Monday, October 5, 2009

Who's No. 1 And Does it Really Matter?

Greetings tennis-crazed lunatics,

Well, the dead horse that WTA fans have been beating for the better part of the last 25 weeks finally is about to be buried.

Now that Serena Williams has found a way to topple Ekatarina Makarova in Beijing she will hurdle past Dinara Safina and once again take over the WTA's No. 1 slot. For Safina, who earlier today suffered the worst upset defeat in the history of the WTA against no. 236-ranked Zhang Shuai today, it remains to be seen if she can overcome the emotional duress that she has endured since claiming the top spot.

As great as it must have been to reach the pinnacle of the sport - something no doubt that most of us will only ever be able to dream about - this has been a painful and unfortunate episode for the tempestuous Safina.

Safina's rise to the top of women's tennis, and her ensuing quest to prove that she belongs has turned out to be a puzzling paradox that has done more to reveal her incipient weaknesses than her myriad strengths. And that, quite frankly, is a shame.

How did it come to this? What started as a quest for greatness, with joyous overtones of hope and invincibility, now appears to be ending in tears, with a white flag of surrender plopped on Safina's head as she tries to hide herself from her own worst nightmares - the fact that not only has she failed in her quest to give her demanding critics what they wanted from her, but she also believes herself to be unloved, disrespected, and known more for her choking than her talent.

Is it true, or is it all in Dinara's head? And isn't this 25-week-nightmare that Dinara is finally leaving behind really more about Safina's head than her ability to play this sport at the highest level?

Becoming No. 1, at first deemed a blessing, has actually been more of a curse than anything for the emotional Russian. The future looked bright for her 25 weeks ago, when she became the 19th woman to hold the top spot. For a brief period it didn't matter that she had been ruthlessly dispatched by Serena in the Australian Open final - Safina was one half of the first brother-sister combo to ever hold the No. 1 ranking, and her future was arguably the brightest of all the up-and-comers on the WTA tour.

What was first presented as a fairly tale, has now become more of a horror story for the 23-year-old Safina. Sadly, she only has herself to blame (okay, I'm willing to give her maniacal coach some credit as well). Buying into the scathing critiquing of the media and her adversaries (most notably, the self-centered and politically motivated Serena) was the worst mistake she could have ever made. Instead of going with what got her to the No. 1 ranking - hard work, determination, and most of all courage - Safina left the door open for a tennis players worst enemy: FEAR.

After convincingly storming her way into the top-ten, then following up with two consecutive Grand Slam finals appearances and a WTA-best 16-match winning streak this year, Safina inexplicably gave up believing in herself. From there it became an uphill battle. A Sisyphian struggle that pitted Safina unfavorably against her own metastasizing self-doubt.

If there was ever a girl who needed to borrow one of Melanie Oudin's Adidas shoes, it was Safina.

If there ever was a girl who needed positive reinforcement from her coach, it was Safina.

But instead of shoring up her belief, Dinara let the demons crawl into bed with her. Instead of helping her spirit soar, her hell-bent coach insisted upon laughing at her from his coaching box. Suddenly the wheels had come off a train that was one stop away from the promised land. In just 25 weeks at the top of the rankings, the best player in the world has managed to become little more than cannon fodder for the media, and a chance at a huge upset for lesser-knowns with half as much talent but, sadly, twice as much belief.

"I would like to take a break now, I'm very upset with myself," said Safina after today's last kick to the ribs of the proverbial dead horse that has become her best friend and worst nightmare all wrapped into one.

Anyone who has watched this strange soap-operatic saga take place, would agree it is the only thing left to do. Safina needs to remember to forget her worries, because if she doesn't she'll never reach her potential.

Perhaps giving back the No. 1 ranking today will be the best thing for Safina. Psychologically, she'll be better off hunting than being hunted. When you are hunting you are thinking more about killing than being killed. When you are hunting you are too hungry to think about anything other than going for your shots.

Safina's rise to the top has exposed her for what she truly is: A great athlete who has yet to develop the mental prowess of the true champion. If she's smart she'll stop crying and start learning. She isn't who she thought she was a year ago, but that doesn't mean she can't be, nor does it mean that we don't love her, no matter what she becomes.

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