Carrie, Forty Deuce's resident DinaraKAD, had the unfortunate privilege of watching Dina crash and burn in Miami this weekend. As a form of therapy she's put her thoughts on all things Dina into this piece, which she has so kindly agreed to share with you all. I've spent a few late nights drunkenly chatting with Carrie about our favorite Beluga and this State of Dinara address pretty much sums it up.
I would recommend you keep any sharp objects away from you while you read this. It may drive you into a deep depression (there's a reason why I usually end up drunk during these Dinara chats).
But chin up. You're definitely not as depresssed as Dina is.
When I was 22—just out of college and back in skating full-time—I had a day when I caught myself standing on the rink, hour 5 of an 8 hour training day, thinking, “Ohhhh my God. We are all reasonably intelligent people. Why do we spend all our time in this huge room with ice on the floor pretending to ourselves that Lutzes and twizzles actually matter??” I was shocked at myself, for the previous 15 years nothing else had mattered, and suddenly I realized that I’d spent my life doing this sport I no longer cared about and had nothing to show for it other than ugly feet and a lingering eating disorder. Even though I didn’t want to skate anymore, I didn’t know how to get out; it was my job, it was where most of my personal relationships were based, and the thought of the outside world was terrifying. Through school, I’d been in it enough to realize that I didn’t understand anything about it; the simplest things, even, for years people had taken care of life’s little details for me so as to free up as much time as possible for school and skating. The idea of cutting out skating and walking into a world I hadn’t lived in full-time since I was 7 was so frightening that it took me three years of slow baby steps to get there, and I only just now feel like I understand enough about the “real world” to actually operate in it.
When I look at Dinara Safina now, this is what I see, with the complicating factors of real fame, a family legend to live up to, and far less experience outside her sport than I had. Watching her play Sam Stosur on Sunday was like watching someone process exactly how much she dislikes her life and begin to understand how trapped she feels. When she came out for the match, she looked determined to do business. For the first game, returning against Sam, she looked ready to fight and play. For her first service game, she started out focused and ready; after 2-3 points, though, the quick decline started, she looked like she didn’t want to be there but couldn’t let herself tank. By 1-3 or 1-4 in the first, she was casting desperately miserable looks at her team and tears were pooling in her eyes; she repeatedly blinked and flicked them away, but she couldn’t stop them. It didn’t look like disappointment in poor play, it looked like sheer misery. By the first changeover in the second set, when she walked by her team and mouthed, “I fucking hate this,” the truth of that statement could not have been more obvious.
There have been many suggestions that Dinara Safina didn’t choose tennis for herself: a quote from her that “I had no choice but to become a tennis player, but I don’t mind being a tennis player”, a story from her mother about how Dinara wasn’t interested in playing tournaments as a child so they bribed her with toys. As a complete outsider, I’ve never gotten the sense that the Safins were crazy tennis parents of the ilk that can be found ‘round any corner at a junior tournament, only that they attempted to engage their children in the family business. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and when that road involves immersing your children in a sport to the exclusion of all other things (Dinara, at least, has never actually attended school, the ‘rents opting for private tutoring all her life instead), those children are going to have to be extraordinarily open-minded and resilient people to find their way in the outside world later in life. Combine the complete immersion with Dinara’s own drive to be the best at anything she does, and the legend of her brother to live up to, it’s only natural that she accepted the status quo in her life and worked as hard as she could to be the best she could be. When it started working last year, it must have seemed like finally, finally, everything she’d given up might have been worth it.
Since I don’t know Dinara, I can’t say for sure, but it definitely seems like since then something has snapped. Did she wake up one day, as I did, and realize that this isn’t what she wants anymore? Did something happen in her personal life that’s distracting her from being able to give her all to tennis like she used to? Her interviews have become increasingly reflective in a way that suggests she fully realizes the impact of the sacrifices she’s made, her demeanor has become increasingly unhappy, and her mood on court smacks not so much of frustration as desperation. Her statements that making friends is hard, that she had none growing up, that she’s increasingly aware that life will be difficult for her when she gets out of tennis, that she just wants to be “healthy and happy”, point to a young woman who’s become lost in her own life, wants something different but doesn’t know how to get it. Watching her on Sunday was achingly difficult, not just for me—a dedicated fan—but for the entire crowd who could read her mood as clear as day: unhappy, unsatisfied, lost, confused. By the end of the match, this crowd of strangers had given up on calling her “Dinara” or “Safina”, and started instead trying to encourage her with more familiar terms (“Dina”), terms of endearment (“It’s okay, honey.” “Come on, sweetie, you can do it.”).
To me, Dinara’s situation seems not unlike Justine Henin’s, despite the obvious differences in the two’s relationships with their families. But at some point in 2008, Justine came to the realization that winning more wasn’t going to make her happier, that she needed to make a big change in her life to be the person she wanted to be, and it led to her leaving tennis for good. After Dinara’s press conference on Sunday, in which she repeatedly said that she wanted to find the “will” to practice, to be “hungry” for tennis again, to be in the same place for two weeks just once, it seems to me that she may be facing the same dilemma. I would not be in the least surprised if Dinara discovered, in the four weeks between now and her next tournament, that being in the same place for two weeks is rather nice, that her will to practice can’t be what it was because as she’s grown older, tennis has grown less satisfying—not through lack of success, but because she craves a kind of life that simply isn't possible on tour, wants to know more about how the world works than how to get from the airport to the hotel to the courts.
Going through the motions in any job you don’t care about is painful, but for a professional athlete it’s different, and this is a point that gets overlooked repeatedly by the sports media. To have an office job you hate can be horrible (and I know, because after my foray into the “real world”, now I have one), but at some point you leave the office and go home, surrounded by familiar things and stability. To be a professional athlete is different; when you start to hate playing, you start to hate your whole life—the constant travel, the endless training, the neverending pains in your body, the restrictions on your lifestyle, the control exacted over your life by others, the lack of stable relationships, the never being in one place for more than 10 days, the suitcases, the media that accuse you of being undeserving of your place in the world. But it’s not so easy to just quit, especially when you’re as close to your life’s goals as Dinara Safina is, especially when you don’t know anything else in the world and aren’t prepared to do anything but be a professional athlete.
It’s not so hard to extrapolate that this is a rough patch for Dinara Safina, not just in terms of her tennis (a la Jelena Jankovic), but in terms of life in general. She seems down on herself, which is not so hard to believe when you look at how unhappy she is with her tennis, how unhappy she seems to be with her life. Added to that is the willful blindness being exercised by the sports media, whom she cannot possibly avoid, who are pointing to her as an example of Everything That’s Wrong with Women’s Tennis when in reality she’s more an example of Kids Stuck in Sports or even just Being 22. The crowd at her match on Sunday seemed intent not so much on willing her to win the match as willing her to be happy with herself, to realize that she has value as a person outside of her tennis talent, that she deserves to live a life that she enjoys. I may be reading too much into it, but right now Dinara Safina seems completely dissatisfied not just with her tennis, but with her life. And as her fan I’m pulling for her to find a way to be happy, inside or outside of tennis.