Ever since her brother upset legendary Pete Sampras to win the 2000 U.S. Open, she's been known, slightly pejoratively, as "Marat's little sister." But in 2008, Dinara Safina finally smashed that unwanted label with her powerful shots and stunning victories. It would also be the year that changed her tennis career and even her life.
Like her brother Marat Safin, who is six years older than her, Dinara has also struggled to harness the volatile emotions that too often undermined her during competition. The 22-year-old Russian began 2008 ranked a discontented No. 15 and posted a desultory 11-10 record by early May when she arrived at the German Open. It would become the breakout tournament of her breakthrough year. With a new coach who instilled positive thinking, she calmly upset superstars Justine Henin and Serena Williams before beating compatriot Elena Dementieva in the final.
At the French Open Safina proved she truly had emerged as a formidable force. There she took down No. 1 Maria Sharapova, No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 8 Dementieva to reach her first Grand Slam final where another rising star, No. 2 Ana Ivanovic, stopped her. With plenty of momentum and growing confidence, Safina then defeated Jelena Jankovic while grabbing a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics and reached the U.S. Open semis where eventual champion Williams outplayed her.
By the end of the season, Safina soared to No. 3 while her brother fell to No. 29. That turnabout prompted Safin to quip, "I think if she will do everything the opposite of what I've been doing throughout the years, she will be No. 1 in the world for a long time."
If that happens, Marat will become known as "Dinara's big brother," and she will revel in the honor and the irony.
In this frank interview, the new Safina talks about how she finally emerged from her loving brother's big shadow and found her own identity.
In October at Stuttgart, you said, "If someone asked me at the beginning of this year if I could finish the year in the top five, I would have burst out with laughter." Why would it have shocked you?
Because the beginning of the year was not great. I could not find my game. I could not find the right person to coach me. It was not an easy situation. But I'm happy that then I met the right coach who helped me to get my results.
Do you now believe in yourself more than ever?
I do believe much more in myself. The results prove it. I can play with everybody and I can beat everybody. Now I'm working even harder to get where I want to get.
You come from the ultimate tennis family. Your mother, Raouza Islanova, is one of Russia's top coaches and taught you starting at age 5. Your father, Michail, is the director of the highly successful Spartak Club in Moscow. And your famous brother, Marat, is a U.S. Open and Australian Open champion and former No. 1. What is it like for you to come from a family where tennis is so important and where the others are so successful?
Being the little sister in such a big tennis family is not an easy situation. Maybe that's why it took me longer to develop. My father is very competitive, but my parents didn't put pressure on me. I wanted to find my identity. I wanted to be something by myself, like being a big player by myself. So at the beginning I was putting too much pressure on myself. But then gradually I found myself, and I learned how to do better with that situation.
Last August you said, "I had no choice but to become a tennis player, but I don't mind being a tennis player." Now that you are doing better, do you like tennis a lot, or even love it?
I do love tennis, and I've loved it always. It has nothing to do with the [recent] results. I love tennis, and I think I will always love this sport.
You started 2008 poorly by losing twice in first round, four times in the second round, once in the third round, twice in the quarterfinals and in a Fed Cup match. What were you thinking and feeling when you arrived in Berlin in early May?
Actually I did not play badly in Miami (where she made the quarterfinals). And at Amelia Island, I was a little bit unlucky. I started playing much better, but I cramped there (in her 7-6, 0-6, 7-5 loss to Alona Bondarenko). In Charleston, I didn't play well. But after that, I don't know what happened. I was practicing really hard. I just came to Berlin thinking I am just going to do what my coach tells me and just follow his instructions. So even though I was struggling, I had a good attitude.
You revealed a disagreement you had with your brother Marat, at that time when you said, "Before we left to come to Germany we had a bit of a fight because he said I was doing everything wrong. But I told him, look, brother, I am on the right path." Please tell me about that.
(Laughter) We discussed lots of things. Well, everyone has his opinion in life. And everyone can be right or wrong. So he told me his opinion. And I told him that his opinion was wrong. And I think I proved in Berlin and the rest of the year that I was right.
Even though you told Marat you were on the right path, were you actually thinking about quitting the pro tour?
No. Then I was already starting to play much better. Some people misunderstood me when I said [in the press] I wanted to quit. I just wanted to have a break because nothing was going the way I wanted, and I was in a tough situation. So I thought it might be better to take a break and then come back and have some desire because I was starting to lose it. But I never thought about quitting tennis completely.
