"Someday they'll be calling me Dinara's brother," Marat Safin once predicted. It was hard to believe, but then so was his sister's match at the French Open on Monday.
Maria Sharapova cracked. Dinara Safina was mentally tough. Combine those two unusual events, and you get an very improbable match. The 7-6(8), 6-7(5), 6-2 scoreline doesn't even begin to do justice to the twists and turns of the encounter.
In the big picture, this will probably be just a blip for Sharapova, who was already talking about getting back out there and rebounding for the grass. "I'm sure that I'll be upset for the next few hours," she said. "But don't get me wrong, I'm going to go back on the court and whatever surface it is, hardcourt, backyard on the wall - I'm going to go out there and I'm going to work hard."
But this result does have the potential to be career-defining for Safina. She has now won 10 straight matches and beaten four of the top ten in the past three weeks, starting with Justine Henin at Berlin, in what turned out to be Henin's last match. She then turned around and defeated Serena Williams in her next match, and went on to win the title by defeating Elena Dementieva in the final.
We have seen this before - two years ago, in fact. Safina defeated Kim Clijsters, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva to reach the Rome final, and then over came a 5-1 deficit in the third set to defeat Sharapova and reach the quarterfinals of the French Open.
Waiting in the quarterfinals this time is Elena Dementieva, who was coached by Safina's mother growing up and remembers Safina as a toddler. "She didn't play yet, but she was playing with the balls without racquets," said Dementieva. "She was always working so hard. Like she was always trying to show everyone that she can play as good as Marat, you know."
Big brother Marat has always had advice for little sis, even if his temperamental actions haven't always matched his wise words. "He say, ‘don’t do this,’” she related once. “I say, ‘but you’re doing this.’ He say, ‘I’m telling you this from my experience.’”
A little while ago, Safina decided she was going to do her own thing."I texted him when I lost [in Los Angeles] in the first round, and I said, ‘Oh, you know, I’m fighting, I’m playing, I’m working hard and nothing going my way,’" she said last summer. "And he goes, ‘So don’t try that hard. It will be easier for you.’
"Well, it’s his advice, but I better stick to mine: ‘Okay, if I work hard, one day must be my day.’"
After Safina's win on Monday, Safin's text contained only congratulations.
Now, a bit like a big sister, Dementieva is genuinely pleased about Safina's recent success. "It's correct because she's a hard worker. Maybe she doesn't have so much talent as Marat does, but she really improved a lot. She's in the top 10 right now and really playing at her best for this year."
If Safina can turn around and beat the extremely tough 'big sis' to reach the semis, it might finally be safe to say she's reached a new phase in her career. "It's every year, new phase of my career," she laughed after her previous match. "I guess I'm a little bit more experienced, so hopefully I will not do the mistakes that I've been doing before.
"I hope it's new me. God knows."
While we wait to find out, try unravelling this complicated scorecard for the match against Sharapova:
Safina had two set points at 6-4 in the first-set tiebreaker before Sharapova hit back strongly, starting with a dropshot winner. Safina smashed her racquet when the score got back to 6-6 in the tiebreak, and appeared ready to implode, but went up 2-0 in the second set in between rain breaks. Sharapova then ran off five straight games to go up 5-2 and reached match point when serving at 5-3, but Safina cracked a backhand winner down the line and the two were soon in another tiebreak.
As she had earlier in the set, Sharapova went up 5-2 in the tiebreak. But she suddenly produced a string of unforced errors, including her sixth double fault of the match at 5-4.
It was hard not to cast the mind back to their encounter in the fourth round here two years ago, when Sharapova let slip a 5-1 lead in the third set.
The third set looked like it was going to be a fight all the way, but once again a surprise was in store: one player ran away with the last four games. Even more unexpectedly, that player was Safina. Sharapova struggled on her forehand and pulled off her serve, and repeatedly had her awkward movement on the surface exposed as Safina drew her forward with a number of crosscourt angles and dropshots.
Sharapova's shrieks got louder and louder and she swore at herself, trying get pumped up. "I was trying to get angry at something that can somehow get that anger out of me and just, you know, let loose," she said. "Because I just started playing tentatively."
It didn't work, and rather unfairly, she got booed by the deafened spectators as she left the court. "You can't please everybody," she said. "Not in my job description."