Fighter in the Family

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Dinara Safina, as I remember her, always looked like she was about to burst. Red-faced, straining with every muscle, she was one great player who didn’t make the game look easy. Yet despite never being touted as a future No. 1, the way her older brother Marat was, Dinara plugged her way to the top in 2009, and stayed there three times as long as he did. Her 26 weeks at No. 1 also puts her ahead of Kim Clijsters, Tracy Austin, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, and Maria Sharapova in that category. 

Yet if there’s a lingering emotion that surrounds Safina’s career, it’s frustration. You could feel it again in her retirement announcement this past weekend at the Caja Magica in Madrid. After spending three years on the sidelines trying intermittently to recover from a back injury, she finally had to concede defeat. Safina was one player who wouldn't get to participate in the aging of the sport. She leaves it at 28; these days that's an age when some players are winning their first Grand Slams.

Speaking of winning Grand Slams, that was the biggest frustration of all for Safina. She reached the finals of three of them, the French Open in 2008 and 2009, and the Australian Open in 2009, but couldn’t win a set in any of those matches. It was a similar story at the Olympics. Safina did win a set from her teammate Elena Dementieva in the gold-medal match at the 2008 Games in Beijing, only to squander the lead and settle for the silver. 

Safina’s 6-0, 6-3 beatdown at the hands of Serena Williams in Melbourne in 2009 was humiliating, but her loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final in Paris a few months later was worse. Safina was the No. 1 player in the world and the top seed, and she appeared ready to back that ranking up by winning a major title. Eyes bulging and ground strokes popping, she again took an early lead, only to deflate completely when Kuznetsova found her game. Kuzzie, her countrywoman, hardly celebrated afterward. Safina would reach just one more Slam semi, a month later at Wimbledon, where she was demolished by Venus Williams. By 2011, she was out of the game.

From an historical perspective, Safina was part of what might be called the WTA’s Interregnum, or the Time Between Serenas, or, most cruelly, the Age of the Slamless No. 1s. From 2008 to 2011, Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki, and Safina all topped the rankings, but rather than being celebrated, they were questioned and criticized for not “legitimizing” that achievement with a major. The Russian may have gotten the worst of it, and she almost certainly took it the hardest. 

“We all know who the real No. 1 is,” Serena said in Rome in 2009 after Safina had taken the top spot from her. “Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.” Safina, who was 1-6 against Williams, never proved her wrong—that’s why her loss at Roland Garros the next month was so crushing. In some ways, Safina's ranking, rather than being a crowning accomplishment, was a curse. If she had peaked at, say, No. 3, we may look back now on her silver medal and Slam-final appearances as the successful, surprising result of plucky hard work, rather than a failure to live up to her computer-generated top billing.

In 2012, Safina had to answer another set of difficult questions, about her years at the TennisVal Academy in Valencia, Spain, where she had undergone tests with Lance Armstrong’s longtime doctor, Luis Garcia del Moral.

“Del Moral gave us no advice whatsoever and didn't handle our cases,” Safina said. “I have nothing to be afraid of. I’m clean.”

Yet whatever her struggles were, there are positives to remember and take away from Safina’s career—the struggle is her story. She fought hard to emerge from her brother’s long shadow, and finally succeeded. She transformed her game to the point where, in Berlin in 2008, she could pull off the rare trick of beating Serena and Justine Henin in the same tournament (the Henin match, which Safina won 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, is below). Like her brother, Dinara was not a phony, and they were both more than a little fatalistic; it was an unusual but appealing combination in a professional athlete. Safina may not have been the real No. 1, but she was always real on court. And because of that, she could also be a fun interview. 

“Have you learned from your brother’s experiences?” Safina was asked once.

“Just not to do like he’s doing,” she said with a thin, sly smile. “Do completely opposite from him.”

Looking back, while Safina's career ended in frustration, another emotion lingers and defines it: Determination. A hard worker rather than a natural talent, Safina’s fault may have been that she tried too hard at times—her eyes bulged a little too wide and a little too early in that French final against Kuznetsova.

“When I was ranked No. 30 or 40, I would say, ‘I am better than this,’” Safina told me during her peak year of 2009. As she spoke those last five words, she started to raise her arm to punctuate them, but then quickly put it back in her lap. Dinara Safina was better than that, and she proved it. And that should be good enough.

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