Self-assured Safina yielding far better results
By Bonnie D. Ford
Updated: May 31, 2008, 3:33 PM ET
PARIS -- Dinara Safina knows she has a reputation as a volcano with a wisp of smoke trailing from a telltale seam -- an imposing figure in tennis topography who is capable of blowing her stack at any moment.
Doomed by her last name and emotional DNA to be forever compared to her mercurial brother Marat Safin, six years her elder, Safina is used to being asked whether she'll ever be able to settle down enough to let her talent trump her tantrums.
"It's every year, new phase of my career,'' she said in rapid-fire English earlier this week. "I guess I'm a little bit more experienced, so hopefully I will not do the mistakes that I've been doing before.
"That's the only thing I hope. And I hope it's [the] new me. God knows,'' she said, laughing self-deprecatingly.
Safina, 22, won the biggest title of her career in Berlin two weeks before arriving in Paris. Her path to the championship led through then-No. 1 Justine Henin in a match destined to be the last before Henin's stunning retirement. Safina beat the Belgian in the round of 16, then polished off Serena Williams, promising up-and-comer Victoria Azarenka and Elena Dementieva.
A tender back forced Safina out of the following week's event in Rome, but "any time you can win a Tier I right before the French Open is huge for your confidence, and her brain has always been her biggest nemesis,'' said commentator and former WTA pro Katrina Adams.
Safina appears to have carried the momentum into Roland Garros, where she's seeded a lucky 13th. While several other top players have struggled, she dropped just five games in her first two matches and after a brief lapse in the second set, dispatched Chinese qualifier Zie Jheng 6-2, 7-5 in the third round Saturday.
That propelled her into an intriguing round-of-16 clash with top seed Maria Sharapova. In 2006, when the same two women met at the same point in the tournament. Safina scrambled out of a 5-1 deficit in the third set to win, 7-5, 2-6, 7-5. Safina and Sharapova have only played once more since then, in Los Angeles two years ago; Sharapova leads their career series 3-2.
The comeback against Sharapova was hailed as a breakthrough at the time. But in what has become a familiar pattern to those watching Safina, she crumbled in her next match, squandering a 5-1 first set lead of her own to Svetlana Kuznetsova and getting shut out in the second set.
Safina called her play against Zheng "way too passive,'' and volunteered the observation that she would have to crank up her level against Sharapova, who has performed unevenly here herself. "Once you give her a chance, she won't give you more chances,'' Safina said. "So with her, really have to be aggressive every time.''
Safina ended 2006 just outside the top 10 at No. 11 and started strong the next year. After she beat Martina Hingis in the finals of the Gold Coast tournament in Australia, Hingis delivered this endorsement: "Everyone's going to have to watch her, because she's going to be even better than her brother. She definitely doesn't have as much touch, but she has more will and desire.''
There's that comparison again. At nearly 6 feet tall, lean and muscular everywhere except for her cherubic face, Safina's power is undermined by a curious tentativeness at times, fueled by self-doubt.
"She's moving better, but she's still not the best mover in the world,'' Adams said. "For her, it's all about playing percentage tennis and trying to dictate points with her forehand. Where she has problems is when she plays someone who jerks her around on the court, gets balls back, changes the spin.''
Steffi Graf's former coach Heinz Guenthardt, who's here as a commentator for Swiss television, worked with Safina for a few weeks in late 2007 and called her "a unique challenge.''
"She can hit the ball as hard as anyone and serves extremely well, but sometimes her focus is too much on not missing,'' Guenthardt said. "On the serve, very often what that does is instill a fear of the second serve.''
One thing Safina seems to have going for her is the attitude that she doesn't necessarily know it all, despite coming from a family steeped in the sport. Her parents own a tennis club, her mother is a respected coach and she had a ready-made trailblazer in former world No. 1 Safin.
"I think can you learn every day something new,'' she said this week. "There is nothing that is going on in this world that you cannot learn.
Also on court. It's not only by hitting forehand, backhand, maybe just understand game a little bit more. To read a little bit more the game, kind of my behavior on the court. It's little details that I still have to improve a lot.
"I need at least a little bit to hide my emotions. I'm still learning, but still have to work on it. But at least a little bit I'm improving.''
Safina's mother, Raouza Islanova, was an important early influence on her daughter, but Dinara said she hears that voice in her ear "less and less'' and invests all her trust in coach Zeljko Krajan, a recently retired pro from Croatia.
"He knows what you can feel,'' Safina said. "Sometimes I'm feeling really tight and maybe somebody else will tell you, 'Oh, so what?' But he knows. He knows how to kind of get you out of there.''
Safina's half-amused, half-inscrutable smile is a mirror image of her brother's. The two siblings are close, but not afraid to needle each other publicly. Safin has frequently said his little sister needs to get hold of her emotions -- advice he hasn't always applied himself -- and she teases him right back. Asked a few days ago who had a better chance to win this tournament, Safin (who lost to countryman Nikolay Davydenko in the second round) unhesitatingly picked Safina.
There is little question that she has surpassed him now, as Safin's game, hampered by injury, has been on a downward slope since he won the 2005 Australian Open. Since then, she has won four tournaments to his none, and stayed in the top 20 as he has tumbled to No. 73 this week.
"I think Dinara doesn't know what she is capable of doing, and most of that has to do with self-confidence,'' Guenthardt said. "But the good thing is, from my point of view, she's a young 22.''