Saturday, February 5, 2011

Safina’s search for the right coach

There seemed to be a quality of co-dependency to the relationship between Dinara Safina and former coach, Zeljko Krajan that always made me uncomfortable. During their three year partnership, one often got the impression of an insecure daughter trying always to please a grumpy, borderline abusive father figure, and being at her most ecstatic when she finally succeeded in doing so.

When Krajan was happy with her, the smile that would cross Safina’s face could light up the world. But when he was displeased, when he grumbled and insulted, when he looked on at her performances with distaste, when he threatened abandonment — then she would often become even harder on herself, even more desperate to please. It was a relationship dynamic that was often uncomfortable to watch.

So when they decided to part ways after three years, I have to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief. I’m all for tough love when it is indicated. But there is such a plethora of psychological research showing that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar that I can’t ever get behind coaches who think that they need to abuse their students in order to bring out the best in them. Mind you, many of these abused charges will be the first to tell you that that is exactly what they needed. But I suspect that this is because there was also the right balance between discipline and positive encouragement, between scolding and building up the student’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

For reasons that she has never discussed, Safina and Krajan parted ways on the eve of Roland Garros 2010. And while most reports indicate that it was Safina who terminated the relationship, I’ve often wondered if this is accurate. In keeping with my theory of their unhealthy co-dependency, I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t the apparently labile Krajan who told her to go to hell, to go ahead and try to make it without him. Abandonment, long threatened, had seemingly finally occurred.

To be fair to Zeljko Krajan, it was under his tutelage that Safina produced her best tennis. Reportedly at the recommendation of Ivan Ljubicic, Safina and Krajan began their partnership in October 2007. At that point she was in a psychological slump, ranked # 17 and close to giving up altogether on tennis. There is no question that Krajan helped to re-inspire her career. But her best results also came after she hired retired Croatian Olympic sprinter, Dejan Vojnovic, as her fitness coach. It was with this team solidly in place that Safina became an Olympic silver medalist, and climbed to # 1 in the world.

Between 2008 and 2009, she made it to the semi-finals and finals of several Grand Slam events where she would repeatedly break my heart by losing. But this is not about my heart. I’m sure that Safina’s suffered far more than mine ever could. Always too honest in her press interviews, Safina would continue the spiral of putting herself down, calling herself a coward and other choice words. It was painful enough to watch her lose but I often found it far more painful to watch her talk about it. And then I would imagine the subsequent conversation about the loss with her coach. Shudder.

So yes, I did not mind the separation from Krajan. I wanted for Safina a less volatile and more respectful coaching relationship. But the timing of it spoke to a possibly momentous break-up, some psychologically destructive parting of the ways that could not possibly be healthy for Safina.

She then picked up with Gaston Etlis, an Argentinean best known for his doubles prowess. The partnership made no sense. It was not to last.

Now talk is that she has signed on with Davide Sanguinetti. I remember Sanguinetti as a talented Italian player who spanked both Federer and Roddick in 2002. He was at the time a pretty spunky player with a determined attitude. He has since transferred to coaching Vince Spadea and a Japanese challenger player named Go Saeda. (Love that name!  With a name like that, dude shoulda been a movie star).

Look I don’t mean to knock Sanguinetti but I don’t know how one goes from coaching Vince Spadea to coaching Dinara Safina. So I started asking myself whether the problem may be money. Although Safina has earned some $10. million thus far in her career, when you have to cover the expenses of full-time personal traveling coaches and fitness trainers, that money can disappear fast. It makes you wonder about those periods when Federer has elected to go coachless – and he surely has the endorsement money to cover these expenses. What does Safina have outside of her earnings? When it comes to endorsements, she is no Maria Sharapova. My hypothesis is that this may be part of the low budget choice of coaches lately.

Regardless, I wish them well. I hope that Sanguinetti recognizes the opportunity he has been given and becomes inspired to bring out the best in Safina. But I also hope that she has enough pennies left in the bank to also afford a good sports psychologist. But I’ve told you this before haven’t I?


Anonymous said...

Just FYI, I happen know for a fact that it was Dinara who fired Zeljko. Whatever else may have been wrong with their relationship, it is definitely untrue that in the end he abandoned her.

(Hadn't thought about the money aspect; that's interesting. Considering she also recently bought an apartment in Moscow-- which is definitely not cheap-- maybe money is playing a part in her decision-making.)

happygeek said...

Loved reading this analysis of this situation! So fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great analysis on Dinara. I can't say I have an issue with Davide not having a huge background in coaching top athletes, because if you look at it neither did Zeljko. Sure he was an assistant to Heinz Gunthardt, but apart from that he had no real experience with top athletes.

I think a lot of her success lies with fitness. She hasn't been ab;e to train properly due to her back, but I think when she feels fitter, she plays better. Here's hoping to a successful partnership with Davide.