Cast your mind back about a month, and it was hard not to feel sorry for Dinara Safina after her Wimbledon semi-final drubbing at the hands of Venus Williams. The Russian slid off court having won just a solitary game – her latest bid for that elusive Grand Slam title all over in a mere 51 minutes. It was the worst beating ever handed out to a women’s world number one in the history of the WTA rankings.
So the whispers grow ever louder: can she ever handle the pressure, and win a major title?
There’s no doubt that Safina’s rise to the top over the last year has been superb. Thanks to a powerful baseline game and her tremendous work ethic, she seized the coveted world number one spot at the end of April this year, and has to date won more matches (47) than any other woman on the WTA Tour this season.
She also recently claimed her third Tour title of the year – albeit at a small event in Slovenia. Safina’s status can be seen as reward for week-in, week-out consistency – whatever current world number two Serena Williams says that she is the ‘real number one.’
But if Grand Slam finals are where tennis players can really live their dreams and take their place in tennis history (Serena has won three of the past four and has eleven singles Slams in all), then Safina’s three previous experiences of those have all been nothing short of a nightmare.
She froze in the 2008 French Open final, as Ana Ivanovic won her maiden major crown in straight sets. At this year’s Australian Open, it was a similar story as Serena Williams scored an easy victory in the title match for the loss of just three games.
And then at the French Open a couple of months ago, Safina’s game again cracked under pressure – this time her fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova was the one to profit and take the title.
Safina’s surrender at Roland Garros this year was all the more shocking because up until that point, she’d handled her number one status with ease, winning important tour titles on clay in Rome and Madrid.
The 23-year-old then steamrollered her way through the Paris draw for the loss of just one set, in a manner befitting of a player ranked as the world’s best. But next came the all-too-familiar failure to perform on the big occasion. The only difference with Safina’s latest loss at Wimbledon was that it came in the last four, and not at the final stage.
The world number one’s biggest problem is not to do with either tactics or technique; it is in her head. Yes, she could benefit from an alternative gameplan on the days when her all-or-nothing groundstrokes aren’t quite finding their range. But it’s the Russian’s fragile temperament – and specifically a lack of self-belief that she can get the job done at the business end of Grand Slams – that is the real issue.
The tell-tale signs for a Safina struggle are easy to spot: the ever shorter second serve, the increasingly tight groundstrokes, and frequent mutterings between points that are reminiscent of her older brother Marat’s on-court behaviour.
Safina’s coach Zeljko Krajan is an excellent tactician who has often used the opportunities afforded by on-court coaching at WTA events to tell his charge a few home truths – and often with pleasing results. This happened most recently at Stuttgart in May, where Safina fought back from a set and a break down to reach the final. But Krajan’s influence is more limited at Grand Slams, where such coaching isn’t permitted. On those occasions, Safina is left to try and find a way to win alone.
The problem is that with each heavy defeat she suffers at the back end of major tournaments, the doubts then loom larger the next time she works herself into a similar situation. Most agree she has the stats of a Grand Slam champion – but does she now really believe she belongs in that company?
Despite these faults, Safina is definitely still worth backing at the WTA Tour Premier level events she’s scheduled to play in the run-up to the season’s final Grand Slam in New York. She is defending champion and the 4.5 favourite in Los Angeles, where neither of the Williams sisters are entered into the draw.
Safina is also worth backing at the Canadian Open, where again she is the title holder. With another tournament in Cincinnati to complete her North American hard court preparation, Safina must be considered a good bet to add to her growing collection of Tour titles during August.
But it would take a far greater leap of faith to believe Safina can win the US Open, where she is chalked up at 16.0 and so end her wait for that elusive Grand Slam title. If she could beat one (or both) of the Williams sisters during Toronto or Cincinnati, that would obviously help her fragile confidence – but even victory in those would still be a world away from achieving the same thing in New York come September.
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