Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dinara Safina

Tennis’ next generation emerges from shadows of today’s Olympians at East West Bank Classic
by Paul Teetor
Published July 31, 2008/ Easy Rider

The big winner at the East West Bank Classic at the Home Depot Center in Carson last week was next week’s Beijing Olympics.

The official winner, however, was 22-year-old, late bloomer Dinara Safina, who blitzed what was left of a once-formidable field and walked away with the championship trophy Sunday afternoon. After fighting off a match point early in the week with a powerful ace, the newly swift and sleek Russian 6-footer rolled over everyone else in her path, including top-seeded Jelena Jankovic, whom she crushed in Saturday night’s marquee semifinal. As in past years, the tournament also showcased several future potential top women players.

Meanwhile, the big losers were the fans who bought advance tickets expecting to see mega-stars such as Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Svetlana Kuznetsova -- all of them last-minute dropouts due to various knee injuries they hoped to heal up in time for the Olympics.

Defending champion Ana Ivanovic of Serbia and Manhattan Beach’s own Maria Sharapova -- technically she’s still Russian, but lives here when not touring -- also chose to sit out and train for the Olympics. But at least they hadn’t committed to playing -- which allows the tournament to use their names and images in its advertising -- and then withdrawn at the last moment.

A week on hard courts under the searing summer was not going to help anyone’s knee or shoulder problems, so in a sense the mass exodus from Carson was understandable. The Summer Olympics only come around every four years, an Olympic medal is always a great thing to have on your resume, and there’s a women’s tournament with $600,000 in prize money -- give or take a hundred grand -- almost every week of the year somewhere in the world.

Then there are those old-school virtues of pride and patriotism.

But still the superstars’ last-second disappearing act was tough to take for fans, press and tournament officials who ultimately couldn’t escape the long shadow of the much-hyped, much-anticipated Chinese Olympics.

Even Safina had the Olympics on her mind moments after smacking a mach-speed backhand past a tired, limping and virtually unknown Flavia Pannetta in Sunday afternoon’s finals at the Home Depot Center.

“I still have to go to Beijing after all this,” Safina said after the 6-4, 6-2 win that took 70 minutes. “If I stay healthy and strong, and keep playing like this, God only knows what can happen at the Olympics.”

Little sister grows up
Safina has always been an imposing physical presence with a build and physique similar to that of her better known big brother, Marat Safin, a two-time Grand Slam winner.

Safin, however, is also the most notorious head case on the men’s tour, a racket-smashing, multi-lingual shouter and X-rated screamer who once pulled down his shorts and mooned a hostile crowd. And he’s a notorious under-achiever, with a ranking nowhere near his talent level.

His equally talented little sister is also known for smashing rackets and losing control of her game, mostly by trying crazy shots at bad times. But at least she has never shed her clothes on the court.

And the under-achiever label has stuck to her as well. The athleticism, the overwhelming size, the big serve and the technically perfect strokes -- her mother is a big-time tennis coach in Russia -- were always there as she made her way onto the tour over the last six years and slowly pushed her ranking into the mid-teens.
But she stalled out last year when her weaknesses in movement and her erratic temperament were exposed. She usually found a way at crucial moments to lose to the top players and became known as a head case, a dangerous but inconsistent Big Babe banger just as likely to beat herself as her opponent.

In the last six months, however, she hired a new coach, added a fitness guru, dropped 10 pounds and rededicated herself to achieving her full potential.

Their solutions: better diet, better quickness and better emotional control.

“My coach told me the only way I could get better was to tone down the emotional part of my game,” she said. “When he said it is the only way I could get off the level I was stuck at, I decided to do it. And it’s working.

Indeed, the East West title capped off an incredible streak in which Safina won a Tier 1 event in Berlin, reached the final of the French Open, and won 22 of 24 matches before adding 5 more impressive wins this week.

Besides her straight set win over Jankovic in the semis, she survived the most riveting match of the entire week, a 7-6, 0-6, 7-6 win over 20-year old Russian Alla Kudryavtseva in Thursday night’s marquee match.

That was followed Friday afternoon by a 6-3, 6-2 steamrolling of 8th seed Victoria Azarenka, a 19-year-old up-and-comer on the tour. Azarenka, who looks like a slightly shorter version of Sharapova and whose constant grunting sounds EXACTLY like Sharapova‘s well-known shrieking, never had a chance.

Safina later said it was one of the best matches she had ever played.

“It was perfect,” she said, seemingly amazed at what she now realizes is capable of. “I can’t think of anything that went wrong today.”

