INDIAN WELLS — That the United States is a declining power in many sports it once dominated may not be a concern, but surely it should be of interest.

The failing was thrust in our faces last weekend by "Play," subtitled the New York Times Sports Magazine, offering a cover photo of a female tennis player.

A Russian female tennis player, of course.

Her name is Elena Dementieva, and — could this be yet another cover jinx, rivaling Sports Illustrated's? — she withdrew from the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells on Wednesday because of cracked ribs.

Unfortunate, especially since she reached the semifinals last year, but that didn't detract from her observations or her status.

Or her country's status.

Are athletes born or created? And why all of a sudden are all the great women tennis players Russian; all the great baseball players Dominican; all the great golfers, aside from that man Tiger, seemingly all British or European?

Didn't we once have people such as Billie Jean King and Henry Aaron and Jack Nicklaus? What has happened? Why has it happened?

Daniel Coyle traveled to the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow where Dementieva, at age 7, started playing the game. His story in "Play," emphasizes some of what we knew, hard work and determination are contributing factors, and some of what we didn't, superior athletes have more of a substance called myelin, which sheaths nerve fibers, than do the rest of us.

Talent? We have 300 million people in the U.S. Some of us ought to be able to hit a decent forehand or a cut fastball. But do we care about success, as much as the eastern Europeans care about tennis or the Caribbean nations about baseball? Apparently not.

In 2001, Dementieva was the only Russian woman ranked among the world's top 30. Now there are six in the top 12. Maria Sharapova is at the top; Svetlana Kuznetsova, fifth; Nadia Petrova, sixth, Dementiva, eighth; Anna Chakvetadze, 11th; and Dinara Safina 12th. And, as the Russians did in 2001, there's only one American in the top 30, Serena Williams at 15th.

"The U.S. has the best clubs and academies," said Dementieva, "and I think people all around are trying to come here to be good players. So (a lack of facilities and coaching) is not the reason there are not many American players."

"How to Build a Prodigy," was a headline on the Coyle story. And yet, taking a Moscow subway to an aging building with one indoor court is not the only way. Kuznetsova grew up in St. Petersburg, Sharapova was born in Siberia but emigrated to Florida and the Nick Bollettieri Academy at age 7.

"It's not the clubs or academies," said Kuznetsova. She won the 2004 U.S. Open singles, defeating Dementieva in the final. Not long ago, that event was the property of Serena and Venus Williams.

"You don't need something like this in the United States," Kuznetsova explained. "What you need is to indicate to your kids the value of money. If we don't do something with our lives, we don't have anything. My parents pushed me, but when I grew up, I started to understand the meaning of hard work."

Joe DiMaggio said a kid had to be hungry to become a great ballplayer.

Are we too linked to iPods and shopping malls to need to work up a sweat? Is playing a video game an adequate substitute to playing a real game? Or does America simply present its youth too many options?

"I think there are so many sports in the United States," said Sharapova, a month from her 20th birthday. A two-time Grand Slam champion, she has lived in Florida a dozen years and speaks almost flawless English.

Maria earned $30 million in endorsements alone last year. Yet she remembers when there was very little. And keeps her single-minded focus.

"My friends here they play basketball," said Sharapova, "then it is baseball season. I can't keep up. This country gives you so many opportunities.

"In Russia, people live pretty far from the training facilities. You have to make a commitment to do something. Figure skating. Gymnastics. That will be your sport. Maybe it is better in the United States, to play a lot of sports. But if you are going to go the professional level, you have to be dedicated to one thing."

As Coyle pointed out, at Spartak they don't talk about "playing" tennis but "borot'sya." To struggle.

Art Spander can be reached at

typoes@aol.com.