Former No. 1s Forge Paths Back

By Friday’s quarterfinals, only one of the three former No.1s in the draw at the Bank of the West was still alive. So what do we make of Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova more than halfway through the 2010 season?

Let’s start with Safina. After holding the top ranking for much of 2009, the powerful Russian has failed to go past the quarterfinals at any event in 2010 and owns a sad looking 5-8 record this season (including a second consecutive defeat to 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm in her opener at Stanford).

Safina, who has fallen to No. 35 and is sure to fall further, is a realist and a hard worker. As she told after her loss Monday night, “Players aren’t afraid of me anymore. Now I have to earn their respect back.” Both of those qualities could help the Russian return to the top 10. But my guess is that the big-boned Muscovite will struggle to make it back to elite status.

At 24, Safina is still young enough to make a comeback (or two or three – this is the WTA after all). But back injuries – she has a lumbar spine injury -- seldom disappear for good. And let’s be frank: She rose to the top of the rankings without a major title and in talent vacuum that had sucked both Belgians and Sharapova out of the game. How much of her problems are physical and how much are psychological is tough to say. Safina says it’s more of the former.

“I had one week off completely where I couldn’t even walk,” she said. “Then I went to Argentina for three weeks to do rehab. I had inflammation again and started to work on my core and it wasn’t easy. It was two hours of stretching and working on my abs. It was tough.”

Her summer schedule is packed, including stops at San Diego, Cincinnati, Montreal, possibly New Haven and the U.S. Open. If her back has been that bad, can she hold up? “I’m doing that because I’ve played nothing this year,” she said. “Now it’s a new time for me. I’m playing well but you need a breakthrough and in many matches I’m playing, I'm just not closing them up. I’m playing better and trying to win matches, but I need to start to cruise and I’m not there yet.”

Interestingly, her older brother Marat Safin told me at Wimbledon that Safina should step away from the game for a few months to let her mind and body heal. “I think she needs six months off and then come back, not play two weeks here and two weeks there and get injured,” the two-time major winner said.

Another question is whether she can get her emotional mind back in a winning groove. She admits she was in a kind of zone when she climbed to No.1 and consistently dictated from the backcourt. “I was winning, but some of the matches I was lucky winning,” she said of her pre-tailspin form. “The same way now where I’m up and I lose, then I was down and I would pull them out. That’s confidence, knowing how to close and player having the right respect for me.”

True to form, she won’t throw in the towel. “I working hard and I'm not giving up,” said Safina, who has been working on an interim basis with Argentine Gaston Etlis after splitting with longtime coach Zelko Krajan. “I’m on tour and I want to win something. It’s a pity I came back injured and that I re-injured myself again. But people are starting to lose respect for me so I have to earn the respect back. What brought me to No.1 is the mentality of working hard and never giving up. And I’m not going to change as long as I’m healthy.”

Ivanovic is still a shadow of her 2008 self, when she won the French Open and briefly alighted at No.1. I’d be shocked if she ever approached the top ranking again despite her tender 22 years. But I give her more of a chance than Safina to turn it around and challenge for majors – but an outside chance at that.

AI has had some good results this year, notably a run to the semis in Rome with wins over Victoria Azarenka, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova. She reversed a crushing defeat to Alisa Kleybanova in Paris at the Bank of the West earlier this week and played solid in a straight-set second-round loss to Marion Bartoli. But it’s evident in her matches that the Serb has not re-mastered the elements that made her formidable: a consistently dictating forehand, above-average backhand, solid serving and decent defense. There are glimpses, but her overall play remains patchy.

The upside is that Ivanovic clearly loves the game and is not afraid to keep trying. She desperately wants to be good. “I feel like I got the joy back like when I was 16 or 17 rather than feeling like I have so much pressure on me,” she said in a post-match press conference at Stanford. “I still think I’m very young. It all comes down to pressure because regardless of my ranking I still have a lot of expectations of myself.”

The Serb remains upbeat about her prospects and is not delusional about how far she has to climb back after falling outside the top-60. She’s jettisoned tinkering with her strokes (the serve, though, needs major work) and is getting more comfortable with coach Heinz Gunhardt. She says she feels quicker after working with her new trainer, Marija Lojanica, who also trains the Serbian Fed Cup team. And she is slowly restoring her shattered confidence after a year and a half of inexplicable decline. That means learning to manage her emotions.

“We talk a lot about approach and preparation and Steffi was also an emotional player like I am and was also nervous before matches and everyone goes through that,” Ivanovic said of her discussions with Gunhardt, Steffi Graf’s former mentor. Like Graf, Ivanovic should start to see the court as a refuge from whatever demons have plagued her. Better results will follow.

Sharapova holds the brightest prospects for a return the Grand Slam winner’s circle. She took more steps this week by beating back Elena Dementieva in three sets and coming back against Agnieska Radwanska 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 Saturday to reach the Bank of the West final. The No. 5 seed faces eighth-seeded Azarenka today.

This is the level of tournament Sharapova needs to start winning if she expects to gear up for a big run at a major later this summer in New York or next year. Though she pushed Justine Henin at Roland Garros and Serena Williams at Wimbledon and owns two Tier III titles at Memphis and Strasbourg this year, quality wins have been few and far between for the 23-year-old Russian. Consider that before she bested Jie Zheng in the opening round at Stanford she had yet to beat a top-25 player in 2010.

The former No. 1 will never settle for mediocrity, much less second best. As she said in one of her post-match pressers: “I could have done better and I've had my fair share of opportunities, but that's the past. My mentality is to keep fighting, getting the most out of my matches and work myself toward the US Open.”

On the court, three-time major winner Sharapova is gaining momentum. With her shoulder injury behind her, the Bollettieri-trained Siberian has returned to her old motion. The power is coming back, but she will have to serve big and more consistently if she wants to add a fourth Slam to her resume. Movement and net play will never be her strong suit, but she is stepping into her returns to put pressure on her opponents’ serves and her will to win is undiminished. The only question is patience. How long she will suffer second- and third-tier victories and exits in the first week of majors before the fierce competitor decides it’s not worth it? A steady boyfriend, along with her already outsize fame and fortune, could complicate matters.

“I worked on patience so long during the injury and obviously wanted good results and wanted to go far in the Slams and this year it hasn’t happened. But that the way it is and I’m not going to quit because I didn't,” she said. “I was No. 1 in the summer I got injured and had just won a Slam (the ’08 Australian Open) and little do you know, I’m out of game next nine moths. I’m not one to sit and say what could have been and I’ve said this from day one that I’m just really fortunate to have come back.” I’m expecting big things from Sharapova in the months ahead, including a victory at the Bank of the West today.

Fan Blogs
I’ve been watching the behavior and reading some of the tennis fan blogs at the Bank of the West. They both inspire and irk. On the one hand, I’m thrilled when tennis gets ink, cyber or otherwise. The sport needs passionate followers. More power to them if they take the time to promote the game – usually at their own expense -- through biting, funny, insidery and often insightful discussions.

What I dislike is the backseat, snarky commentary from folks who rarely step up to ask a question or do any actual interactive reporting. I found it kind of amazing, too, when one fan blogger down at Stanford would have the gall to A) to write to me privately for advice a few months back; fail to acknowledge themselves in any shape or form at a small press conference; and C) then backhandedly diss me and my colleague (after a sugar-coated compliment, of course) from that same press conference. Huh? Where’s the civility and respect? Perhaps I’m over-reacting, but I did find it all kind of disheartening and odd.


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