To wind up 2014, I’m reposting 14 articles I liked from this past season. I’ll put up one each day until January 5, when the new season begins. Today, I remember Dinara Safina—again—the former No. 1 who retired this year at age 27.
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.