleash her vicious return game.

"The past two weeks have been the first time that I've had full practice where I didn't need to see the trainer every day,” said Sharapova. “The last time was Indian Wells and that was a good week for me. I've been doing progressively better. I'm excited going into a tournament feeling healthy and playing pretty well."

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