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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Safina and Jelena to get it right?

French Open - Roland Garros 2008 Day Twelve Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic are united by a common burden as they prepare for Wimbledon.

The Russian and the Serbian are the only women players in history to have been ranked number one in the world but never to have won a Grand Slam singles title.

And, although neither can be blamed as such for that anomaly, until they make that breakthrough and hold their nerve when it matters, they cannot be seriously bracketed with the sport's greatest names.

Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo would understand the pressure on both players, having themselves previously been in the same position before triumphing at the US Open and Australian Open, respectively.

Safina and Jankovic have not been strangers to Grand Slam finals. Both have won doubles titles, while Safina has been a singles runner-up on three occasions, including earlier this month at the French Open, and Jankovic lost to Serena Williams in last year's US Open final.

But neither has matched expectations on the biggest stage, and that is a problem for the women's game, already in the shadow of the men, where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have developed a rivalry to match any in the history of the sport.

Any sporting division would struggle for attention and an audience if its number one player is not a household name.

Neither Safina or Jankovic could claim to have a public profile remotely comparable to that of either Williams sister, nor the retired Justine Henin or Martina Hingis, or even Clijsters, who will be eager to improve on her present status as a one-slam wonder when she launches a comeback in August after two years out of the game.

Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova, Amelie Mauresmo too, are several rungs up from Safina and Jankovic in terms of their reputation and appeal.

Safina, the current number one, powered through the early rounds in the French Open but fell apart against her fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final.

Her response to defeat revealed where she believes her shortcomings lie.

"I started the tournament really strongly, and then in the quarters, against (Victoria) Azarenka, I started to slow down a little bit," Safina said. "I was not playing as aggressively as when I started.

"Slowly I became a little bit passive. Of course, against Sveta (Kuznetsova) you have to be very aggressive. But it's not easy to go from becoming passive to turning and being suddenly hugely aggressive."

Serena Williams also recently discussed Safina, arguing the 23-year-old was "definitely authenticated" as the world's top player - an opinion seemingly at odds to her previous statements on the matter.

The American, with 10 Grand Slam singles titles to her name, knows how to handle the big occasions better, though.

Despite being ranked world number two, Serena is pretty much second to no-one, never mind Safina, when it comes to landing the game's top prizes.

Which is one reason why many believe the Wimbledon title is again destined for the Williams family collection - although it is sister Venus who is the two-time defending champion.

Jankovic has been struggling desperately with a lack of confidence since beginning the year as number one.

Fourth-round losses in the Australian Open and French Open have told the story of her campaign.

"Obviously I'm not playing the same game and not the same style as I used to play last year," said Jankovic after her Roland Garros exit.

"I have to learn and I have to change. I need my confidence back. I need to go for my shots. I need to have that belief that they're going to go in."

Henin, a class act and a winner of seven grand slam singles titles, retired last year at the age of 25 and is sorely missed.

She still follows the game and recently suggested it was "quite sad" that it no longer followed that the world number one would automatically have a Grand Slam beside their name.

Kuznetsova, who secured her second major by adding the French Open to her 2004 US Open title, believes the many top Russian players on tour feed off the war-time experiences of their grandparents, giving them the steel required to cope at the highest level.

"They had to go with nothing, without maybe bullets, only with a knife, and still go to war," Kuznetsova said.

"They teach their kids to be always strong."

In that case, Safina's slams could be just around the corner, and she might achieve multiple champion status and relieve herself of the perception she is a 'false' number one.

But, just as Kuznetsova has been taught, and the greats of the game would testify, such success cannot be achieved on ability alone.

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