Bryan Armen Graham
Thursday September 17th, 2009

It was predictable that Dinara Safina would struggle at the U.S. Open.

The initial clues could be seen not in her recent Grand Slam results -- which have been admirable if not extraordinary for a No. 1, with runs to the semifinals or better in her previous four majors -- but her fragile psyche and the mounting pressure over the four months she's held the top ranking.

It didn't take long for those hints to germinate into obvious warning signs in New York. She went a set down in her opening match against an unknown 18-year-old Australian named Olivia Rogowska -- a player in the field only because of a wild-card exchange program between the USTA and Tennis Australia -- and looked ready to burst into tears at any moment until rallying from a 3-0 deficit in the third to advance.

Same thing in the second round against Kristina Barrois, spotting her opponent the first set before tapping into that impressive siege mentality of hers and rallying for the win.

But that bend-don't-break pattern was untenable as a long-term approach in the Open pressure cooker. And reckoning came in the third round when Safina lost a three-setter to Petra Kvitova, a 19-year-old ranked in the seventies, an opponent so anonymous that many in the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd spurred her on with cries of "Yellow!" -- the color of her Nike tank top.

Safina's nightmarish performance over those six days caught even her most pessimistic observers by surprise. But close inspection of Safina's nine sets in Queens revealed everything you need to know about her season and sickly mental state -- and stripped the shock value from the outcome.

The 23-year-old is no longer a climber, the aggressive player whose breakthrough at the 2008 French Open -- where she made her first Grand Slam final -- kick-started a rapid ascent up the rankings. She is playing passive and scared. She spent long stretches of the Open five feet behind the baseline, smacking ball after ball into the middle of the court, desperate not to lose instead of determined to win, ultraconservative until her back was up against it.

Now she's got the No. 1 ranking -- the "dream of her life" as she's called it so many times -- and she's under the microscope. And just because she seems paranoid doesn't mean her detractors aren't out to get her: You could almost see the jackals running to the gates of Armstrong as word spread of her first-set setback against Kvitova.

Throughout the sport, the tennis court is a common metaphor for the psyche. When a player refers to "my side" or "their side," she's talking about the factors within her control or beyond it -- the internal versus the external. If there's a lesson somewhere in that pop-psychological analysis, it's this: Whatever problems Safina is experiencing, whatever caused this ghastly underperformance in the most important tournament of her season, reside squarely on her side.

As she wrapped up a funereal press conference near 2:30 a.m. local time after her Open ouster, Safina probed the anxiety and pressure that undercut her season. "Everything is in the head because it knows how to do the right thing," she said. "It knows and it stops me."

It was a passing observation -- clumsily expressed and ill-fit for a sound bite -- but nonetheless an accurate depiction of the duality of the mind as both creative and destructive force.

It knows me and it stops me. It giveth, it taketh away.

The haute tension of Safina's year sprung from a single event: the day she inherited the top ranking from Serena Williams. She's since been the target of misguided contempt for the rankings system. Two other players from this era who made No. 1 before winning a Grand Slam -- Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo -- were spared this degree of backlash and scrutiny because of the lack of a compelling alternative. But Safina has Serena, who's won three of the past five majors, and it's created a philosophical dichotomy of the meaning of No. 1.

Safina says she can see what's wrong with her game -- as clearly as anybody else -- but the ongoing disconnect between the mental and the physical invites disaster. "I step on the court and I do completely the opposite thing," she said.

The physical tools are there. But until the mind catches up, what may ultimately cost Safina the No. 1 ranking is her fear of losing it.

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