NEW YORK -- At the U.S. Open, Elena Dementieva has been pummeling tennis balls with the brute force of a battering ram and the ticktock consistency of a metronome.
Mardy Fish, meantime, has little need for that kind of steadiness. He's spending most of his time slashing toward the net, a little McEnroe suddenly in his Floridian blood.
Because neither Dementieva nor Fish possesses much star power, both have been floating off the radar, but both suddenly have a legitimate shot at making the finals. Dementieva moved one step closer Tuesday, blasting machine-like to the semifinals with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Patty Schnyder. Today, after breezing through his last match, Fish plays Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.
These 26-year-olds have had dissimilar careers. Fish turned pro in 2000 and then labored. Sometimes he's been the next big thing, sometimes simply awful. His highest ranking came four years ago: No. 17.
Dementieva entered the women's top 10 in 2000 and has hardly left. A testament to her heavy ground strokes is the fact she's had very good success despite being shackled to a serve weaker than wax paper; a shot so balky she's been liable to reel off four straight double faults at any moment.
Because of that serve, Dementieva has been a perpetual bridesmaid. She has never been a Grand Slam event winner, though in 2004 she made the French and U.S. Open finals.
Through her career, the tall, blond Russian has become known for winning marathon duels by an eyelash or for collapsing in big matches. This last happened when she led Dinara Safina, 6-4, 5-2, in the quarterfinals of this year's French Open. Twice a single point from winning, she ended up losing.
By going through the crucible of tough times on so many occasions she appears to have grown tougher and more mature. She followed the French Open with a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon. She followed that with a singles gold medal in the Beijing Olympics, boosting her self-belief and game to a new level. Nobody is playing better than her in the women's game now.
After Tuesday's match, Schnyder said Dementieva is sticking the ball with extra power, added depth and is showing a better ability to attack. Schnyder even had good things to say about her opponent's serve, which is at least finding its target.
If Dementieva takes this kind of game to the semifinals, against Jelena Jankovic, she'll be extremely tough to keep from the final.
"I think I was very patient, you know, during my career," Dementieva said Tuesday when asked to reflect on why she is suddenly so zoned in. "I was very positive [in spite of having difficulties]. . . . But I was able to go through and be a stronger player."
Same can be said for Fish, who has yo-yoed through men's tennis over the last eight years. He's been ranked in the high teens, and in the 300s. Twice he had wrist surgery. Always, he has lived in the shadow of Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake.
Like Dementieva, Fish kept rededicating himself. He refined his game. This year he beat Roger Federer for the first time. That match brought another first -- second place at a top-tier tournament. Now, he's playing an attacker's game with a pickpocket's savvy. Just ask his good friend Blake, who was blown off the court by Fish in the third round.
"I know myself now," Fish said Tuesday, after practice. He credited the experience gained from scores of matches, scores of wins and disappointments. "Finally, after over 300 matches on tour, it's like, 'Hey, this is me. I'm going to make you deal with my strengths.' "
Fish and Dementieva are playing the tennis of their lives. But has the bumpy road they've traveled forged the stuff of champions? This we will not know until week's end.