Catching up with former world No. 1 Dinara Safina
By Andrew Eichenholz
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Dinara Safina has had her fair share of memories at the US Open. In one way or another, it became home to the Russian, who spent 26 weeks at No. 1 in the world, made the semifinals at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2008 and was the top seed the next year. Tennis would retire Safina's career, as nagging back problems that plagued her for yearsforced her to last play in Flushing in 2010 before she officially announced that she would never play professional tennis again in 2014.
The injuries would not keep the Russian away from the game, though. Five years since her last visit, Safina is back in Flushing. The three-time Slam finalist is mentoring four Russian juniors competing here at the Open.
“I started in the summer,” said Safina, who is helping out with the Russian Tennis Federation. “I spoke with our president of the federation. I said I would like to help the juniors and to work with them and that’s what I started.”
Early on a Monday morning, when Safina may have been first leaving her hotel five years ago to head to practice, the Russian was prancing behind the baseline on Court 11. The only crowd in the vicinity was standing across the way watching Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin and New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh helping out at a youth clinic.
“They told me if I would like to come to the US Open just to see more of the juniors to see what I think, so I said why not,” said Safina about the federation reaching out to her. “So, I’m here watching the juniors and our future stars.”
One of those future stars, 16-year-old Anna Blinkova, the world No. 3 junior, is one of the students who are reaping the benefits of Safina’s help. Getting to work with a 12-time WTA titlist is not something she has taken lightly.
“Of course it is a great support for me and I appreciate it very much,” said Blinkova. “Just from a person who helps me to win, who wants me to win sincerely and all the things she tells me. It makes me feel very confident in myself. It makes me feel like there is a person who can always help me to do my job well.”
To Safina, her love for the game is still there. Anything she can do to stay around it and positively impact the sport, the Russian will do it. She officially retired last year after playing her final match in 2011, but it was not that she chose to retire. Tennis retired Safina with back issues that plagued her throughout her career.
“I guess it’s a part of it that I miss the game and second, it’s something that I used to do the whole life and I know the best,” said Safina. “If I can share my experience to help the juniors to get better and you know to reach their goals and dreams, why not?”
While she may be best known for how she struck the ball, that is who Safina is at her roots.
“I think that’s my character,” said the 29-year-old. “I just like to help people.”
Former rivals are glad to see that Safina is back around the sport. Former world No. 1 singles player and current No. 1 doubles seed at the US Open, Martina Hingis, faced off against Safina in a couple of finals nearly a decade ago.
"It's nice to see her back at a big event like here," said Hingis. "It's nice to see her finding her way back in the tennis circuit."
For Safina, of all the big events, one city has always stood out: New York, where she even lived for three months since her retirement.
“I’ve been in New York many times since I retired,” said Safina “I’m in love with this city and my dream is one day to move to New York to live.”
Besides the city itself, the former star loved the atmosphere at the year’s final Grand Slam.
“I think it’s tough to say one thing. The most, I guess it’s the crowd,” said Safina about what her favorite thing at the Open is. “I think it’s the best crowd ever. Like in Arthur Ashe Stadium, night sessions, when it’s fully crowded, just the best atmosphere ever.”
Although her playing career is over, Safina is not quite done with the sport, nor will she be, even after the curtains close on the 2015 tournament and her work with the Russian juniors.
“Well definitely it’s going to be something, it’s going to be close to tennis, whether it’s coaching either being an advisor or whatever, it’s going to be close to tennis,” said Safina. “I don’t know what’s going to be after, but I’m going to be involved in tennis."
Tennis may have taken Safina's career away, but she is still giving right back to it.