What were the main reasons that you played great when you beat Henin, Serena and Dementieva and won the Berlin Open?
I think I was just focusing on myself, and I was following the right strategy for each match, and my behavior on the court was really professional. I was really sticking to my game plan and doing everything the way I should.
How much credit does Zeljko Krajan, your Croatian coach, deserve for your success?
I have to thank him a lot because he made big changes in my attitude and the way I am. I am not an easy person to work with, and somehow he found a way to get to me, and he found a way to solve the problems in my head. So he's doing a very good job, and he gets a lot of credit for my success.
How did he bring out the best in you?
He was always telling me I am a very good player and that it was just a matter of time and just be patient and everything will come. He thought of me as a big player. He was never putting me down. He was always putting me up. Not many coaches will be like this to their players. Some coaches will say, "You have your problems, but I don't want to go inside of them − you do it by yourself." But he was always there to encourage me and help me solve my problems.
Your coach seems to say the right things at the right time. When you broke down in tears after the warm-up before your U.S. Open round of 16 match and told him that you could not push yourself anymore, he said, "If it's just 20 percent left from your body, just give this 20 percent." And then you reached the semifinals. Is that what you like about Zeljko?
It is because he has been a [world-class] player himself. He knows what I'm going through. In that case, some other coaches would tell me, "You are just afraid, and maybe you are lying that you are tired, and you just want to escape the problem." Actually, he believed that I was very tired because I had a very tough schedule. I came from the Olympics, and I had a crazy schedule. He would never tell me that I am trying to escape the problem. He just told me the way it is, that I should give whatever I have left. I did that and I won the match. I had the next day off, and that tough situation helped me because I won my next match to make the semifinals.
Later in the year Marat humorously said: "I think if she will do everything the opposite of what I've been doing throughout the years, she will be No. 1 in the world for a long time. That's as simple as it is." What do you think of that advice?
It's good that I have my brother. He has made some mistakes, and I can learn from him. I will not make those mistakes, and let's see how far I can go. I'll try to take his advice.
When asked about her relationship with compatriot Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic said, "To be honest, we are not best friends. I cannot tell you that I have best friends on the tour, doesn't matter from the same country or not. It's just very hard to have friends on tour and be in good relationships with the players that you play. This is just girls' world. I think in the men's world, it's a little bit better, because they play a match and then they go and drink a beer after it. So it's a different story. I have a lot more friends on the men's tour." Do you agree with Jelena?
Yes, it's a tougher situation on our tour. We are women, and we are much more complicated. (Laughter). That's why it's tough for us to become friends. We are colleagues. It's not like we are enemies. We do talk to each other, and we have conversations. In the morning, we say, "Hi, how are you?" But that's all.
So do you have good friends on the women's tour?
No, I'm not really looking for some friends because I have my team. I travel with my coach and my fitness coach. So, with both of them, I have enough. I don't need anyone else.
At the start of the French Open you were asked if winning the Berlin tournament marked a breakthrough in your career. "It's every year, a new phase of my career. Also I was saying it in 2006 when I played final in Rome. I guess I'm a little bit more experienced, so hopefully I will not do the mistakes that I've been doing before. That's the only thing I hope. I hope it's a new me. God knows." Did you worry then that you would have one great tournament, like you did at Rome in 2006, and then stay ranked No. 15 or 20?
Every year you try to avoid the mistakes you made in the past. I knew what I did wrong before, so this year I avoided those mistakes. Also, I am two years older, and I know some of the things I should not do. But now I also have the right people who, if I step outside the tracks, they will put me back on the right tracks.
You then gained your first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros by beating No. 1 Maria Sharapova, No. 8 Dementieva and No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova before bowing to No. 2 Ana Ivanovic. Why did the new Dinara do so well at the French Open?
I think winning Berlin gave me so much confidence. So when I came to the French Open, I knew that I could do really well there. I started to play really well in the first round, and each match I won gave me more and more confidence. I just kept feeling I could win match after match. Unfortunately, I lost in the final, but I beat some of the best players in the world. So I was just a little bit unlucky in the final.
After you escaped from match point against then-No. 1 Maria Sharapova in the fourth round and No. 7 Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals at the French Open, you said, "God kept me in this tournament." Are you religious? And do you believe God has a plan for you?
I only know one thing − that with hard work you can achieve anything. But I do believe in God. I do believe that God sees everything, and for sure He will reward hard work.
