Tokyo Pan Pacific Open Preview

TORAY PAN PACIFIC OPEN
Tokyo-JPN
September 26-October 2, 2010
$2,000,000/Premier
Hard/Outdoors

Order of Play – Sunday, September 26, 2010
Centre Court (from 11.00hrs)
1. Dominika Cibulkova vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
2. Angelique Kerber vs. Daniela Hantuchova
3. Maria Kirilenko vs. Li Na
4. Ayumi Morita vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
5. Christina McHale vs. Flavia Pennetta

Court 1 (from 11.00hrs)
1. Gisela Dulko vs. Andrea Petkovic
2. Melanie Oudin vs. Kaia Kanepi
3. Kateryna Bondarenko vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues
4. Llagostera Vives/Martínez Sánchez vs. Raymond/Stubbs

Court 2 (from 11.00hrs)
1. Olga Govortsova vs. Iveta Benesova
2. Petra Kvitova vs. Alona Bondarenko
3. Bacsinszky/Vinci vs. Azarenka/Safina

Court 3 (NB 14.00hrs)
1. Chang Kai-Chen vs. Lucie Safarova
2. Greta Arn vs. Laura Robson

Dinara Just Like Marat

There’s no denying Dinara Safina’s talent. At 23, the younger sister of former Grand Slam champion Marat Safin has accomplished plenty, joining older brother as the only siblings to ever reach No.1 in the world.

Despite holding the top spot after finishing runner-up at the first two grand slams (Australian, French), the enigmatic Safina has fizzled lately with a poor second half this season that’s included a blowout Wimbledon semifinal defeat in which she got only a game off Venus Williams and a third round U.S. Open exit at the hands of unheralded Czech Petra Kvitova to conclude a disappointing stay in New York.

Though it’s been a breakthrough year in terms of rankings and reaching her first ever major finals, something seems to be missing. After another disappointment at the upset marred Pan Pacific Open, falling to unknown qualifier Chang Kai-Chen in three sets, Safina continues to receive heavy criticism for something she can’t control. When she became the 19th women’s top ranked player on April 20, it was due to hard work.

Not long ago, the second ever female Russian to hit No.1 (joined Maria Sharapova) was ranked just outside the Top 15 when she upset seven-time slam winner Justine Henin in a French tuneup, sending the Belgian to retirement. Two and a half years later, the 27 year-old saw that it was possible to return thanks to countrywoman Kim Clijsters’ impressive run claiming her second Open earlier this month with triumphs over both Williams sisters, completing it with a straight set victory over current No.5 riser Caroline Wozniacki.

So, Safina’s path to winning that elusive major just got tougher. She certainly hits one of the biggest balls on the WTA Tour. But thus far, her struggle to gain worldwide respect reminds us too much of Marat, who’s hanging it up later this year. Sadly, one of the game’s most gifted players on the ATP is burnt out at 29. While that’s an age when many in tennis call it quits, one ponders how many more majors he could’ve won if he’d put his mind to it.

Back in 2000, anything seemed possible with the then 20 year-old destroying Pete Sampras in straights at the Open. Something unheard of. With a great serve and blistering ground strokes that included a deadly backhand, the big man’s future looked very promising. Instead of continuing to win majors, he enjoyed his success a little too much. Perhaps the new lifestyle contributed to him not fulfilling potential.

Though the root of the problem couldn’t really be blamed on partying but rather Safin losing concentration during matches. He was always a tough out making three Australian Open finals. After dropping the first two due to an admitted bout with confidence, he won his second slam in grand fashion by upsetting Roger Federer in a memorable five set semifinal that saw him fight off match point. Fresh off ending the Swiss Maestro’s 26-match win streak over Top 10 foes, he completed it by besting Aussie hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt in four sets.

