Re: Tignor article and blog entries on Ivanovic and Azarenka
IW: Looking Out for No. 1
Posted 03/16/2009 @ 1 :16 AM
The crowd is dozing, the second set is dragging, and the woman across the net isn't giving Dinara Safina anything to work with. Peng Shuai shovels one ball down the middle after another—no angles, no pace. It's time for the top seed to take matters into her own hands. This, of course, means that she must let out an unintelligible, or perhaps Russian, scream that turns into a full sentence—maybe a paragraph—of anger. The sleepy Southern California afternoon is punctured. The audience, collectively stunned out of its torpor, gives the players the biggest cheer they receive all afternoon. Safina wins the next two points, the game, the set, and, eventually, not without more struggle and a few more self-lacerations, the match. After yesterday's upsets, the tournament needs its No. 1 seed. Safina, not at her best, has obliged.
"When I was ranked No. 30 or 40, I would say I am better than this." Safina starts to raise her arm to punctuate these last four words, then puts it down again quietly before it gets above her shoulder. On paper it sounds like another moment of rising frustration from Safina, except that she's said these words to me in a high voice that's just above a whisper. They're said not with anger, but with motivation.
Behind any questions of fitness or toughness or skill is the question of motivation. In his 1980s profile of Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, Frank DeFord went back to Knight's days as a player at Ohio State to find the ultimate source for his success as a coach. Knight had been a bench warmer on an NCAA championship team that included All American Jerry Lucas and future Celtics great John Havlicek. Lucas was the better college player, which motivated Havlicek, who became a Hall of Fame pro, which in turn motivated Knight to prove his own worth and superior of knowledge of the game.
Tennis is a hotbed of this kind of one-upmanship. Or, to be more precise, one-up-woman-ship: Serena Williams is, if nothing else, the world's biggest kid sister. She had Venus to look up to, to emulate, and to vanquish. Dinara Safina is also a younger sibling to a famous major-title-winning tennis player, Marat Safin. On the surface, you might think this fact hasn't motivated her as thoroughly as it did Serena. You might be wrong.
"Having an older brother was good and bad," she says in the take-no-breaths vocal overdrive that characterizes so many women tennis players. "it helped you at first, but then I always wanted to be better, so I put more pressure on myself to be better."
That's an inauspicious beginning, but this story has a happy ending, and Safina breaks into a quick and sudden smile as she reaches it. "It made me want to be recognized as my own person, and now I'm there." For Safina, as for Serena, being a good tennis player wasn't just about excelling at a sport. It was about, as she so simply states it, being recognized as her own person. Is there any more powerful motivation than that?
Of course, Safina knows she'll never really be her own person. At her press conference today she was asked whether she ever teased Marat about being more famous than he is.
"No, no. Today one person asked me if I'm the sister of Marat. I'm like, yeah. 'Are you playing tennis [they asked]?' And I look at them, like, Well, OK, yes, I'm also a tennis player. I'm still, I think, known more as his sister."
Next question: Does she celebrate when she goes through a press conference and her brother isn't mentioned. "Yeah," Safina answered with a smile, "but it's never happened. So you see, even today, you ask, so I cannot celebrate."
Today, big brother was out practicing for his match Sunday evening. If he has never fulfilled his potential as a match player, Safin remains among the world's greatest practice players. He's the world's greatest hitter of the ball, as long the mind doesn't need to be engaged. He effortlessly slugged backhands and forehands from a straight-standing position for half an hour, seemingly just for the hell of it. Safin is also one of the few players whose shots have their own sound—it's somewhere between a thunk and a pow (Roger Federer is almost as unique in that his shots produce very little sound at all.). Safin's flick backhand is the closest thing to cannon-fire in tennis. Watching, I wondered, if I lived in a small town and it was announced that Safin was coming, but just to practice, would I pay to see it? I'd have to say yes.
Little sister was also out practicing before her match on Sunday. There were about 150 fewer people watching, but the top seed drew her own crowd. Safina wasn't doing anything effortlessly, and she can't hit standing straight up if she wanted to, because this self-conscious, too-tall girl slumps her shoulders. Instead, she hit serve after serve, methodically, grunting loudly, taking time to work out the many kinks in that complicated and slightly disjointed shot. Nothing comes perfectly for Dinara, the way it does for Marat, who owns one of the leanest and cleanest serves in the game's history. Today her coach, Zeltjko Krajan, schooled her on the same fundamentals we've all been schooled on with our serves: keep your head up and your tossing arm high. She couldn't always do it.
Safina ended her session with a little violent fun. She took short balls on her forehand side. "Taking," however, is an understatement of epic proportions. Her little steps weren't meant to get her in position; she looked like was revving herself up. She hit each ball viciously, with a full cut from the shoulder.
Later that afternoon, during her match, Safina hit her forehands the same way. If anything, she errs on the side of too much effort—her backhand is a natural and excellent defensive stroke, but her forehand is a willpower shot, rather than a timing shot. Many years of this effort have made Safina a stronger player than she must have thought she would ever become, even when she was in the rankings wilderness and screaming, in her high whisper, I'm better than this.
What has Dinara learned from Marat? We asked her that question today. She answered with perfect logic, and told us all we needed to know about how she's become a success in her own right.
Q: What lessons have you learned from your brother's experiences?
"Just not to do like he's doing," Safina said with a thin wry smile. "Do completely opposite from him."