Safina’s No Longer Just the Kid Sister By MICHAEL BRICK
Published: August 24, 2008
She slumped into the room at a manic pace, head low, all gazes averted, 6 feet of tone and bone ducked into reverie with a P.D.A. in her left hand, tapping out last signals as if to deploy some sci-fi cloaking device. Keep it together, keep it together.
Tonight there would be questions about her temper, her rise on the global tennis
stage, her efforts to contain the former in furtherance of the latter and, of course, the big daddy of them all, the great taboo, her older brother.
Now her cheeks were flushed. Her hair was wet. Her lips took the shape of a coin slot. She wore red high-waters, loose bracelets and a pink T-shirt declaring “Impossible is Nothing.”
“I would say,” announced Dinara Safina, 22, kid sister to the helplessly combustible Marat Safin
, “today luck was on my side.”
Funny how luck works. Sometimes you make it, and all that.
Just an hour earlier, Safina had lost a set to fourth-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova
in the quarterfinals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal.
Afterward, she threw a tennis ball to the court, watched it bounce and then, as if unable to stop herself, before an audience of 10,759, with the legacy of her brother’s spent promise as a backdrop, dropped back, opened up her powerful forehand and sent that nettlesome yellow projectile careering past her opponent’s head, over the advertising placards and right into the gallery of spectators. No one was harmed save Safina herself, who was chastised by the umpire.
But next came the part she would attribute to luck. At the moment when her brother, who once broke 50 rackets in a season, might have started looking for the bottom, Safina instead settled in to take the second set, then the third. Serving hard, hustling and deploying mesmerizing drop shots, she went on to win the tournament in authoritative fashion.
Her victory, picked up on the way to representing Russia at the Olympic Games, extended to 27-3 a streak started at the German Open in May. There she had beaten top-ranked Justine Henin
, who soon retired at 25. Had Henin seen a ghost? Such speculation made the rounds only as a joke, but Safina’s legend grew.
At Roland Garros, Safina knock out the newly top-ranked Maria Sharapova
, clearing a path to the final. As spring gave way to summer, she appeared in five championship matches on three different surfaces. She won two titles in two weeks, no mean feat in a brutal hardcourt season that felled several contenders.
Heading into the United States Open, she won 15 matches in a row before losing in the gold medal match to her countrywoman Elena Dementieva
at the Beijing Olympics. The seventh-ranked Safina, widely regarded as a promising junior who had failed to flower, seemed poised to emerge as a real threat in a field diminished by injuries.
“Since clay-court season, Berlin, she’s playing amazing,” said Victoria Azarenka, who fell to Safina in the semifinals in Montreal. “I think she’s just playing like a No. 1 player in the world.”
There had been a time all this was expected of her. With the twin blessings of height and power and the mixed one of a prominent tennis family, Safina made the Wimbledon junior finals in 2001. As a teenager, she secured four WTA titles.
Then she started making mistakes. She hurt her back. She failed to gain traction in the Grand Slam tournaments. Her development lagged behind the prodigious pace set by her brother, a United States Open winner who was ranked No. 1 at age 20 in 2000 — and no one was quicker to point that out than her brother.
“She has to make a lot of changes to compete with the top players,” Safin told reporters in 2005. “To be able to do that, she needs to be a little bit grown-up woman.”
Oh, to be advised to grow up by Marat Safin. But his assessment was not without merit. Safina was out of shape, failing to concentrate and sinking into the darker mold that destiny had made ready.
“She was living in his shadow,” said Zeljko Krajan, her coach. “And she wants to do better than that, but this is a very big shadow to come out of.”
In April, Safina hired a new fitness coach, Dejan Vojnovic, who like Krajan is from Croatia. A former long jumper, Vojnovic prescribed a course of endurance, speed and agility training, working up to weight lifting
. All of Safina’s coaches counseled restraint on the court. And then some grand unknowable something propelled her onto the dominating run that has put the leading players in the world on notice.
“We’ve only started what I think she can be physically,” Vojnovic said.
In this charmed season, Safina’s serve has seemed to abide in the charged summer air while her entire frame tenses and then snaps closed like a trap. Her ground strokes quiver with power. Even her sense of discipline, the detail with the devil in it, has shown improvement. At a crucial moment in Montreal, she faulted away an advantage point only to roar alive on a second-serve ace.
But as she returns to the proving grounds of a Grand Slam event, Safina must still manage a tangled legacy.
“I had no choice but to become a tennis player, but I don’t mind being a tennis player,” she said.
In some ways, she has embraced her double-sided birthright. She has agreed to play mixed doubles with Safin for the first time at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, next year.
Her brother, for his part, has taken to sending congratulatory text messages. He has stopped giving advice, at least publicly. Safina said he held back privately as well. General differences between men’s and women’s tennis rendered such advice unhelpful, she offered by way of explanation.
“Many times, I would say to my brother, ‘You have great things,’ and he’d say to me, ‘You have me as a brother, just enjoy tennis,’ ” she said. “I always wanted to be myself, and now finally the results are coming, and people can know me as Dinara Safina.”