Lindsay Davenport explained your breakthrough year by saying you improved your serve and forehand. TV commentator Mary Carillo said you improved your defensive skills. Do you agree?
I had to improve many things to get to No. 3. But, they are right. I agree with them.
Your favorite hobbies are going to the cinema, listening to music, and reading. What movies, music and books do you like most?
I really like movies. I really like comedy but it doesn't matter which ones. For books, I haven't read any in the last four months because I've been so tired. Because to read a book, you really need to concentrate. At the moment I'm not reading any books. In the past, I liked Tolstoy. I read Anna Karenina, and I tried to read War and Peace, but it's too difficult to read it during a tournament. I tried, but you have to be really relaxed to read it. Otherwise, I will not get anything out of it. We have great composers like Tschaikovsky, but I never listened to classical music. I like pop music.
Do you have a boyfriend?
Would you like to have a boyfriend?
I think every girl wants to have a boyfriend. It's nice to have somebody because tennis is a tough sport, and after a tough day, you come home and you have somebody to hug you. So I would like to have a boyfriend who supports me.
Besides winning Berlin, you also won titles at Los Angeles, Montreal and Tokyo. Was one of these three other titles especially important to you, or were they all important in your progress?
All of them were important. It's really tough to pick one. Every tournament victory was something special for me. They all added to my confidence.
"I'm not the girl to keep all the emotions I have inside. I guess I have to pay lots of fines because that's the way I am," you said about drawing a warning for racket abuse (flinging her racket onto the ground after squandering a set point) from the umpire during your French Open upset over Maria Sharapova. Please tell me about dealing with your emotions.
It is good to get rid of your negative emotions when you really want to explode on the court. But sometimes I overdo it. Then I'm not helping myself. I'm destroying myself.
After you beat Flavia Pennetta 6-4, 6-2 in the East West Bank Classic final in July, you said, "Even my coach said he didn't know what was going on with me, that I was so quiet on the court. Now I have to continue playing like that and not go back to the old Dinara!" Do you think you will be able to change your personality on the court?
When things go bad on the court, I sometimes still go back to the old Dinara. I have to get even more professional on the court. But I'm working on it. Slowly I will get even better. I don't want to get any more fines and act like the crazy Dinara. (Laughter) I do like the new Dinara.
Later in the year, you said, "I think even for girls, sometimes I behave not so nice. I also can say not nice words on the court. But I'm like this. I know I'm not perfect, but the people like me the way I am. I don't want to hide my personality, to be like not the way I am." Do you have two personalities, like the good Dinara and the bad Dinara?
Actually, now I regret my past because I did not behave really nice. Now I see myself a little bit differently, okay, like it was not really nice the way I was behaving. I would say I still prefer being myself, but like the way I am now. I don't want to go back to the old Dinara.
"I was behaving like a really spoiled girl on the court today. She behaved like a champion," you candidly said after Serena Williams − who unintentionally whacked you with a shot and made an apology that you didn't acknowledge − trounced you 6-3, 6-2 in the U.S. Open semifinals. So, is that the last example of the bad Dinara?
Yes, I would say so. It was not an easy day. It was very windy. I didn't show there that I was a professional. It was a problem. And I didn't handle it well. So I was not tough mentally there.
Is there anything new and exciting in your life these days?
Not really. At the moment all I do is sleep, practice, go back, eat, sleep and practice. Life on the pro tour is not so glamorous.
You were born and raised in Russia, and you have traveled all over the world as a touring pro. But Spain has played a big role in your life. Would you please tell me about Spain as a country and as a training site.
Spain gave me a lot. I spent most of my life here, and I have good memories about Spain. It's not really my second home, but it's the place where I grew up.
Have you ever played mixed doubles with your brother?
No, never. I would like to. I would love to because he is my brother, and I would really like to one time.
Five players were ranked No. 1 during 2008 − Henin, Sharapova, Ivanovic, Serena Williams and Jankovic. How good are your chances to win a Grand Slam title and rank No. 1 in 2009?
Justine [Henin, who retired in May 2008] is not here anymore, so I think it is pretty close. I just want to be happy and give 100 percent every day. And let's see how close I can get to No. 1 and maybe even get there. I have very few [ranking] points to defend during the beginning of the year. So I hope I will continue playing the way I have been during this year. I will try my best to be No. 1.
Anna Kournikova said, "If it weren't for tennis, I would be cleaning toilets in Russia." If it weren't for tennis, what do you think you would be doing now?
