Dinara Safina: I'll win a Slam soon – I'll give it everything
She is the new women's world No 1, despite never picking up silverware at any of the big four. Dinara Safina tells Paul Newman about her hopes to succeed on the greatest stages
Dinara Safina was asked recently how often she faced questions from the media about her brother. "Every day," the 22-year-old Russian sighed. "I'm still his younger sister. It doesn't matter. When I walk around I still hear the crowds, saying: 'Oh, this is the sister of Marat.' I think I'm going to be his little sister for ever."
Will this be the year, however, when the tables are finally turned? While 29-year-old Marat Safin is playing his farewell season, Safina yesterday became the women's world No 1 for the first time, replacing Serena Williams at the top of the rankings. Having threatened to make her breakthrough ever since winning her first title on the main Sony Ericsson tour six years ago, Marat's not so little sister has finally reached the peak.
If Serena and Venus Williams remain the benchmark for the rest of the women's game in terms of their ability to win the biggest prizes, Safina appears as well equipped as anyone to fill the vacuum left by the retirement of Justine Henin and the shoulder injury that has kept Maria Sharapova out for the best part of a year. Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic have been struggling to maintain their promise, Elena Dementieva has fallen too often at the final hurdle and the next generation of emerging Eastern Europeans, led by Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska, have yet to prove they can make the final breakthrough.
Safina and Safin are the only brother and sister to have been world No 1s, Marat having spent nine weeks at the head of the men's rankings between 2000 and 2001. His success has been a constant source of inspiration for his sister, who quite clearly adores him. Winning the US Open at the age of 20, the charismatic Safin has always pulled in the crowds, even though he has not won a title since his second Grand Slam victory in Australia four years ago.
While they share a fearsome temper, brother and sister could hardly be more different in other respects. Safin, who recently won a fans' poll as the sexiest male player for a fourth successive year, has always enjoyed life off the court, perhaps to the detriment of his game. Tennis has only ever been part of his life: two years ago he took a break to join an expedition to climb one of the world's highest mountains in the Himalayas.
Safina, in contrast, admits to few outside interests. "For me it's tennis first: tennis, tennis and tennis," she says. "I don't do anything besides tennis. It's my life and I've chosen it. I have what I have left – maybe eight years of my career – and I want to give all my body to this. At least when I finish my career I can say: 'OK, at least I was honest to myself, I gave everything'."
The difference between brother and sister was highlighted in January when they joined forces to play in the Hopman Cup in Perth. Safina arrived early to work on her game, while Safin turned up late sporting two black eyes after a brawl in Moscow. "I wasn't in the right place at the right time," he said, without going into detail. "I won the fight."
Safina smiles when asked what she could learn from her brother. "Just not to do like him," she says. "To do completely the opposite."
Tennis, not surprisingly, is in the family blood. Mikhail, their father, owns a tennis club in Moscow, while their mother, Roza Islanova, was a leading Russian player in the 1970s. As a coach she has guided the early careers of Dementieva, the Olympic champion, Anastasia Myskina, who won the 2004 French Open, and her own children.
Safina started playing at three and was following a serious training programme at eight. She soon joined Marat in Valencia, where he had been sent to develop his game at 14. Dinara won her first International Tennis Federation title at 16 and within a year had made the world's top 100.
Consistent success, however, came only last year, when she reached seven finals, winning four. She lost her first Grand Slam final in Paris to Ivanovic, went out to Serena Williams in the US Open semi-finals and won silver at the Olympics. Her worst showing in a major event was at Wimbledon, where she made the third round.
Safina's game is based on the power of her ground strokes. She has always been physically strong – she was 5ft 10in tall at 13 and is now just short of 6ft – but benefited from losing a stone last year.
Her rise to No 1 has, ironically, coincided with a dip in form. She was humiliated in the Melbourne final – she won just three games and detained Serena for less than an hour – and has failed to get past the quarter-finals in her three subsequent tournaments, losing to Virginie Razzano (world No 58) in her first match in Dubai, to Azarenka (No 11) in the last eight in Indian Wells and to Samantha Stosur (42) in her second match in Miami.
Like Jankovic, a recent predecessor as world No 1, Safina has to live with the jibes of those who question how a player who has never won a Grand Slam title can be regarded as the best. Safina believes she is mentally stronger than she used to be, but doubts still remain as to whether she can handle the pressure on the biggest stages.
Victory over Serena in Melbourne would have earned not only her first Grand Slam crown, but also the No 1 ranking, yet she never rose to the occasion. From the moment she served three double faults in her opening service game the Russian looked ill at ease.
Having had time to reflect, Safina acknowledges that the occasion got to her. "I was playing for a Grand Slam title and also for the No 1 spot," she says. "I had never faced that before, whereas Serena had many times. She had played in many more finals than me. When I play tier one finals [tournaments just below Grand Slam level] it's no problem for me. But because this was a bigger final I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn't play my game. It was very disappointing that I didn't play my best."
Has she spent a lot of time thinking back over the match? "Of course. I was so close to winning my first Grand Slam. Some people have a Grand Slam title but never reach No 1. Here both were at stake for me in one match. It was so big, but it made me so small on the court."
Does she believe it important for her career to win a Grand Slam title soon? "If I continue to play like this and I am fairly fit I think I will get there sooner or later. Next one, I hope. If not, I think there are going to be many more chances."
She adds: "What I would like from my next final is just to go out there and enjoy it. If I can play without pressure I will let my body just go. This is the key. I just need to let my racket talk and not think about anything else."
The one place where she does not expect to excel is Wimbledon. "My coach is always telling me that I can play well there, but I say: 'I don't understand grass.' It makes me so angry.
"The ball never bounces correctly and the bounce is always so low. Then it suddenly goes so fast. I'm always fighting with the surface. I just hope that I'll do better there this year."
'When you talk to me, I drink your words'
*Five years ago the French newspaper L'Equipe asked Marat Safin to interview his sister. For his final question he asked her what she thought of him:
You're my God. When you play, I love watching you. When you lose, I'm even sadder than when I lose. When you're hurt, I suffer. When you talk to me, I drink your words. When you come to see me playing, I'm beside myself with joy. I hate hearing or reading something bad about you. I know you are hard-working and that you do everything you can to be No 1. For me, you have the biggest talent of any player and I don't have half of your talent. The only thing I have more of than you is that I like working more than you do, I could be doing only this for 24 hours a day, and I know that's not so with you. In any case, if you don't practise for three days, you're still as strong. If I miss one practice, I regress and I'm unhappy. It makes me cry, just like when I went to school and had bad marks. I want to do everything perfectly."