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Dinara Safina: Aryna Sabalenka is showing 'strength of character' with 2024 Australian Open run
The former world No. 1 sees a lot of herself in the No. 2 seed, who aims to win in Melbourne for a second straight year, and opens up about what kept her from returning to tennis.
Published Jan 26, 2024
Viewers across the globe watched Aryna Sabalenka steady her nerves on Thursday night in Melbourne to earn her longed-for revenge against Coco Gauff and reach a second straight final at the Australian Open.
Watching with particular interest was Dinara Safina, who has been keeping odd hours in order to see the "Happy Slam" play out from her home in Monaco. The former No. 1 has found herself marveling at the No. 2 seed’s mental fortitude in the 12 months since she captured her maiden major title and first topped the WTA rankings last summer.
“It’s really unbelievable,” Safina told me over the phone. “I have huge respect for her that she didn’t listen to outside voices and stuck with her team through the tough times.”
Those tough times were on display at this very tournament only two years ago: Sabalenka struggled with her serve such that she could barely toss the ball in the air, often reduced to tears as she regularly amassed double-digit double faults. After training with a biomechanic expert, she reworked her motion and has been nigh unstoppable and took her late-season momentum Down Under, where she conquered Elena Rybakina to win her first Grand Slam.
“The way she handled herself speaks to her strength of character, how loyal she is to her team," Safina said. "If something has gone wrong, she takes the responsibility. She doesn’t blame others and I think the way she treats people shows that she has a very big heart.
“I think she changed as a person. She has found a balance where she is happy inside and isn’t struggling emotionally. Even if she loses a match, she’s still smiling and not taking it personal. She’s able to understand that she can have a bad day and still give 100% the next match. It’s not killing her from the inside.”
Safina sees much of her own game in Sabalenka’s big swings, and can relate to a lot of the adversity the 25-year-old has already encountered in attempting to prove herself among the best players in the game.
“There will always be people in your career telling you that you’re doing the wrong thing," she said. "In the end, you start doubting yourself, and this is the worst thing. I was looking at her, and wondering how she would respond to that kind of doubt.”
Where Sabalenka was able to draw strength from a team led by coach Anton Dubrov and fitness trainer Jason Stacy, Safina admits she internalized the stress that gnawed at her from the first week of each season she played.
“There were always those nerves in Australia from not having had so many matches under your belt,” she said. “You want to do well, especially if you had a good pre-season. You’re thinking how much you want to start the season with good results, but if you’ve had a bad week before Australia, you’re even more nervous!
“That’s the thing about the Australian Open, that extra pressure that comes with wanting to do so well, so either you do well or you do very bad!”
Safina met with the best and the worst in Melbourne. Her brother Marat Safin—the other half of the only brother-sister duo to become world No. 1—won the title in 2005 and she herself reached the final in 2009 with thrilling victories over Jelena Dokic and Ver Zvonareva. Two years later, robbed of her best form by a lingering back injury, she lost 6-0, 6-0 in the first round to Kim Clijsters.
Having made peace with her career in the decade since she officially retired, the 37-year-old harbors no ill will against the Happy-but-high-pressure Slam.
“On one hand, yes, it’s a Grand Slam, but on the other, the environment is very compact," she recalled. "The hotel is close to site, and the people are super friendly. The fans are very welcoming. It’s a different atmosphere, where the people who live there are just so nice. This is what I remember most in my mind.”
Something else on Safina’s mind is the truth behind her retirement, one that she admits to never having shared. Like former rival Dokic, Safina reveals that she, too, endured a 10-year battle with an eating disorder.
“What ultimately kept me from coming back was that physically, I struggled with body weight,” she said. “I was fighting anxiety and a binge eating disorder. I was consistently overweight, and I couldn’t lose it even though I fought so much to do so.
“I would try different diets and nothing worked and to play with an extra 30 kilos, it’s not easy. For me, this was one of the main reasons why I never tried to come back, and these were tough moments for me, because I was physically not like I was, and people were saying that I had gotten fat and the blah-blah-blah.”
Her binge-eating disorder began just as her back problems caused her to tumble from the top of the WTA rankings, persisting until the global pandemic gave her the space to discover calming pursuits like yoga and meditation that she says helped defeat the disorder for good.
“It’s not a secret, but at the same time, I don’t want it to be a story where people read it like I feel so bad and I’m crying over this,” she clarified.
“I want people to understand that this can happen to anyone. Everyone has their own problems, their own fears, and it’s normal, when facing them, to feel like you are alone in this world and no one else understands. Many people have gone through the same things. There is always light at the end, and it’s important to remember that you’re not alone.”
Though she has dabbled in coaching, Safina is open to watching tennis in a more official capacity in the future, bringing her analytic mind and empathetic heart into the commentary booth so that she might provide a deeper insight into life on an unforgiving tour.
“For now, I’m honestly happy, and I would prefer to help others. When I think of what my mission is in life, maybe it was tennis at one point, but now it may be to help others to achieve those results without making the mistakes I made.”