I guess I would be studying in school. There's not much else I could do. I would be a normal student and maybe also working somewhere. It's tough to say even what profession I would be studying for.
What was your reaction in late June when you learned you would have a chance to represent Russia in Beijing after slumping Anna Chakvetadze decided to skip the Olympics?
Actually I was very surprised and happy that Anna gave me a chance to participate there. And I proved that I deserved that spot by winning a silver medal there.
You struggled with 17 double faults in the Olympics final against fellow Russian Elena Dementieva and lost 3-6, 7-5, 6-3. But you still beat No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and won a silver medal, and you, Elena and Vera made Russia the first nation to win all three medals in one tennis event since Great Britain did so in the 1908 women's singles. What are your biggest memories of the Beijing Games?
It was a really tough moment there because it was so crazy when I arrived. I didn't have much time to get used to the weather because I just came from the [United] States. Unfortunately, I didn't have any time to watch any matches. But, overall, when I was standing on the podium, it was something very special. It was more special than when I've won a tournament and there is a trophy ceremony.
Russia has won four of the last five Fed Cups. You are 4-0 in Fed Cup doubles, and in 2005 Dementieva and you won the deciding doubles point against France's Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo to give Russia the title. Please tell me about that experience.
That also was a great experience in my life. I was surprised when they put me in the doubles match. But I'm just happy that I proved it was the right choice to put me there. I think it was a great match. It also boosted my confidence because I showed I could play well even with the [French] crowd against me.
You are 0-2 in singles, and you haven't played singles in any of the Fed Cup finals that Russia has won. How important is helping Russia win another Fed Cup in 2009?
It's always important, especially for Russia. There are so many young girls growing up, and it always gives them some motivation to be a part of the team in the future. It's a big honor.
Even though you are a power player and gained the ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Netherlands) final on grass, in six appearances at Wimbledon, the farthest you have gone is the third round. What do you need to improve to advance to the Wimbledon semis or final or perhaps even win the title?
I have to improve basically everything. On grass I have to be much more aggressive. I should come to net more because I have powerful strokes. And I have to be very physically fit. I'm working on it.
You won one Grand Slam title, the women's doubles title at the 2007 U.S. Open with Nathalie Dechy, and you've won eight doubles titles with seven different partners. Please tell me about your attitude toward doubles now that you are No. 3 in the world in singles.
I'm not sure that I'm going to continue with doubles because I have to concentrate much more on my singles. Doubles helps my singles in some ways, but it's also tiring. At the French Open, I had a tough [singles] schedule, and I also had to play doubles. It could ruin my singles chances if I'm too tired.
Six of the top 11-ranked women are Russian. Why do you think Russia has become a women's tennis superpower this decade?
It's a tough question. We have a really good competition between all of us, and we keep pushing each other to work harder. That is why every time somebody new comes up [in the rankings], she's looking at us and wants to reach our level. We also have a lot of really good athletes who are tall and naturally strong and powerful.
What things do you work on with fitness trainer Dejan Vojnovic, a former world-class long jumper from Croatia?
He has helped me improve my speed and agility so I can get to more balls during matches.
But I think the most important thing is improving my overall strokes and strategy on the tennis court.
You were unhappy with the WTA's new "Roadmap 2009" schedule because you felt it would prevent top players from playing in lower-tier events like the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. You said: "If they don't listen to what we have to say we might even choose to boycott the new tour." Do you still feel that way?
We had a discussion with the WTA. They made some changes so it's a little bit better. Let's see how it's going to work next year. Some of the top players will go to the Kremlin Cup, so it's no problem now.
Until this year you have been overshadowed by your brother. You told The New York Times, "Many times, I would say to my brother, ‘You have great things,' and he'd say to me, ‘You have me as a brother, just enjoy tennis.' I always wanted to be myself, and now finally the results are coming, and people can know me as Dinara Safina." Please talk about this.
I always wanted to be known as a person by myself. So for me it was always tough when he said I always liked just being his sister. But now I'm becoming famous by myself. So now I don't complain anymore. (Laughter) I would say it brings me pride because I'm doing it by myself. I never wanted just to be the sister of someone famous.
After you beat former world No. 1 Martina Hingis 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 at the Australian Women's Hardcourts in January 2007, Hingis said: "Everyone's going to have to watch her because she's going to be even better than her brother. She has so much heart and she fights so hard." When do you think that will happen?
It is already starting to happen. Martina said people have to watch out for me. Now I'm working very hard to have my dreams come true. I hope 2009 will be a big year for me.
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