Top girls
Safina’s Saturday night demolition of Jankovic -- and the collateral damage to the Serbian’s Number One dream -- was the artistic highlight of the tournament. It provided fans at least a taste of the high-level, high-velocity, high-emotion tennis that is usually generated when two of the Top Girls square off.

In the last six months Safina has morphed into one of the Top Girls -- this victory will elevate her to eighth in the world -- while Jankovic became a Top Girl not long after breaking through right here at Carson two years ago.

That’s when Jankovic rebounded from a nightmarish streak of 10 straight first-round losses that had her musing aloud about quitting the tour and going back to college. But she kept fighting, rode her daring, down-the-line backhand all the way to the semifinals and began her climb from the depths of the computer rankings.

Two years later, even without winning a single Grand Slam event, she started the week as number two in the world and the protagonist of the only legitimate storyline the tournament had left: Could JJ -- as her growing legion of fans have taken to calling her -- win the tournament and gain enough computer points become number one in the world?

“I think our fans are very excited about the prospect of seeing Jelana become number one right here in Carson,” Michael Roth, vice-president of communications for the Anschutz Entertainment Group, said Tuesday night, two hours after Serena Williams finally, officially, pulled out. “It’s not often you have the opportunity to see something historic like that.”

And Jankovic, who had a love affair with the crowd all week, was clearly eager to win the title and grab the number one ranking from her countrywoman and not-so-great friend Ivanovic.

“I don’t care if it’s only for one week that I am number one,” she said. “I go in the history books as number one in the world and they can never take that away from me.”

She too planned to play in the Olympics and she too had knee problems that forced her to wear a long, conspicuous thigh bandage down to her kneecap. But she vowed to play through the pain and seemed happy to let Ivanovic do the heavy lifting at the Olympics.

Saturday night showdown
Once the rash of withdrawals had been digested and third-seeded Anna Chakvetadze checked out in a second round loss to Sybil Bammer, it became clear that either the top-seeded Jankovic or the fourth seeded Safina was going to win the tournament. Unfortunately, they were in the same half of the draw and thus scheduled to meet in the semi-finals, not the finals.

The imbalance in the two halves of the draw became crystal-clear when Saturday dawned to find the first semifinal featuring 21st ranked Flavia Pennetta against 54th ranked Bethanie Mattek, who is known more for her outrageous outfits than her boring baseline game. Their early-afternoon war of attrition was played under a broiling sun that turned the stadium court into a frying pan and the brave spectators into slices of crispy bacon. Three hours later, with both players fighting to make it into their first Tier 2 final, Pannetta’s superior strokes and graceful movement finally overcame Mattek’s funky game and bulldog determination to pull out a third-set marathon.

Saturday night was reserved for the Jankovic-Safina semifinal, but almost everyone in the stadium knew it might as well be the final. The winner was a lock to take the title over the 26-year-old Pannetta, who had severe blister problems on her feet and has been on the tour long enough to prove she simply isn’t in the same class as either Jankovic or Safina.

The tension was high as both women took the court with Jankovic sporting the red dress that the crowd preferred over her white one in an informal poll she took after her second round win over Long Beach’s own Vania King, 7-5, 6-2.

To see how tough life is on the pro tour, consider the plight of the 5-foot-5, 19-year-old King: as twilight fell in the stadium Wednesday night, she was playing so well that she held a set point while leading Jankovic 6-5, 40-30. After a long, tough rally -- King also has great wheels, like Jankovic -- King smacked a backhand down the line that Jankovic barely got her racket on. She somehow scraped up a towering lob that was loudly called out as it landed at the intersection of the baseline and the sideline. But before King could get to her chair to celebrate her first set victory, Jankovic challenged the call. The replay showed the ball caught the slightest sliver of the sideline and thus was considered in. The point was replayed, Jankovic won the point and eventually forced a tie-breaker at 6-6. A chagrined King was never the same and quickly fell apart.

Why not Dinara?
Jankovic continued her determined march to number one Friday night with a straight set win over 9th seeded Nadia Petrova, another big strong Russian known as a head case who falls apart at key times. Right on cue, this time she was broken late in each set and went away without a struggle.

The strengths of Jankovic’s game have been clear ever since she emerged at Carson two years ago. Her suffocating court coverage is the best on the tour, her favorite and most effective shot is her two-handed down-the-line backhand, and her once weak serve was a liability but it has gained some pop this past year.

Now both women, good friends off the court, were on a Saturday night mission: Safina to keep the best streak of her career going, and Jankovic to grab that elusive number one ranking, something she had tried and failed to do twice this year in earlier tournaments that could have given her the top spot.

