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Three top players look for way back
Flash back to August of 2009. Dinara Safina was still No. 1. Svetlana Kuznetsova was still smiling just two months after winning her second Grand Slam title at the French Open. Former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic was struggling, but had yet to drop through the floor.
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Fast forward a year, where at the Mercury Insurance Open in San Diego, Safina, now ranked No. 35, won just her second match since April when she bested Alona Bondarenko in the first round. Kuznetsova took down young Belgian hotshot Yanina Wickmayer 6-3, 2-6, 6-1, while Ivanovic, now ranked No. 60, continued her tearful slide, falling to Shahar Peer 7-6, 6-3 in the first round.
Ivanovic could speak for all of them when discussing what has been a harrowing slump. On many days, she feels like she's being pulled into tennis' version of the Bermuda Triangle.
"When it's fun times it goes fast, and now it seems like it's neverending," Ivanovic said. “My coach says it's not a sprint, but a marathon, but (I feel like) I'm crawling."
Watching top players encounter trouble in the topsy-turvy world of the WTA Tour isn't unusual, but to have three such notable players fall into such sustained, deep funks is bizarre.
While players do go into slumps on the men's tour, they are rarely as deep as those on the women's side. For example, compare Ivanovic's childhood friend Novak Djokovic to her — while he has certainly underachieved in big matches at the majors since he won the 2008 Australian Open, he's still very much a part of the top 5 conversation. He's ranked No. 2, and in the last four Grand Slams, has reached the quarterfinals twice and the semifinals twice.
In contrast, 2008 French Open champion Ivanovic hasn't advanced past the second round of her last four Grand Slams and — after raising hopes by reaching the semifinals of Rome, where she knocked off three top 20 players — she's won just three of her last nine matches, despite switching coaches and trainers.
Her talent is obvious, but her confidence is lying low in a swamp. She's changed training methods, strategies, and has made technical adjustments, but her results remain largely the same. She's come close to taking over matches, but whenever the score gets close or the sets are about to end, her head begins to dip, the unforced errors creep in, the doubts stream from her brain into her strings and her balls find the bottom of the net.
"Its very frustrating, you should see my (destroyed) racket," Ivanovic said with a nervous smile. "It always seems that way, that there are few points here and there and it's very disappointing. I'm never able to make the step and get the momentum. It brings you down."
Ivanovic is only 21 and has up to a decade left where she can prove herself again, but the process back to respectability is taking a toll on her. She's an emotional person who cries a lot and began to shed tears when she was reminded that regardless of whether she has the best team in the world around her, tennis is a very lonely sport. Once on court, it's up to her to produce. Her new coach, Heinz Gunthardt, her trainer or her parents can't do it for her.
As well as she's been playing in practice, she's erratic and vulnerable on court and she knows it.
"It's hard and it is up to me," she said. "It's just not coming together during matches and that's tough. It's just confidence. When the momentum shifts in a match, I don't really believe in my shots."
Safina never won a major but did reach three Grand Slam finals. At 23, she's the same age as No. 4 Andy Murray on the men's side, who just fired his coach and is searching for the correct answers that will make him No. 1 and a Grand Slam winner.
But despite the tremendous pressure put on Murray by his Grand Slam title-starved nation, Britain's top player has reached the final of one major, the Australian Open, the semis of Wimbledon and the fourth round of the French and U.S. Opens in the past year. Plus, he won two titles in that time.
For her part, Safina has reached one final (2009 Cincinnati) and reached the fourth round of the Aussie Open, but in that period, she's compiled an unimpressive 14-15 record. Without question, a major back injury had something to do with her lack of results, but given that she was smoked in the three Grand Slam finals she played, it's clear that she was unable to contend with the mental burden that goes along with being a top player.
She has a powerful enough game and the hunger to pound her way back to the top, but she's been stressed out, both by the return of her back injury just before Wimbledon and her separation with longtime coach Zeljko Krajan, whom she was overly dependent on.
She says that in her heyday she was winning a lot of matches on reputation. Now that she appears there for the taking, she isn't gaining enough cheap points based on her fierce stare.
"Players aren't afraid of me anymore," she said. "Now I have to earn back their respect."
Since she won the French Open, Kuznetsova has gone on a mental walkabout for no apparent reason. She's only passed the third round of two tournaments this year and has won only one crown (2009 Beijing) since raising the big trophy.
“It's very frustrating to be where I am,” she said. “I was always a top 10 and now I'm somewhere else. For others it's normal but I think I belong somewhere else. But what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.”
While Kuznetsova suffered a similar fate after she won her first major at the U.S. Open in 2004, at least then her slump could be attributed to her lack of maturity and inability to deal with the bar she has raised for herself. But what now at the age of 25, 10 years after she began playing circuit events? She cannot claim the ignorance of youth and doesn't believe that her current situation bears much of a resemblance.
“It looks very similar in rankings and result, but I remember 2005 when I went on court I had no idea how to play and I was lost,” she said. “Now I know I'm fit and then I wasn't at times. Now I'm there and I'm losing two or three critical points and not winning. Most of all it's confidence.”
Like Safina and Ivanovic, she complains of a lack of match play. but the only way to get more court time is to win more and she's had a heck of time doing that. She's been working hard, and doesn't believe that the lack of hard work, or even putting in the hard yards themselves, has much to with her recent results. She believes that the increasing depth of the tour is why so many players have struggled to put up consistent good results this year and agrees with Safina that losing the fear factor has come into play for her.
But unlike Safina and Ivanovic, she also believes she's found the magic pill that will turn things around for her, even though she doesn't want to reveal what it is. It's not that she is on the verge of hiring a new coach — Loic Courteau, who successfully coached two-time Grand Slam champ Amelie Mauresmo (she's also asked Mauresmo to help her a bit). Kuznetsova says a coaching move is mandatory, but it's not what's going to key her return to the top 5.
She remains unpredictable but says that in her heart, she's ready to roar.
“I'm very positive (I'll get back),” she said. “I'm different now.”
U.S. Fed Cup coach Mary Joe Fernandez, a former top 5 player herself, is confused about why all three have fallen to the depths that they have but believes they can all have their day in the sun again.
"I see Ivanovic working hard and doing the right things and for her it's matter of confidence," Fernandez said. "Safina looks like it was a lot of pressure, having the No. 1 ranking and looking like she didn't deserve the No. 1 ranking and then her back injury. Injuries are tough, and if you have fear, you are never going to be able to go for it 100 percent. I feel Kuznetsova can turn it on any time. For her it's focus. She's such a great athlete and can beat anyone any given day, but it's all concentration with her. I'm a big believer that if you've been there, you can get back there, because you know what it takes.”
Whether that comes during the not-so-sunny summer of 2010 is up to debate, but at the very least, these three talented yet enigmatic personalities will remain compelling stories.
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