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Championships Profile: Dinara Safina
DOHA, Qatar – Dinara Safina didn’t just shift gears in 2008; she graduated to a whole new league. Although the Russian’s natural talent was never in doubt – how could it be, with former world No.1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Marat for a brother – the mental side of her game had sometimes let her down. But that all changed on a spring day in Berlin, when a patient and composed Safina upset the world’s best player, Justine Henin, in the third round. Henin duly announced her retirement while Safina went on to beat Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva to claim her first Tier I title.
Since then, “Marat’s little sister” has been busy proving her exploits that week were no fluke. Although the 22-year-old would finish the main playing season with a far-from-shabby win-loss record of 55-17; her figures from Berlin onwards are rather more telling: 45-7; more than enough to ensure the Russian qualified for the Sony Ericsson Championships for the first time in her career.
New-model Safina’s first test post-Berlin was the French Open, where she marched all the way to her first Grand Slam final as the No.13 seed, collecting the scalps of Maria Sharapova, who had replaced Henin as No.1, Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova before falling to Ana Ivanovic in the championship match.
In the ensuing five months, Safina lost just two matches that, on paper at least, might be considered an upset. The first was at the hands of Thai veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn in the final of the Ordina Open, a grasscourt event held in the Netherlands as a lead-in to Wimbledon. The second came at Wimbledon itself, with a third round loss to fellow seed Shahar Peer, after an epic match that left both players on the point of collapse.
That disappointment failed to snap the magic as Safina crossed the Atlantic to the hardcourts of North America. As the jostling for position at the top of the rankings heated up, Safina beat Jelena Jankovic in the semis at Los Angeles, then Flavia Pennetta in the final, for a second title of the year; the following week a second Tier I title was collected at the Rogers Cup in Montréal. At the Olympics, Safina again beat Jankovic on her way to the final, where it took a particularly determined Dementieva to stop her. Safina nonetheless went home with a silver medal – something her brother doesn’t have.
Notwithstanding a semifinal loss to Vera Zvonareva at Moscow, since the Olympics it has taken a Williams sister to stop Safina in her tracks, and there is never shame in that. In Safina’s first US Open semifinal she fell to Serena – clearly a woman on a mission that week. At Stuttgart, Safina played Venus – perhaps surprisingly, for the first time – and the American won in straight sets. But Safina won the third Tier I title of her year and career at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, easily beating Kuznetsova in the final, for another 430 Championships Race points.
Indeed, as far as Race to Doha points go, winning a Tier I tournament rates about the same as reaching the semis of a Slam, which earns a player 450 points. Not only did Safina’s three Tier I victories earn her 1,290 points out of her eventual total of 3,832, she was also the most successful player at that level; Jankovic won two, at Rome and Moscow; Serena also won two, at Miami and Charleston.
Safina’s qualification for Doha was announced at the same time as Serena’s, after both had reached the semis at Flushing Meadows. As Serena had 3,130 points, seven more than the Russian, Safina was technically the fourth to make the cut. But by the time the Race had ended she was easily in second place behind Jankovic, on 3,823 points.
“I am really happy about qualifying for the Sony Ericsson Championships,” Safina said at the time. “I think this is the goal for every player, to reach the Championships at the end of the year, and finally my dream has come true.”
In May she was ranked No.14, but she arrives at Doha as the world No.2. She can’t catch Jankovic this week, but she can set the scene for even greater achievements in 2009. It is worth noting that the old Safina lost in the first round at both Sydney and the Australian Open last January, so she has little in the way of points to defend early in the New Year. And who knows, a certain Marat may yet come to be known as “Dinara’s older brother.”