Dinara Safina played in her second slam final but she’s still not comfortable there.

2009 Australian Open: Day 13

So far I picked Juan Del Potro and Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer at the Australian Open, and last year I said that Serena Williams wouldn’t spend much more time at number one. I am guilty of grossly underestimating the inexhaustible ability of human beings to make and remake themselves – in short to change ceaselessly.

Take Fernando Verdasco. He’d been chugging along with a ranking in the 30’s and 40’s and sometimes the 20’s and a grand total of two titles since 2005, and all of a sudden he jumped up to number 11 last year. Then he came from behind to beat Argentinean Jose Acasuso in Argentina to clinch the Davis Cup for Spain. If that wasn’t enough to boost his confidence, for a short period in there, he was dating Ana Ivanovic. That would boost my confidence.

The end result of all that confidence building was a 5 hour 14 minute marathon Australian Open semifinal with Rafael Nadal which will go down as one of the historically great matches at the Aussie Open. Verdasco lost the match but only because he played a guy who will probably end up with the “mentally toughest player in history” award.

Having said that all that stuff about change, we don’t all start at the same place. As my yoga teacher says, we all have emotional presets. Some of us start life off at a disadvantage in relation to others. Maybe we had a demanding mother, or a moody talented older brother, and maybe the combination led us to be overly self-critical. This might describe Dinara Safina. For the past five or six years she’s been winning Tier II level and lower events and yelling at herself a lot. Then, last year, she won three Tier I events and reached a slam final at Roland Garros and she yelled at herself a whole lot less.

Dinara was ready to take the next step forward in her career in her second slam final against Serena on Saturday in Melbourne, and it didn’t work out so well. Dinara didn’t win a game until the second set and ended up losing to Serena, 6-0, 6-3, in under an hour. Serena was dominant and, as you can see here in Pat Davis’s post, when Serena gets this look on her face, get outta the way, it’s gonna get ugly. This is Serena’s 10th slam and it also puts her at the top of the list for female athletes in all sports for all time with over $23 million in career prize money. That ain’t bad.

I’m not concerned about Serena. At the rate she’s going, she might end up winning more than one slam this year for the first time since 2003. But what about Dinara? Will this set her back or is a second slam final a step forward?

She had an excuse coming in because her serve has been up and down all tournament. And she did run into a dominant player on a very good day. And this was a first for her in a way:

You know, it was first time for me to play not only for the Grand Slam, but it’s also for No. 1 spot. And I never been through this situation and she was already. So she was much more times in this situation. I would say she was much more experienced than I was today stepping on the court.

That response tells me that Dinara might need more opportunities than most to find her slam finals groove and it makes sense given her emotional preset. Amelie Mauresmo also had few emotional problems to overcome before winning her first slam. It’s difficult enough being one of the very few out lesbians on tour, but Amelie also had self-doubt issues. She won her first slam on her second try but it was also seven years between her first and second slam final. By the way, she played her first slam final against Martina Hingis in 1999, the same event at which Martina said, “She’s here with her girlfriend. She’s half a man.” Hingis knew exactly what she was doing when she came out with that nugget.

If Dinara takes that long, she really will have a problem because Maria Sharapova should turn up pretty soon, Ivanovic is likely to find herself at some point, and the Williams sisters are still winning slams. According to my yoga teacher, the only way to improve your emotional preset – and therefore vastly improve your life – is to have loving and caring relationships. For yoga students that includes your teacher. For a tennis player that includes your coach.

Dinara is on good terms with her coach and presumably with her parents too. Maybe she should see what she can do about that grouchy older brother of hers. Maybe that’ll speed up her path to her first slam.

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