Many a meme posted early in the pandemic encouraged an embrace of the pause provided by quarantine—that this unwanted period could nonetheless yield unexpected intellectual or emotional breakthroughs.
Former world No. 1 Dinara Safina was already in the midst of professional meditation when COVID-19 lockdowns halted her still-nascent plans to mentor promising juniors, and simply expanded the scope of that self-reflection through the months that followed.
“I had a lot of time with myself,” the Russian recalled ahead of her biannual return to St. Petersburg, where she serves as a player relations liaison at both the ATP and WTA tournaments. “I really needed it, because I learned to be more patient, and more flexible to where, if I have a Plan A, and it doesn’t work for some reason, it’s OK because there’s a Plan B. If that doesn’t work either, there’s Plan C, and so on.”
Few things go according to plan, for even the best-prepared athletes. Safina repeatedly learned this karmic lesson through three Grand Slam final defeats (Roland Garros in 2008, and Australian Open and Roland Garros in 2009) before her career came to an end in 2011. One half of the first ATP-WTA sibling tandem to top the tennis rankings alongside elder brother Marat, her inability to win a Slam in singles left her physically and emotionally broken; she spent the subsequent decade largely in search of what to do next.
“In tennis, I was always very worried, and wanted everything to be perfect," she said despite her otherwise enviable resumé. "I was a perfectionist, and that can be really tiring mentality, to the point where you burn out. That’s what happened to me, so I’m learning to be more flexible, easy-going, and not get so attached to one specific thing. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I’m trying to blame myself less.
"I can still ask myself why something didn’t work out, but it has to be more in a learning way than in a blaming way.”
Armed with an enlightened mindset, she sat in awe of Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open, how she problem-solved her way to a fourth Grand Slam title and swept aside Serena Williams—a former rival of Safina’s—in the semifinals.
“Serena had her chances a little bit in the first set, but once the match got on even ground, Naomi increased her level. Serena was playing unbelievable, but Naomi was able to stay with her. She could understand that Serena was playing her best tennis, but be confident enough to know she couldn’t keep it up. I could sense that she was like, ‘I can play my best for three hours; can you handle my level for that long?’
“I think it’s all about personality in these tough moments. Either you love it, or you don’t. Either you’ll go for it, or start to doubt.”
“I think this is in the Russian blood. We are an emotional people, and tend to take things too personally.”
The 34-year-old also notes parallels between this current cohort of Russian men and her own golden generation, one that swept the Beijing Olympic podium in 2008.
“I think they have a great atmosphere right now, because everyone is pushing each other to their limits. This is what happened when we were playing, and it was Myskina, Dementieva, Zvonareva, Sharapova, Kuznetsova: we were all pushing each other to play our best and improve. They’re all good friends with each other and are really pushing each other to their maximum.”
Emotional growth was also necessary to excel—particularly for Rublev, who, like Safina, hails from the world-famous Spartak Club.
“I did hear he could really be a pain in the ass,” she admitted with a laugh, corroborating stories Rublev himself has told of his volatile early adolescence. “I have to say it like this, because he would really get so emotional, crying a lot.”
By contrast, she now praises the 23-year-old and the touring contingent at large for their overall maturity in dealing with the pandemic protocols in place since the sport’s resumption. That her 2020 began at the pre-pandemic St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy and ended at the post-pandemic ATP edition allowed Safina a first-hand glimpse at the necessary changes and their effects on the players.
“It’s very tough to have to be in the hotel all day, not allowed to go out except for matches. You can’t really talk to anybody, so the whole time, you’re nervous because you don’t know if you’ll catch the virus. They have so much pressure from when they’re traveling, to talking to someone, to when they walk outside. The whole tournament, it has to be in their mind that they can test positive at any moment and have to forfeit.
“From an organizing perspective, imagine how much responsibility a tournament has, how much the staff has to do that they never had to think about before. There’s so much more to take care of, and so many small details that all depend on the protocol. It’s nothing that a tournament staff has ever dealt with, nothing from which anyone can draw on past experience. It’s brand new rules, which you really have to start learning from the beginning, and start by asking, ‘What can I do?’”
St. Petersburg has ultimately delivered the spectacle that often makes it meme-able. Safina watches from the sidelines, at last at peace with the tennis court that once filled her with endless frustration.
“I just love to be there, honestly. When I step on the court, I really realize how much I enjoy coaching and sharing my experience, and helping youngsters. I can be working with professionals or people who’ve never played tennis before, and I feel exactly the same.”