Following the impressive run, many including us expected him to get back in contention. However, that never came to fruition with Safin teasing many with his immense skills. Amazingly, he had his best run at Wimbledon in 2008 going all the way to the semis before Federer drove him nuts in three tight sets. That it came with him ranked No.75 was no shock. You never could tell what you were getting from the only Russian man who ever made the Final Four at the All England Club.

Maybe that helps better explain Safina who’s still young enough to have a great career. She can take solace knowing that Marat has a Hall of Fame resume featuring the two slams, two Aussie runner-ups, No.1 ranking and helping their home country Russia win its first ever Davis Cup in 2002 on a stacked team that included former No.1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Mikhail Youzhny and Andrei Stoliarov. They also won in 2006 with Safin an integral part winning doubles with Dmitry Tursunov and a singles win over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso.

For the younger Safina, she’s already won 12 titles, reached two slam finals, hit No.1 and won Olympic silver in singles when she fell to countrywoman Elena Dementieva in three tight sets at Beijing. So, her career has hardly been disappointing. If only she could get over the hump and win a slam, it would silence many critics. But hey. We could easily say the same thing for the talented Dementieva and former outspoken No.1 Jelena Jankovic, who’s dipped to No.8.

For the ladies, it’s not easy to win majors when you’re competing with Venus and Serena Williams. If Sharapova returns to form next year, watch out. With Clijsters and Henin back along with Wozniacki looking to take the next step, the women’s game has become much better. Another proven Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova also won her second slam routing Safina at Roland Garros earlier this year. American Melanie Oudin made a name for herself at Flushing Meadows as did German Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon.

There’s plenty of talent which also includes Russian enigmas Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova, who have big enough games to compete but lack the mental capacity. This is a similar issue Safina’s dealing with as is former 2008 French Open winner Ana Ivanovic, who continued to struggle in a first round loss to Czech Lucie Safarova in which she had 11 double faults. Italian Flavia Pennetta, who reached the Open quarters before falling to Serena also is a good player. So too is 20 year-old Serbian Victoria Azarenka who after a strong start has experienced growing pains which have included temper tantrums.

So much of the battle is the head. Something Safina’s older brother referred to when he conquered Federer down under, terming the big upset a “head battle.” Very little separates the top players on each side. However, sometimes it’s what’s going on upstairs which can determine the outcome. This is also true of sports in general where even the biggest stars such as Alex Rodriguez can struggle under the spotlight. Whether that continues for the Yankee star third baseman on a superb team this October, we’ll know soon enough.

Aside from dealing with confidence issues, there’s also strategy which comes into play in an ultra competitive sport like tennis. Players who can adjust during matches usually have success. That can sometimes require alternating game plans. Something we haven’t seen a whole lot of on the women’s side where a plethora of top ranked players go bigger and bigger 24/7. Even with her injuries, Sharapova’s been a disappointment who should have more than two slams (2004 Wimbledon, 2007 U.S. Open). Power can only take you so far.

Tennis can use players who think outside the box like former No.1 Martina Hingis. Precisely what they’re getting with Clijsters and Henin who can hit with the best of them but also possess great speed and balance which helps create angles. They also aren’t afraid to come to the net to finish points. Something we saw the 19 year-old Dane Wozniacki do in her loss to Clijsters. Another player who closes well is Venus by using her size and athleticism effectively. Younger sis Serena is capable but usually prefers outslugging opponents while playing great D.

To truly be great, a player must always be willing to adjust on the fly. If something’s not working, change it up. How many times do you hear the frustration in Brad Gilbert or Martina Navratilova’s voice? They beat it over and over again and probably shake their heads in disgust at such gifted players not getting the most out of their God given ability.

For Safina, who can implode on the court similarly to emotional brother Marat, she must address this. It will be crucial to her future. She’s plenty good enough to win majors. But it’s taking that next step which will help determine how successful she is.

She seems like a wonderful person with her entertaining brother’s winning personality. So, she knows what’s wrong. It’s how she goes about fixing it that could wind up in even better results.