US Open Flashback Series, 2005 Semifinal: Mary Pierce vs Elena Dementieva

Mary Pierce celebrates victory in the semifinals at the US Open.

This week we take a look at one of the classic US Open matches of recent times. The 2005 US Open semifinal featured Mary Pierce of France and Elena Dementieva of Russia.

An intriguing battle, this was Dementieva’s second semifinal in a row in New York and the third of her career. Pierce was making her first US Open semifinal appearance at the age of 30. Her previous lack of success in New York was a little surprising considering her victories at the Australian Open and the French Open in 1995 and 2000 respectively. Both players came into the semifinal in excellent form: Dementieva defeated second seed Lindsay Davenport in the quarterfinals whilst Pierce dismissed Amelie Mauresmo in straight sets.

The pattern of the match was established early on. Dementieva, one of the quickest players around, demonstrated her version of Speedy Gonzales. Pierce, meanwhile, was somewhat slower and relied on the precision of her groundstrokes and the occasional foray to the net. Unsurprisingly then, it was Pierce who dictated most of the play whilst Dementieva played the role of the counterpuncher, but the Russian landed enough blows to create her own opportunities.

Indeed, Pierce started the match nervously, serving two double faults as she dropped serve. Dementieva, meanwhile, had to save two break points in her first service game, one with an incredible running backhand passing shot hit down the line which earned her a round of applause not just from the crowd but from Pierce as well, who had hit an excellent approach shot.

It was clear Dementieva’s superior athleticism would trouble Pierce, forcing the Frenchwoman to press more than she would usually look to. Both players were hitting deep and close to the lines consistently, with the court itself playing considerably faster than it does in the current era. Today, the US Open put more sand in the coating, making the Deco Turf 11 court slower and higher bouncing. The faster court in the 2000’s, however, rewarded risk.

Both players tried to take advantage of this by hitting into the corners and approaching the net but, boosted by the early break, Dementieva exerted her authority throughout the first set, holding serve well and putting the pressure on Pierce. Pierce’s fans were agitated from the get go, bellowing “instructions” from the stands as if they were her coach, with this active involvement from the crowd a unique feature of the US Open.

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Some of that commentary from the stands extended beyond the tennis. At one point, one fan with an extremely loud voice shouted out “I Love You Mary!” while Pierce was preparing to serve. She broke out in an immediate smile which she tried hard to suppress. But the on-court action was giving her little to smile about.

Whilst Dementieva dominated the set, her serve was not very good for a top 10 player. In fact, it was verging on amateurish, but that drove her opponents including Pierce to distraction. They knew what was coming but couldn’t do much about it because Dementieva was so quick. Dementieva constantly threw the ball toss too far to the right, she had to come round the ball with slice.

As a beginner, players are encouraged to toss the ball slightly to the right. As the improve, they instead toss the ball above their head for better control. A better serve could have propelled Dementieva to #1 and a major title, but the Russian never managed to develop that shot.

Pierce stayed with Dementieva to get to 3-5, but there found herself in trouble. At deuce Dementieva hit a stunning forehand return on the deuce court setting up set point. Pierce obliged with a double fault allowing Dementieva to take the set 6-3.  The statistics show Dementieva hit 10 winners and five unforced errors, as well as winning five out of five points won at the net. The definition of a perfect set of tennis.

However, that is where things got a little bit edgy. Pierce called the trainer for an assessment for what at first seemed to be her upper back, then her lower back. This assessment went on for around eight minutes. Dementieva went off to change her outfit and on her return started hitting serves to keep loose. Pierce eventually did have a time out, ending up with her right thigh heavily strapped, perhaps because the thigh was causing issues in her upper back region.

Regardless, after an extremely lengthy delay, play got underway again and it was Pierce who made the first move. At deuce in the third game of the set, Pierce hit a brilliant forehand return cross court to set up break point. This was as good as Dementieva’s forehand return in the first set. Dementieva then mishit a backhand allowing Pierce to get her first break of the match.

Pierce was playing better now, taking the ball earlier and dictating play. Dementieva was still hitting some jaw dropping winners on the run, but the tide of the match seemed to have turned against her.

Besides the tactical and mental battle on court, the New York crowd were still more than happy to get involved. Pierce was fixing her pony tail stalling her service motion, prompting her big fan to bellow “Mary, Your Hair Looks Great, Come on!” drawing a smile from the player and laughter from the rest of the crowd.

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Pierce broke again to take a 4-1 lead in the second set. Putting aside the moments of sheer brilliance, Dementieva was slowing up just a bit, with the considerable distance she had covered in the match (and the tournament) catching up with her. Pierce was able to close out the second set 6-2 and maintained her dominance by taking an early break in the deciding set. By then, there was no doubt Dementieva had slowed down.

Not only was Dementieva slowing down but her frustration was clearly rising. At one-game all, Pierce held her up when Dementieva served. Dementieva was not happy and started complaining bitterly to the umpire as she lost the point and subsequently the game. But the real frustration for Dementieva surely came from being held up for ten minutes at the end of the first set when she had been in the ascendancy.

Consequently, Dementieva was unable to regain control of the match, Pierce was playing too well.  Pierce hit beautifully into the corners and tried to take the ball as early as possible, a la Andre Agassi. Pierce’s movement was not the best but by now Dementieva was unable to take advantage. Pierce broke twice in the third set and despite having to save three break points, successfully served out the match. A final score of 3-6 6-2 6-2 in favour of Pierce is slightly misleading as it was a very competitive match with incredible rallies.

The statistics show how even the match was. Pierce hit 24 winners and 32 unforced errors, Dementieva hit 25 winners and 32 unforced errors. Pierce hit four aces and won seven out of 16 points at the net. Dementieva hit two aces and won 14 of 16 points at the net. What made the difference was Pierce took four of 12 break points she created, whilst Dementieva converted only two out of six.  Once again Dementieva’s serve was literally the difference between winning and losing.

Pierce went on to lose to Kim Clijsters in a one-sided final, her second Major final loss in 2005 after losing the French Open to another Belgian in Justine Henin. Dementieva, meanwhile, expressed her displeasure at Pierce’s medical timeout and this resulted in a certain frostiness subsequent meetings between the two.

That was perhaps inevitable as they met again just two weeks later in the Federation Cup final in Paris, which Dementieva and Russia won. Their rivalry was renewed again that October at the season ending WTA Finals in Los Angeles. Pierce won that match in straight sets with Dementieva barely shaking Pierce’s hand afterwards and never looking at her.

As former-British #1 Sam Smith observed whilst commentating for the match for Eurosport: “in women’s tennis, grudges last for decades!”

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