Monday, April 20, 2009

Finally At # 1, Safina Hungry for Majors

The new world #1 has her sights set on bigger things.

Dinara Safina has become the nineteenth woman to ascend to the #1 ranking (rankings began in 1975), and in doing so has become the female half of the first brother-sister duo to have achieved the feat as a pair.  Marat, her big brother, was ranked # 1 for 9 total weeks in parts of 2000 and 2001.

While their efforts are unprecedented in tennis, and while there careers have each been remarkable, Safina is painfully aware of one difference between her and Marat.

"He has two Grand Slams," Safina said of her brother in a recent interview. "He's still much better than me, so I have to catch him." While she says it with a smile that has her admiration for Marat written all over it, deep down her passion and hunger to win go hand in hand with her ranking.

At times she is giddy, coyly stating that her rapid climb up the rankings is difficult to comprehend for her. At others she is deeply introspective in criticising her own shortcomings. Obviously an emotional girl, a fiery Russian just like her tempestuous brother, she's quick to assess her liabilities on that front. "The Results that I have are the results I've been dreaming play Grand-Slam finals...But now if I want to step in front (of the field)...I just have to learn to handle my emotions better, to make the step."

"If I can play without pressure I will let my body just go. This is the key. I just need to let my racket talk and not think about anything else."

While Dinara admires her brother and is thankful to have gleaned much of her power and athleticism from the same impressive gene pool as Marat, she'd do very well to avoid being completely like her volatile sibling. She needs only to look at the tape of Marat's latest tantrum-fest in Monte Carlo, to learn what a poor attitude and negative body language can do to sabotage an otherwise miraculously gifted athlete.

Safina, even as she his risen rapidly to the top of the WTA, has been plagued by her temper - her fragile psyche can go from calm and confident to brooding and self deprecating after a few error-plagued games. Safina's talent isn't what's blocking her from winning a grand-slam, nor is her desire. Her emotional vulnerability is.

Much like her brother she is to be feared when she is playing well. And much like her brother she tends to throw away that advantage at innoportune moments. The 22-year-old runs the gamut of emotions and often times she's literally beating herself on the court. She is transformed by tennis demons, into a screaming and crying ball of doubt and self-hatred as her game goes out of whack.

And this is where Dinara, if she wants to lose the asterisk on her # 1 ranking (* never won Slam), needs to stop emulating her brother.

Not to disrespect Marat. He is clearly one of the greatest and most entertaining players of the new millenium. But he tends to get morose; gloomy, as if a big black cloud is hovering above him when he isn't satisfied with his play. This is exactly the thing that Dinara Safina needs to learn NOT TO DO. She needs to become a pillar of belief. She needs to shed the one Safin gene that doesn't belong in the Champion package: the self-deprecating temper.

Grace under pressure is what gets you a Slam. Responding to crucial situations with focus and calm, not with anger and loathing.

Safina smiles when asked what she could learn from her brothers temper. "Just not to do like him," she says. "To do completely the opposite."

If she can do it, she may find herself adding a third Slam to the Safin duo's resume.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Serbian Plateau: Will it lead to higher ground?

Serbia's Meteoric Rise to the top of the Tennis world comes with a whole new set of expectations.

When Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open in 2008, Serbia as a tennis nation was at the sweet spot of its ascent. Three brilliant players (Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, and Jelena Jankovic), all uniquely shaped by being born into and associated with a region of political strife and civil war, were now coming into their own as tennis players. But there was still so much to prove. So much to yearn for. All three players, while different in their backrounds and approach to the game, were united by a deep and meaningful source of inspiration. They were playing with a higher purpose, fueled by a conviction, and it showed.

Djokovic's Australian Open final victory over Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Melbourne was monumental, and it was symbolic of so much more than merely tennis; it was a saving grace, a message from the firmament: believe, it said... Rise from the ashes! It was perhaps more about spirit than it was about sport.

Novak's triumph in Melbourne was a springboard for the other high ranking Serbians to finally get over the hump.

Ana Ivanovic, having lost her 2nd of 2 previous Grand-Slam finals just one day before Djokovic claimed his A.O title, did not wait long to ride the inspiration to a landmark victory of her own: She won the French in '08 and climbed to #1 in the world for the first time on June 9, 2008.

Meanwhile, Jelena Jankovic was climbing as well. She reached the # 1 Ranking on August 11, 2008, and finished the year at # 1.

“There’s been so much going on for Serbian tennis lately that it’s just incredible to describe how we could do it in such a small period of time,” Djokovic said after dedicating his 2008 title to his family, support team, and fans back in Serbia. “Probably the fact that we didn’t have the best possible conditions gave us more motivation to succeed.”

But that was yesterday.

While Serbia's reputation still basks in the glory of these precedent-setting victories, there are new expectations that have arisen. New pressures, faced by players who seemed to be more comfortable (confident, hungry?) in the role of underdog, but who now are forced to deal with life at the top, while the rest of the tennis world targets its hunger on them.

And this raises an interesting question about the psychology of the Serbian rise to power in the tennis world: Now that the players have achieved such great success in the game, will the fire in their belly still burn deeply enough to inspire future titles, or will the comforts associated with the success cause the flame to flicker?

2009 has been difficult for each of the big three Serbians: Djokovic has already amassed 8 losses, and has appeared to accept his failures much more apathetically than he did a year ago. He seems to lack inspiration at times, and at others he seems too angry at himself on the court to be productive. Additionally, his #3 ranking, held since August of 2007, is in serious jeapardy as Andy Murray closes in on him.

Ivanovic, meanwhile, hasn't gotten past the 3rd round of a Major after her breakthrough win in Roland Garros in 2008. New coach Craig Kardon helped her get to the finals of a Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells in March, but she followed that with another disconcerting early setback in Miami just a few days later. She is firmly entrenched as # 7 in the world, but it's a far cry from being #1, as she was 10 short months ago.

Jankovic's troubles are the most alarming. After finishing the year ranked at #1, she is currently at # 4 and in danger of dropping further. Even her wins have been shaky, with error-filled matches and many service breaks. She admits frequently in post-match press conferences that she is confused. "I'm not the same player I used to be," she told media after another early exit last week in Miami. "For three months I haven't been doing well at all, and I hope to begin my season sometime soon."

While there is no denying that 2009 has fallen short of expectations thus far, this reality does not detract from the impressive body of work that has already turned out by the young Serbs. Regardless of what happens in the short-term the big three (additional props to Troicki, Tipsarevic, and others...) have changed the complexion of tennis in Serbia, in a remarkably positive manner.

They have become icons, role-models, heros, and entrepreneurs. More importantly, they've become champions. And tennis fans all over the world have embraced them as they've done it - with their hearts on their sleeves, unafraid to emote, and keen to entertain. They've been so good that Serbians can't help but be inspired. The Serbian tennis Academy is in the works and the junior program has 4 more in the top 100 world rankings. Belief begets success. While the Serbians are no doubt at a temporary plateau, belief in the future, something that is essential to growth of the Serbian tennis program, is abundant.

When the ATP tour visits Belgrade for the first time On May 4-10 of 2009, it will be a time of reflection and pride for the nation and it's players. Serbia will be on display as a nation of beauty and as a nation with a growing tennis tradition. 10 years ago very few would have imagined such success for the nation of approximately 10 million people.

But the honeymoon mustn't last forever. The Serbians need to search their souls for remembrance of the past. Time at the top of the rankings must not separate them from who they are and why they burn.