Monday, May 11, 2009

Coming out from under a brother’s shadow

There are certain experiences that shape your life, that forever capture a dynamic that may influence some of your choices. Psychologists believe that the majority of these experiences happen within the family. We remain influenced by family dynamics of which we are sometimes not even consciously aware.

Take for instance the fact that I have never fallen in love with an older man. Younger or the same age - fine. But older than I? Forget it. I can no more sexualize my response to an older man than I could imagine not having tennis in my life.

I’ve always attributed this to a complex relationship with an older brother. He was five years older. He is five years older, but the age difference no longer matters. But for a long time, he cast a huge shadow. I remember being angry with him once when I was about 11 or 12. He had used my hair comb without my consent. I launched into a prepared verbal attack, “What do you think this is?”, I screamed, “the universal comb???” It was months before I realized how stupid I sounded. Wanting so hard to stand up for myself, to prove that I knew big words too, words as big as the ones that floated off his superior 17-year-old tongue, I had ended up sounding like an utter fool.

It would take leaving home and moving far away to get me past a sense of inadequacy. It would take defining my own sphere of success to get me to a point of personal esteem. It would take surpassing him to get me beyond our sibling rivalry.

No doubt it probably helped that I had a love for tennis that equated his madness for soccer. But what if he had played tennis too? Or had decided to become a psychologist as well? Would I have been able to deal with that? I think not. I know not.

And so I think that it is only fitting that Marat Safin has decided to bow gracefully out of tennis at a time that his sister has ascended to the top. His timing seems just right. He had his turn, and now Dinara can have hers.

Of course Safin has admitted his pride in his sister. And one gets the sense from his cheerful interviews that it might never occur to him that his ongoing presence might negatively affect her. And it may not. Perhaps this is just me projecting my issues onto their situation and feeling a relief and lightness for her that Dinara may not even wish for herself. But I suspect that I may be more right than wrong, and that in an imperfect world in which siblings happen to occupy the same special space, it is fitting that as one star ascends, the other begins to fade.

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be Safina. To ascend in the same sport as your older brother. To be identified for years as “Safin’s little sister” long after you stop being little and have the courage to insist on the correct pronunciation of your own name.

Marat is now 29. He is doing his farewell tour. I will miss him. One of my favorite memories of Safin was watching him become utterly frustrated at the US Open years ago as he tried to beat the slice king of Italy, Gianluca Pozzi. It was a wonderful match. Pozzi simply refused to die, no matter how much Safin tried to kill him. We all knew that Safin would win eventually, so the crowd became raucously, gloriously, unashamedly in favor of Pozzi. We did wave after wave in support of Marat's unlikely challenger. It took Safin five sets to put the old man away. The crowd was in stitches by the time he eventually did so.

I adore Marat Safin. In a different life, I would have been a Safinette, one of those pneumatic blonde chicks that used to show up in his player’s box. Marat was the sex. I will miss him. I will miss the irreverence of his observations about the sport. I will miss his Letterman interviews. I will miss his awesome play, his capacity for phenomenal tennis. But he needs to go. Because it is now his sister's turn.

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