Saturday, June 06, 2009

Treating Those Two Impostors Just the Same

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same." - Rudyard Kipling's "If" (1896)

In the end, this Roland Garros was still all about Dinara Safina... just not in the way in which she'd have hoped when she arrived in Paris a few weeks ago.

Last week, four-time RG champ Justine Henin visited the grounds of Roland Garros and, while she was there, discussed the slam-less Safina's validity as the #1-ranked player in the world. She said that the WTA tour needed a new "boss" to take charge in her absence, and she thought that Safina might be ready to assume the role.

After going 20-1 as the top-ranked player before playing the final against Svetlana Kuznetsova today, Safina seemed poised to move to the of the WTA company. She was one match from silencing her critics, including Serena Williams. But the new "boss" isn't going to be Safina. Not yet, anyway.

Problem is, after working so hard to evict the pitchfork-wielding "little Dinara" who used to live on her shoulder on gamedays in favor of a wing-ed angel of the court who's become a model tenant, Safina's harsher demons payed a visit at the most inopportune time... the day that was supposed to include her coronation.

It wasn't a pretty sight, either.

On a slow court on an overcast Paris day with a threat of rain, Safina started off with her eyes focused on the prize, but she ended it with them welling up with tears. What occurred on Court Chatrier was the re-introduction of Kuznetsova to the grand success she stumbled upon in New York five years ago before she ever really learned how to live the day-to-day life of a champion. One player's continuing tennis tragedy was another's long-awaited triumph. But, then again, that was always how this day was destined to end, no matter the ultimate outcome. It was only a question of which Russian would follow Kipling's words and treat those two impostors just the same, handle the pressure better, and be able to hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen for the first time when all was said and done.

The match started with Safina breaking Kuznetsova for a 1-0 lead, but it didn't last long. Kuznetsova broke back in game two. With her serve a troubling issue for her once again, just as it had been against Dominika Cibulkova (who couldn't take full advantage) in the semifinals, Safina fell behind love/40, down 3-4 in the set. She was broken when she couldn't reach a low-bouncing shot, giving Kuznetsova a chance to serve out the set at 5-3.

But with the set on her racket, Kuznetsova blinked. She was broken at love. She, too, was fighting against herself in this pressure-packed situation. But just as she had in the quarterfinals against Williams, Kuznetsova zigged away from trouble. She quickly turned the tables on Safina, using an inside out forehand to carve out two break and set point opportunities on her serve. On the second, Safina couldn't get a racket on a crosscourt backhand and Kuznetsova seized the 1st set at 6-4.

In the 2nd set, with Kuznetsova serving at 2-2, Safina had chances to reach a break point but failed to convert a single one. Kuznetsova held for 3-2, then quickly broke Safina to go up 4-2. With defeat in the Roland Garros final staring back at her for the second straight year, Safina turned to her coach in the stands and asked, "Why am I such a chicken?"

I said it wasn't pretty.

The rest was fairly predictable. Needing to hold serve at 5-2 to see if Kuznetsova would blink yet again when serving for a set, Safina wasn't able to muster the forces to do so. What had seemed her birthright over the previous thirteen days in Paris wasn't meant to be at all. On match point, she double-faulted.

Kuznetsova won 6-4/6-2.

Safina slammed her racket, and Kuznetsova made a slow walk to the net to meet her opponent, who was about to cry. Kuznetsova understands the labors and struggles of the long hard road to the top (or, in her case, the trip back there) that Safina will continue to endure after this loss. The new champion was happy, but not overly excited. Maybe because she knew that the specter of her own tortured recent past could have easily led the two countrywomen to have switched places had things gone differently on this day. She knew how her childhood tennis friend and foe felt, because she had also started the day wondering if SHE might feel the same way by the end of it.

Kuznetsova remained steady in victory, just as she had in the match; while the world #1 was the one who cracked after having so expertly handled the pressure of being the favorite to win this tournament the past two weeks. Safina is now 0-3 in slam finals, including the last two at Roland Garros and at both slams so far in 2009. One day soon, maybe Safina's story will have a happy ending, but as of today she's still not ready.

AP / Christophe Ena

Kuznetsova, though, finally IS once again. At 23, she can still fight to assume the position as the best of the Russian women. She has the game and history of health to achieve on all surfaces, and now may have discovered the temperment to handle it all, as well.

As almost a supplement to her acceptance speech, Kuznetsova grabbed the microphone and finally provided a link between this Roland Garros and the magical one from twenty years ago that saw Barcelona-born teenager Arantxa Sanchez rise to prominance on the red clay in a stunning coup d'├ętat. She thanked all the people at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain who'd helped round her into the player she would eventually become as a teenager. It was her work there that laid the foundation for a grand slam champion, even if it has been her move back to her home town in Moscow that has helped ground her tennis, life and head in a way that was essential for her to re-live this day on the slam stage one more time.

Or maybe it'll simply turn out to be the MOST RECENT one as the months and years go by?

