Saturday, June 6, 2009

Safina Upended by Cooler Kuznetsova

Unfortunately for Dinara Safina they don't play French Open finals on paper.  

Safina, the consensus favorite coming in, seemed to be bogged down by her own expectations en route to a heartbreaking 6-4, 6-2 loss at the hands of her compatriot, Svetlana Kuznetsova. 

The straight set win is the second Grand-Slam title for Kuznetsova, the first coming in the 2004 U.S. Open.  

For Safina, who remains without a Grand-Slam title, it is back to the drawing board.  She has now lost three Grand-Slam finals in the last year.  While she has been undeniably the most improved player on tour during that span, she proved today that she still possesses a level of belief that leaves her prone to doubt and anxiety when the pressure is on.  

During a topsy-turvy first set that featured five service breaks in ten games, Safina scored her second break of the set to get back on serve at 4-5.  But the opportunity was squandered as Kuznetsova responded with a quick break to steal the set.  

A frustrated Safina, casting angry glares at her coaching box more regularly as the match wore on, was able to stay on serve for nearly half of the second set, but break point chances were not forthcoming.

While the French crowd seemed to be in her corner, Safina seemed stuck in a mental rut - each strong point that she played was inevitably followed by a poor one, until finally, Kuznetsova grabbed the first break of the second set to go ahead 4-2.  

Instead of mounting a surge, only frustration seemed to mount for Safina.  

Angst and fear, rather than determination and belief, were the dominant characteristics drawn on Safina's face.  Her coach, Zeljko Krajan, credited with so much of Safina's improvement of late, seemed morose and in his box as well, the two of them poster children for how to improperly alleviate world-class pressure.  

Meanwhile, Kuznetsova, sensing the trepidation of her long time rival, and relishing in the slow playing conditions of the damp clay court, continued to attack. Additionally, she played extremely well defensively, limiting errors and forcing Safina to go for more with each successive shot. 

Finally, at Kuznetsova's first Championship point, Safina bounced a second-serve off the tape - as it landed harmlessly in the doubles alley for her seventh double fault of the match, it was all over but the crying.  

Meanwhile, Kuznetsova was stoic in her celebration, showing an impressive level of sportsmanship as she waited for Safina at net, then planted a few heartfelt kisses on her cheeks as they shook hands.  

As twenty-two-time Slam chamion Steffi Graf handed the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen to the victorious Kuznetsova while a visibly disappointed Safina stood nearby, Kuznetsova thanked the crowd and stated that she didn't expect to win this year.  She just wanted to show up and play her heart out, she said.  

Hopefully, Dinara was listening closely.  If she can find a way to win her mind-boggling struggle with expectations, anxiety, and doubt, it just might be her holding that trophy next year.  

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