The showdown featured Jankovic’s all court-game, as she glided effortlessly around the court for impossible gets, versus Safina’s pure power package, a barrage of two-fisted backhands and heavy-duty serves. But it was the new elements in Safina’s game - the improved movement and agility, the elimination of her what-the-hell-was-she-thinking errors - that ruled the night and demonstrated why she is suddenly a serious contender for number one in the world.

At a strange, transitional moment in the women’s game when Justine Henin suddenly and inexplicably retired at the age of 26 while still ranked number one, and the Williams sisters are only playing when they feel like it, and Sharapova is reaching for greatness, but unable to claim the top spot as her own, suddenly the possibility is there: why not Safina as number one?

Tie breaker
The semi-final match began ominously for Jankovic. Safina broke her at love with a bullet-proof backhand that flew right past her. But Jankovic broke right back, and they dug in for a fierce battle all the way to the tie-breaker, which played out as a microcosm of the match.

On the first point Jankovic unleashed a wheel-of-fire forehand winner that caught Safina wrong-footed, then she followed that up with a down-the-line backhand service return winner to go up 2-0 in the breaker.

But Safina, as she had done all week, never blinked and just kept pounding the ball to the corners and charging forward at the slightest opening She started on the road back with a service winner that handcuffed Jankovic and cut the lead to 2-1.

Suddenly Jankovic showed serious signs of nerves with a double fault and a badly mis-hit forehand that gave Safina a 3-2 lead. Grateful for the unexpected gifts, Safina pounded a service winner to build her lead to 4-2 as they changed sides.

Jankovic, suddenly favoring her right knee, dumped a forehand right into the net for an unforced error that left her trailing 5-2. She held on stay alive at 6-3, which set up the best point of the match, a fire-fight of bludgeoned backhands and flying forehands. Finally Jankovic went for broke on one of her trademark inside-out forehands, but it went way wide and Safina had the breaker and the first set.

Suddenly Jancovic’s hint of a limp turned into a full-fledged leg crisis, and she proved that you have no chance against Safina if you cannot run after hitting your shot.

“My legs just seized up,” Jancovic said. “The whole week just caught up to me. It was the first time all week I was feeling pain, and then it just started getting worse and worse.”

Soon it was over 7-6 (3), 6-1, and 18 hours later Safina was picking up the winner’s trophy.

Breakout girls
Over the years the East West Bank Classic, as it is now known, has been famous for giving fans an early look at great players-to-be. In 2003, the first year it was held at the Home Depot Center after moving from the its original home at the Manhattan Beach Country Club, Sharapova made her professional debut as a 16-year-old and made it all the way to the fourth round, where she took a set off eventual champ Kim Clijsters before bowing out.

Two years ago, both Jankovic and Ivanovic had break-out tournaments that launched them into the top five. As many players have noted over the years, there is very little room at the top and moving from the top 10 to the top five is as difficult as moving from the top 100 into the top 10.

Tennis fans this year got to see at least two stars of the future at the Home Depot Center, both potential top tenners and one of them a potential top five player. And once you make it into the top five, you have a real shot at number one.

Alla Kudryavtseva is the 20-year-old Russian who had a match point on Safina at 5-4 in the third set of their third-round match. But Safina pounded an ace and shook her fist while she screamed in triumph. Soon she was into a tie-breaker, where she narrowly prevailed, 7-5.

Kudryavtseva, a brainy sort of 5-foot-10 blonde who thinks her way through matches, has a big forehand and a fierce competitive will that enabled her to upset Sharapova at Wimbledon, a victory which vaulted her ranking from number 154 into the top hundred.

But the potential Grand Slam champion is a 19-year-old, 5-foot-3 package of tennis talent and nervous energy named Dominica Cibulkova, from Slovakia. With thick, powerful legs shaped like fire hydrants, she bounces around the court like an Olympic gymnast on steroids, a whirl-wind of movement, energy and passion as she leaps from side to side, from the baseline to the net and back.

On the tour barely two years, she has risen like a rocket and is already ranked 31st in the world.

Maybe someday soon -- say in two years, like Jankovic -- she could be playing for the East West title and competing for number one in the world.

“Anything is possible,” Safina said about the race to number one. “All you can do is train hard and play hard. If you do that, the results will take care of themselves.”

Reporter Paul Teetor may be reached at ER

Update: WTA Rogers Cup

Dinara Safina won her first match in the tournament beating A. Rodionova 6-2 6-4.