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.

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