Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Safina Wins Ugly

Safina: Winning Ugly Keeps the Dream Alive

For those of you who had that feeling that Dinara Safina might be able to finally cull her collective shortcomings and sweep them under a rug for a fortnight, think again.

Safina may sport the “Impossible is Nothing” t-shirt from Adidas, but anyone who has been watching her play this summer, and for that matter the better part of the last year, knows that there is a great difference between wearing the shirt and actually embodying its message.

Poor Dinara. One can’t help but feel sorry for the talented Muscovite, whose desire is limitless but inferior when compared to her old nemesis - performance anxiety. In spite of a hard fought 3-set triumph in which she trailed by a set and was also trailing 3-0 and 4-2 in the 3rd set, The WTA’s No. 1 player looked extremely shaky in her first round match against Australian qualifier Olivia Rogowska. Thankfully for Dinara, so did the young Aussie.

After a first set that featured 9 double faults and 6 service breaks in 11 games, Safina did manage 2 set points - but she couldn’t close it out. The feisty 18-year-old from Melbourne held to force a 1st set tie-break, and this was just the beginning of an error-plagued match that would extend late into the afternoon.

Perhaps a scare is exactly what Dinara needed: But the 2009 season has been an unwelcome series of scares, and while she’s been able to succeed at maintaining her ranking since April 20, Safina’s fragile psyche appears to be damaged beyond repair. As her struggles mounted today her drill sergeant of a coach, Zeljko Krajan, appeared severely nonplussed. Often times he was found smirking, almost maliciously laughing at Safina when she committed one of her 11 double faults or made one of her 48 errors.

It caught the attention of ESPN’s analyst Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver and they were quick to point out just how negative Krajan can be. Throughout the match Safina would look to him for comfort or some form of strength and all he could muster was a downcast glare at his own feet, his hands covering his eyes nervously, as if he was embarrassed to be associated with Safina.

In his defense, Safina has clearly made some excellent strides under the tutelage of Krajan. She was named the WTA’s most improved player for 2008, and she eventually stepped out from the shadow from her big brother Marat to claim the WTA’s top ranking. But Krajan’s negative energy has to be wearing on a girl that is clearly suffering from issues with her confidence. While there is no doubt that he’s helped her become the player is, one has to wonder if Safina wouldn’t be better off if instead of Krajan in the coaching box during her matches, there was a sports psychologist there - someone who could radiate belief and keep Safina from sinking deeper into despair when she glanced over to look for some support.

At her post-match presser, Safina didn’t come to the defense of her coach when questions were asked about his demeanor in the box:
Question: How did you feel when you looked over at your coach at times during the match, presumably for support, and he had very negative body language?

Safina: Well, I guess I had to think what I’m doing wrong that he’s so negative.

Question: Do you respond more to a negative approach or a positive?

Safina: We’ll skip this answer.

Fortunately for Safina her heart was bigger than her fear today. When she trailed 3-0 in the final set she found enough of what is good about her game to claw her way back into the set.

Finally, serving for the match at 5-4 Safina played her best service game of the day, holding at love, and then looked very relieved as she walked to the net to shake hands with the woman who’d almost pulled the biggest upset in U.S. Open history.

The good news for Safina is that she probably can’t play any worse. The bad news for Safina is that at the moment it’s hard to envision her playing much better.

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