The Unluck of The Draw
Dinara Safina didn't win one game against third-seed Kim Clijsters.
Lleyton Hewitt, the hometown favorite, walked off court the loser after he and David Nalbandian, #27 seed, whacked the ball around for just less than five hours. The score in the fifth set was 9-7.
These are what you'd call being at the unlucky end of a draw.
Here were two former number one players in the world -- Safina, Hewitt -- forced to start their first match in the first slam of the year across the net from a would-be prophet of doom.
It was an unfortunate situation. The crowds liked it. Rod Laver Arena jumped late into the night. First, Clijsters took out Safina in 44 minutes. Second, five hours of hopes and dreams for a country win were dashed and shattered.
Clijsters' smackdown thrilled, yet emotionally undermined Safina. Would she ever get back on her tennis toes?
"If I would know the answer, I guess I would do different things," Safina said, obviously flustered by the turn of events.
Hewitt and Nalbandian had met in the 2005 quarterfinals of the Australian Open. That one went five hours, too. But Hewitt was the hero then, winning 10-8 in the fifth set. He went on to the final, but lost to Marat Safin. Hewitt's loss that day was the nearest Hewitt, and Australia, came to claiming the singles title since Mark Edmondson won in 1976.
"It's disappointing to come so close today and fight for so long and not be able to quite get the win," Hewitt said.
But Hewitt should have won. Of 30 break point chances, he converted 7. He was up in the fourth set, let it slip, and played a horrendous tiebreak (7-1). The match was thrown to the wind. It was anyone's guess who would pull it off. With signs creeping in that Nalbandian was cramping, odds were in Hewitt's favor to run the distance.
But the Argentine, a guy who isn't well known for vigilant training schedules, wasn't about to roll over. He served for the match at 5-4, in the fifth, for the first time. Then a brilliant and savvy strategist that appeared like an apparition, decided to play out of his mind. Hewitt came in, rolled his forehand and moved his racquet head as if it were as nimble as a conductor's wand. He evened the set, but then reverted to his baseline strategy after that.
Tony Roche, Hewitt's coach, probably wasn't too happy with that.
"Very tough first round," Nalbandian said. "And I expect a match like that with the crowd. But I think we both have a lot of chances. I was two match points down and then I turned it over. I was serving for the match before in the fifth. It was that kind of match that nobody can forget it."
Had Hewitt landed a couple of spots away from Nalbandian in the draw they would have put off a probable encounter in the third round. But at least then both men, who are such great players and so good for tennis, would have had a couple rounds under their belts. Aussie fans would have had more chances to see Aussie Hewitt play, too.
It just doesn't seem fair. However, that's something touring pros cannot complain about or fret over. The draw is the draw. Once the seeded players are placed, the remainder are drawn at random and end up where they end up.
Dinara Safina was motivated to win Tuesday. She practiced for two months prior to her first tournament of the year in Auckland. She also played in Hobart, Australia, attempting to revive her former form -- as the number one player on the WTA.
But her draws in both those tournaments were cursed, too. She fell to Yanina Wickmayer, the #2 seed in Auckland, in the first round. Then in Hobart she lost in the first round to the #1 seed, Marion Bartoli. What's a girl to do?
In 2004, Safina cracked the top 50. Her ascension into the upper echelons of women's tennis sped up. From 2005 through 2007 she hung out in the top 20. And in 2008 she finished #2 in the world. She was right up there where the air is rarified and Serena Williams usually sits supreme. Safina played in her first French Open final, too, losing to Ana Ivanovic.
On April 20, 2009, she hit the top spot and held on to it until October 11. Then her back came between her dreams and reality. Safina retired after two games during the WTA Championships in Doha, Qatar, effectively handing over the year's number one ranking to Serena Williams due to her back. She needed assistance as she left the court.
Safina returned to Russia to consult with her doctors. She was hopeful of a complete recovery, but fans were suspect as was her medical team. She tried to come back in Brisbane in 2010, but her back wouldn't let her. She lost in the fourth round of last year's Australian Open -- her back remained an obstacle. First round loses at Roland Garros and the U. S. Open didn't help her sagging morale. At Wimbledon Safina withdrew without setting foot on the green grass courts. The reason -- back injury.
"Dinara is one of the hardest working women on the tour," Svetlana Kuznetsova said in Toronto during the Rogers Cup, months after unexpectedly losing to 'Kuzy' in the 2009 French Open final. That match would mark Safina as a head case, a label not easily shaken.
During the changeover, Safina kept asking herself what she should do to hurt Clijsters. But the Russian admitted there was nothing she could do.
"Today, she was just cruising and cruising. Normally, I used to dictate. Now this is a little bit different."
She denied that her mental toughness was the cause. However, she did admit players have gotten a bit in front of her game.
"The problem is now, the players, they don't let me be aggressive. Now I have to find out how to get back to do these things."
Safina guaranteed the press that she wouldn't quit. She needed to regroup and find a way to progress. It's always like her to work hard. That hasn't changed. She did admit the mental strain was tough.
"It's tough mentally. I'm enjoying more than before the last year because of injury. It's better."
Kim Clijsters moved into the second round happy to be through in such convincing fashion. She knew she would have to play her best to beat Safina. The task was keeping her mind on her side of the court and not letting Safina into the match. Safina was a test of Clijsters' resolve.
"When you feel that your opponent is not playing their best tennis, you really just try not to focus on that too much," Clijsters began. "You try not to lose focus. You try not to become a little bit easygoing, thinking this is going to be easy."
Obviously Clijsters stayed on her side of the net throughout her victory because she was off court in under an hour. Her upcoming rounds seem workmanlike, if matches in a slam or any other tournament can be treated with such aplomb. But the pundits must have some sort of inside information to predict with such assuredness that Kim is a strong favorite. Then again, Samantha Stosur lurks on the same side of the draw.
If these two hopefuls can persevere they'll meet in the semifinals. But let's stay focused on today, the way pro players do.