NEW YORK – If she were wearing a Scarlet Letter on the back of her singlet – say an A for Atrocious – would Dinara Safina feel a little better about herself?
As it is, the sturdy Russian out of Moscow must be wondering why she’s still a resident of the US Open, despite her philanthropic attempts to hand an opening round victory to an unknown wild card, an Australian 18-year-old named Olivia Rogowska.
Whether Hester Prynne, a literary heroine, played tennis is not for me to say. (Maybe she was a cheerleader, yelling, “Gimme an A…gimme etc.) Whatever, she felt a lot of pressure decorated by the infamous Scarlet A (for you-know-what).
Safina, a sporting heroine, also feels the pressure. Not of a letter, but a number – a Scarlet 1. It exists though you can’t see it, and Dinara is weighed down by the burden of being No. 1 in the universe.
She also hears the unending negative buzz that dates back to April 20 when she took over No. 1 from the woman who seems to better fit the role: Sister Serena, winner of the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year. Serena is shooting for her third major of the year, 12th of her career, while Dinara’s cupboard is bare of majors. “I want one,” she says, her voice tinged with longing.
Well, she’s now only six wins short of one tasty major after some bumbling and muddling for 2 hours 35 minutes to escape the wild card Aussie kid during an afternoon as clear and lovely as Safina’s was rocky and atrocious.
But Dinara did show heart in coming
out of a 4-2 chasm in the decisive third set to win the remaining games, 6-7 (7-9), 6-2, 6-4.
That saved Safina from a Scarlet A (for Abominable) and a red face as the victim of an historic defeat. Never has No. 1 fallen in the first round of the female US Championships that date back to 1887.
The worst crashes of No. 1’s were in the second round: Serb Ana Ivanovic upended by French qualifier Julie Coin last year, and Billie Jean King knocked off by Aussie Kerry Melville in 1966.Oh, the ignominy. But Safina, playing as though she had a death wish and wore shackles instead of sneakers, could smile when it was over, and she had defeated No. 167 Rogowska – 166 rankings her inferior.
“Well, I made it you know. I made it into the second round,” Dinara says, “and that’s positive. I go too much into myself and what I’m doing wrong, instead of thinking what I have to do with the ball.
“It was a bad day…but some good points.”
For Rogowska, Melbourne-born of Polish immigrant parentage, “It was crazy. Lots of fun. I had thrills down my spine, cramped a little in the third.” It was crazy all right. “I was surprised that she was giving me free points.”
Safin was generous with 11 double faults and 48 unforced errors, sending balls here, there and everywhere.
However, the kid was slaphappy, too, with 19 double faults and 65 errors. “I was up 4-2 in the third – nobody expected me to get that close,” says blonde Olivia. “But my heart was going crazy, my breathing really fast. I have to learn to stay calm, be mentally tougher.”
Any tougher and Safina was gone.
Can Dinara ever pull her wayward head together? Certainly she’s a winner, and will remain No. 1 after the tournament whether Serena or anybody else wins.
Why? Because Medusa, the WTA (Women’s Tennis Asociation) computer rewards those who play and win more matches, encouraging players to enter more tournaments. Medusa needs rehab. Winning majors should carry more importance.
Dinara talked about her last minute rescue, and her dream of being No. 1 (fulfilled) and winning a major. “Well if I would lose the match, it would be I lost to myself. It’s me, myself and I, playing on the court,” she laughs. “So what I could say, like swallow it and next year work even harder. It would hurt a lot to lose. But there is no other way. Just forget and move on.
“I never give up.” And that is true regardless of the quality of performance.
Too bad Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlet Letter,” isn’t still around. He might write a novel about friendly, hard- working Dinara Safina’s adventures on the tennis court, and call it “Painting the Town Scarlet With My First Major.” She’d deserve it.