Saturday, June 6, 2009

A question of mental fitness

I’m not a good prognosticator -- my heart gets too much into it and I can’t think straight. At those times I see what I want to see and wish what I want to be. I can’t stay objective for crap.

So for the most part I’ve stayed away from the predicting business and leave it up to folks far more courageous than me. Like Bud Collins. He thinks that Kuznetsova will win today in three sets. And then of course there is that other expert, Nick Bollettieri, who predicts that Safina will win instead, in three sets. See?

What most experts seem to agree on is that the match will go to three. But clearly they too are having difficulty picking one woman over the other. I myself am doubly confused because my heart loves both women and my head refuses to pick one over the other. So what I will give instead is an attempt at a balanced assessment and let the chips fall where they may. The bottom line for me is that either outcome will please me immensely.

Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova have made it to the finals of Roland Garros. They are not strangers to each other’s games, having faced each other on thirteen previous occasions. There is very little that the one can do to surprise the other. Of their thirteen encounters, Safina has come out on top eight times, but their wins are equally divided on clay.

Of the two, Sveta is the far more experienced. But Dinara is not exactly lacking in this quality. She got to the # 1 spot by playing tough matches against tough opponents. And Sveta is as tough as they come.

Of the two, Sveta seems to be the more banged up. She has spent more time out on the court and in the sun. She rolled her right ankle. She has complained of blisters. She survived an attempted beat-down by Serena Williams which is as brutal as matches get. Dinara has not been as tested by any of her opponents -- even though her body language often suggests that she feels just as tested.

On the one hand one could argue that Sveta is more match-ready, match-hardened as it were, and therefore has an advantage. And in a sense I think she does. She has the more complete game. She is as I have acknowledged before, an excellent strategist. Even when pushed on the defensive, she often comes up with the right shot, not just the defensive shot.

But there are times when Sveta can become too cautious. She seems at times to suffer from an over awareness of the moment. For an example, if she misses a few shots on the forehand, she has a tendency to start guiding the shot instead of continuing to play it. Her over awareness that she is lacking in the moment tends to lead to more lack. Analysis can result in paralysis. Her problem can be mental.

But the same can also be said about Safina. It was surprising to watch the way she lambasted herself during the match against Cibulkova. You’d swear she was losing. And her coach sits there with his negative body language practically screaming at her non-verbally for messing up. I know that this negative coaching method has brought her a long way. But I am much too American to believe that the same and more cannot be accomplished with positive methods of self-esteem building.

Navratilova commented during the Cibulkova match that one of Dinara’s strengths is her ability to curse at herself and then let it go so that her negativity doesn’t bleed into the next shot. And while I concede this, I have seen no evidence that Dinara’s negative style of motivation has been advantageous for her. On the contrary I will argue that it may be a part of her tendency towards mental fragility.

Adding to this is Dinara’s apparent over awareness of the pressure to win her first Slam. She seems to talk about it all the time. The truth is that she is constantly being asked about it by the media and often ends up coming across as defensive instead of confident. Roger Federer is facing the same kind of pressure to win his first French. For him, as well as both of these women, the outcome of the finals may come down to a question of mental fitness.

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