Over the last few days, Kuznetsova has submitted her name for consideration for the position of the "new boss" that Henin talked about. She seems nothing like the "old boss" who failed to follow up her '04 U.S. Open victory with continued slam success, and that's likely a good thing. After twice failing to put away match points in Paris against the eventual Roland Garros champion (Anastasia Myskina in '04, Henin in '05), she had no such difficulty in 2009.

That's already a sure sign of something being different this time around. Plus, Kuznetsova's assault on this title came at the expense of the world numbers one and two, despite having failed so many times on stages big and small against all sorts of players when everything was riding on one match the last few years. Now that she knows she can beat the best on the biggest stage, why can't she make a habit of it?

Time will tell. But no matter what happens next, even though Safina's fall might ultimately be better remembered, Kuznetsova was the star today.

2004 Roland Garros - Anastasia Myskina
2004 Wimbledon - Maria Sharapova
2004 U.S. Open - Svetlana Kuznetsova
2006 U.S. Open - Maria Sharapova
2008 Australian Open - Maria Sharapova
2009 Roland Garros - Svetlana Kuznetsova

3...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2...Dinara Safina, RUS
2...Venus Williams, USA
2...Elena Dementieva, RUS
2...Vera Zvonareva, RUS

10...Serena Williams
7...Venus Williams
3...Maria Sharapova
2...Amelie Mauresmo
1...Ana Ivanovic
1...Kim Clijsters
ALSO: Davenport (3)

Australian 4th Rd - Bartoli d. Jankovic
Dubai SF - V.Williams d. S.Williams
Miami Final - Azarenka d. S.Williams
Marbella 1st Rd - Zakopalova d. S.Williams
Stuttgart Final - Kuznetsova d. Safina
Roland Garros Final - Kuznetsova d. Safina

#7 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS def. #1 Dinara Safina/RUS 6-4/6-2

#23 Robin Soderling/SWE vs. #2 Roger Federer/SUI

#3 Medina-Garrigues/Ruano-Pascual (ESP/ESP) def. #12 Azarenka/Vesnina (BLR/RUS) 6-1/6-1

#3 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) def. Moodie/Norman (RSA/BEL) 3-6/6-3/6-2

#1 Huber/B.Bryan (USA/USA) def.
King/Melo (USA/BRA) 5-7/7-6 [10-7]

#9 Kristina Mladenovic/FRA vs. Daria Gavrilova/RUS

Daniel Berta/SWE vs. #11 Gianni Mina/FRA

#2 E.Bogdan/Lertcheewakarn (ROU/THA) def. #3 Babos/Watson (HUN/GBR) 3-6/6-3 [10-8]

Draganja/Marcan (CRO/CRO) def. #4 Clezar/Huang (BRA/TPE) 6-3/6-2

TOP QUALIFIER: Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dinara Safina/RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q2: Corinna Dentoni/ITA d. Sesil Karatantcheva/KAZ 4-6/6-3/6-2
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Vitalia Diatchenko/RUS d. Mathilde Johansson/FRA 1-6/6-2/10-8 (saved 7 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): SF - Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Serena Williams 7-6/5-7/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): Mixed Doubles Final - #1 Huber/B.Bryan d. King/Melo 5-7/7-6 [10-7]
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.- Shvedova/KAZ)
UPSET QUEENS: The ex-Russian Kazakhs
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR & Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ (both to 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
CRASH & BURN: Elena Dementieva/RUS - dominated by Dokic in 2nd, but advances with retirement, then taken out by Stosur in 3rd Rd.
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Victoria Azarenka/BLR - was down 7-5/4-1 vs. Suarez-Navarro in 3rd Rd., won and reached first slam QF
LAST PASTRIES STANDING: Aravane Rezai & Virginie Razzano (both to 4th Rd.)
DOUBLES STAR Virginia Ruano-Pascual/ESP

All for Day 14.


Blogger Diane said...

I really like both Dinara and Sveta, so I would have been pleased with a win by either. I wanted Dinara to get her first big trophy, but I also wanted Sveta to have more than one. Every year she went without winning another major, it seemed that the second was got farther away from her.

If this really means that Sveta has conquered her nerves, then she has nowhere to go but up.

I'm probably in the minority, but I don't think the tour needs a "boss."

Sun Jun 07, 11:49:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I'm probably in the minority, but I don't think the tour needs a "boss."


I tend to agree, Diane. While so many try to establish that the lack of a true #1 somehow means the tour is something "less" than it was before, I don't buy it. As even Henin noted last week, so many questions about who's going to win IS exciting. But while I don't think a "boss" is necessarily needed, it is a bit troubling is that every new player who's ascended to #1 (not counting Serena or Sharapova, who'd been their before and dropped largely or totally because of injuries) has seemed to be unable to, either a) handle the pressure of being #1, or b) back up the ranking at the next slam she plays. It sort of plays into the hands of the critics who like to say that there's no "there" there.

I think, for the moment, this is a fine situation. If the future reigns of #1 players are still known for a their inability to win "the big one" two or three years from now, then we may have a problem. I don't think that'll be the case, though.

Mon Jun 08, 10:52:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Yes, I agree with that, too. It's a shame that neither Jelena nor Dinara has been able to pull it off. Perhaps they can look to Amelie for inspiration.

Mon Jun 08, 11:11:00 AM EDT  

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