There may be a handful of players with Dinara Safina’s talent on the women’s tour today, but the Russian woman, who is now 24 years old, may never find her way back to the top of women’s tennis again.
The former No. 1, who has slipped to No. 35 in the world, played recently at the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford where she received a wild-card entry into the event. During her opening match, Safina suffered a 4-6 7-6 (7-0) 6-2 defeat to veteran Japanese player Date Krumm, aged 39. The Japanese lady rose from the ashes to come back against Safina who had served for the match in the second set.
This same woman shocked Safina in the first round of the French Open in 2010, sending the Russian hustling back home after having made the French Open finals the previous two years.
Today, Safina appears but a shadow of her former self—before her lower back began to tighten like a noose around her neck while the sports media stomped out the tiny flame that fueled her burgeoning self-confidence.
At the conclusion of 2009, Safina began to admit to experiencing back problems, which have hampered her return to the women’s tour in 2010. After retiring during the round-robin competition at the 2009 WTA Tour Championships, Safina sacrificed her chance to end the year world ranked at No. 1. At that point, the Russian revealed that her back had been bothering her for the past three months.
This year has been marked by chronic reports of back injury and plummeting rankings for Safina. At this juncture, the Russian cannot seem to win a match.
Safina, like her brother Marat Safin, is blessed with enviable talent and cursed with a delicate and temperamental mental state. Marat Safin, who also achieved the No. 1 ranking on the ATP tour, was able to win two slams. His younger sister, however, has not been able to equal that feat, even though she possesses the talent and the game to do so.
Brother Marat left tennis at the conclusion of 2009, a colorful and enigmatic figure with talent to burn and a temper that often defeated his playing instincts. He seemed resigned and regretful but he realized the end had come.
Not so for Safina, who still has ambitions to collect that slam victory.
She came closest to achieving her dream at the 2008 French Open when she reached the final, defeating then current No. 1 ranked Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, followed by turning back fellow Russian Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals. In both matches, Safina found herself match points down, fighting back hard to secure victories.
In the semifinal, Safina defeated countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova, reaching her first ever grand slam final where she would face Serb Ana Ivanovic. Going down meekly after putting up such a fight in all her matches leading up to the final, Safina lost to Ivanovic 6-4, 6-3.
Safina’s nerves got the best of her on that day but not so for Ivanovic, who won her first major title and succeeded to the No. 1 ranking. Had the Russian won that match, the world might well be looking at Safina as the current World No. 1.
Her next slam final came in Australia in 2009 against Serena Williams. The American brushed Safina away in under an hour—59 minutes to be exact. It was an embarrassing loss for the Russian who succumbed 6-0, 6-3. Williams offered no mercy but Safina admitted she had not played well in the final.
Despite her losses, in April of 2009, Safina became the No. 1 ranked player in the world and like Jelena Jankovic before her, the press and fans grew incensed that any player who had not won a slam could be ranked No. 1.
The wear and tear of constant criticism and being forever questioned on this issue added to the pressure Safina felt every time she took the court—pressure the young Russian was ill-equipped to handle.
It made her resolve to win a slam even stronger as she began her clay campaign in 2009. Safina looked impressive winning both Rome and Madrid on her way to the 2009 French Open. Entering Paris, the Russian was the overwhelming favorite and No. 1 seed in the event.
Unfortunately, once she made the final, she lost to Kuznetsova in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, double faulting on set point. Safina admitted that she had put too much pressure on herself to win. She crumbled once again in the spotlight.
Following that, a poor showing at Wimbledon against Venus Williams increased the criticism of her “right” to be ranked as No. 1.
A baseliner with powerful and deep ground stokes, Safina goes for much and therefore may pile up the unforced errors. At times her high ball toss causes her serve to be erratic. Safina moves well for a player over six feet tall. Like her brother, she has talent but also like her brother, her play can be erratic.
Safina remains well aware of her circumstances and is working hard, coach-less so far, to get her game back to its previous levels. She admits that she returned too soon to the game before her back had healed properly in order to play on clay. That led to further injury.
Safina’s plan is to find her consistency. First of all, she needs to play well enough throughout a match to win. After that she will concentrate on playing well enough throughout a whole tournament to find success.
Realizing that this will take time, Safina promises not to panic about early losses as long as she feels she is making progress. It all takes patience. Perhaps with enough patience, Safina will find her way back to the top of the game.