The Pressure Gets to Safina as Kuznetsova Wins the French Open

Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Dinara Safina, 6-4, 6-2, to win the French Open title in Paris today in a see saw battle of nerves.

Dinara Safina has a problem. She’s been in three of the last slam finals and each time she’s underperformed. And with each final the pressure rises.

There was pressure to win her first slam in the 2008 French Open final against Ana Ivanovic. Then there was pressure to win her second slam final at the 2009 Australian Open against Serena William. And today there was pressure to wipe out her miserable performance in the Australian final AND prove that she deserved her number one ranking in the French Open final against Svetlana Kuznetsova

That miserable performance gave Serena her 10th slam title and Serena has been doing her best to drag Safina into a psychological battle for the number one ranking. Serena always punks her vanquishers when she loses and she did it again this week after losing to Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals: “Honestly I think I lost because of me and not because of anything she did.”

Serena also punked Safina in Rome last month: “We all know who the real No. 1 is. Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.” The pressure keeps rising and each time it takes away part of Safina’s game. Today it was her serve. She double faulted seven times and lost match point on a double fault. And though Kuzy vanquished a few of her own demons today by playing just aggressively enough to win – until winning Stuttgart last month she’d lost six straight finals dating back to August 2007 including a U.S. Open final – Safina helped her and I don’t think she was pulling a Serena during this exchange after the match:

Q. Is there any comfort to you that she played a very good match. It wasn’t like she put you in a position to win but you didn’t win. Does that make it any easier for you, or…

DINARA SAFINA: No, because she gave me chances and I had chances. She was not so aggressive as she usually [is]. I just didn’t do anything.

Q. You basically beat yourself?

DINARA SAFINA: I lost myself.

If that’s a lost in translation moment it describes Safina’s state of mind. In the first set she had the competitive glare going but it was less a matter of sticking her jaw out than it was trepidation and fear of losing fighting it out with justified feelings of domination (she’d won 20 or her last 21 matches).

This was less a slam final than a battle of nerves starting off with both players losing their serve. After that they settled down and we got some good tennis, but when Safina served at 3-4 in the first set her serve started deserting her. She lost that game and then it was time for Kuzy to wig out and lose her serve. But Safina’s serve deserted her again in the next game and that gave Kuzy the first set.

Kuzy broke to go up 4-2 in the second set and Safina’s dominance finally caved in to the trepidation and fear of losing. After a bad shot in the next game, Kuzy had a chance to return the favor but she kept her cool with what the British call keepy uppy and surfer slackers might call hacky sack – a little footy with the tennis ball in other words – and that was the difference. Kuzy found a way to hold on to herself while Safina could not.

What can Safina do now? Well she can start with faith and faith depends on memory, particularly for an athlete. There’s the memory of the goal you are moving towards and the memory of what you’ve been able to achieve in the past and the two of them work together to propel you forward. Safina can remember that a short while ago she was in the habit of giving in to self-doubt in the form of berating herself when things didn’t go well on court. She’s learned how to change that well enough to reach the number one ranking in the world and that should give her faith.

If Safina can change that, she can also learn to handle nerves. She could also look across the net at Kuzy and remember that it was five years between slams for her with a lot of tough questions in between. Kuzy is as earnest as any athlete out there in facing the music with the media after a tough loss and she’s had plenty of them. And now she’s the only multi-slam winner among the vaunted Russian women who were raised in their home country.

If all else fails, maybe Kuzy could teach Safina some keepy uppy.