I want to tell you a happy story about a girl named Dinara Safina.
She was born on April 27, 1986 in Moscow, Russia. Her mother was a tennis coach and her father was the director of a tennis club and her older brother Marat, six years her senior, played tennis too.
“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.”
She really had no choice in the matter–she was going to be a tennis player. She moved with her family to Spain when she was eight years old to follow her brother’s burgeoning career, and she continued to train and to develop her own game.
Chubby and slightly awkward as a teenager, she committed herself 100% to the sport and worked to her strengths. The ins and outs of the game didn’t come effortlessly, but she could out-hit and out-work anyone. She won her first WTA tour title in 2002 at just sixteen years old in Sopot, and before she finished her teen years she had already racked up three more, including a win in the Paris final over Amelie Mauresmo. When she was twenty she beat Martina Hingis in the Gold Coast final, and when she was twenty-one she made the Quarterfinals of the French Open and the US Open and finished the year ranked No. 11. Her run at the French Open that year was the most memorable because in the fourth round she came back from 5-1 down in the third set to beat compatriot Maria Sharapova.
But while she was putting together a nice career of her own, there was always a shadow hanging over her. His name was Marat. He had two Grand Slam titles, an expired No. 1 ranking, and more talent and charisma than most people–including tennis players–could ever even dream of. He was a superstar, a combustible mix of tennis strokes, charm, and tomfoolery, and his presence was always looming large. But he was not known for making the most of his talent, to say the least.
In 2007 and the first part of 2008, as her brother was floundering around the tour, Dinara was hitting a wall of her own. She couldn’t seem to string together wins and she couldn’t find a coach that would work with her and believe in her and help her actually improve. Most assumed that she had already reached her tennis ceiling. Marat had the talent, Dinara had the work ethic, and it was just a darn shame that they couldn’t be combined. Dinara Safina was destined to forever be a footnote in her brother’s biography.
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But as I told you, this is a happy story. Dinara Safina did find a coach that would believe in her, the controversial and gruff Croatian Željko Krajan. Dinara began working harder and harder and once again believing in herself. Her expectations going into the 2008 Berlin Open were modest, but she was hoping to begin to turn her season around. Ranked No. 17 at the time, she had only won 10 matches all year.
She began Berlin by taking out Julia Goerges and Kaia Kanepi in straight sets, nothing to write home about since neither was in the top 50 at the time. But in the third round she faced No. 1 Justine Henin in Steffi Graf Stadium. She wasn’t just an underdog going into this match, she was an afterthought. Justine had won the Berlin Open 3 times, not to mention Roland Garros four times, and led the H2H against Safina 5-0. When the top-ranked Belgian won the first set 7-5, the end seemed inevitable. But then a newly fit and ultra aggressive Safina started stepping into her shots and controlling the tempo. Henin was a step slow after being off tour for a few weeks dealing with injuries and she just couldn’t keep up with the Russian.
Dinara pulled off the titanic upset, 5-7 6-3 6-1. A few days later Justine Henin announced her (first) retirement from professional tennis.
And Dinara didn’t stop there. In the quarterfinals she faced Serena Williams. Once again, Dinara was a huge underdog. Serena was on a 17 match win streak, and Dinara was due a let-down after her emotional win over Justine. She started slowly once again, losing the first set 6-2. But just like the previous day, she began swinging freely with back against the wall. She won the match. 2-6 6-1 7-6(5) , and called it the best match of her life.
How do you follow up beating Justine Henin and Serena Williams back-to-back? Well, you take out Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals and Elena Dementieva in the final to win the biggest title of your career. Then you hug your coach.
It turns out history can repeat itself. This time she found herself down a set and 5-2 in the second, and even facing a match point at 5-4. Maria was known as the toughest competitor on tour, but on this day Dinara signaled that it might be time to pass the torch. She started swinging so freely when her tennis-life was on the line that it was almost as if she didn’t feel pressure at all. Two years prior the story of the match had been Maria’s choke. But this time Dinara was the story. (Well, Dinara and Maria’s tempestuous relationship with the French crowd.) Dinara made her third career Major quarterfinal by taking out Maria Sharapova 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2.
In the quarterfinals Dinara played against compatriot Elena Dementieva, who she had just beaten in the Berlin final. The two went way back, as Dinara’s mother used to coach Dementieva. The elder Russian had long been at the top of the game, but had been known as one to not bring her best tennis at the best moments. But her fluid and tactful game kept Safina out of the match until it reached 6-4, 5-2. Then Safina, back against the wall, began to step into her shots. You know the rest.
“At 5-2, I just changed completely my game,” Safina said. “Just kept telling myself, give her one more ball, give her one more ball.”
And she did. Safina gave Dementieva one extra ball until she found herself into the semifinals of the French Open with a rousing 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-0 scoreline. Once again she had saved match points.
Dinara went on to the French Open final after defeating another Russian compatriot, Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-3 6-2 and then lost to Ana Ivanovic. But considering she had started out the month merely a footnote, finishing it in a Grand Slam final and with victories over four Grand Slam Champions in two tournaments was quite the feat. Into the top 10 for the first time in her career, Dinara had firmly enmeshed herself into the never-ending-but-always-relevant “conversation”.
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At first the media’s (forced) fascination with Dinara was innocent. Sure, she wasn’t the easiest person to write about, but she was related to one of the most intriguing characters that tennis has ever known. The sibling and fairytale elements to her story made for decent headlines, and the anecdotes were easy to tell. And, since the new (and highly marketable) Queen of the WTA Ana Ivanovic had won the French Open, there wasn’t actually anything threatening about Dinara’s emergence.
I’d best sum up the media’s attitude towards Dinara during the clay season of 2008 as amusement and tolerance.
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But the broad-shouldered, belly-button-baring, ruthlessly competitive, shy and goofy Russian was here to stay. After making a final and a third round on grass—-by far her worst surface-—she continued what she started on clay on the US hardcourts. She captured the US Open Series by winning back-to-back titles in Los Angeles and Montreal, and then traveled all the way to Beijing where she won the silver medal. In the Olympics she upset Jelena Jankovic, the No. 1, making her the first player to ever beat three reigning No. 1s in one year. (Of course, if you add former and future No. 1s to her list, her tally was actually 5.) It was a strange time in the WTA. With Justine’s sudden retirement, Maria’s shoulder troubles, and the Serbian ying-yangs suddenly struggling there was a palpable void. Dinara, with her constantly improving fitness, aggressive and over-powering game, and newly earned confidence, was ready to fully step up.
However the media still didn’t know what to do with her. She wouldn’t give diva-licious sound clips like Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams. She was a bit shy and soft-spoken in press sometimes, probably because, well, press is a terrifying thing. She could be alarmingly open and forth-coming about her faults, but that doesn’t always fit conveniently into headlines. Her game was not as beautiful as Justine’s, her face was not as beautiful as Ana’s, and she certainly was not a brand.
Because we live in a world that likes headlines and fancy packages wrapped up in bows, the easiest story to tell soon became the one of doubt. As she wracked up win after win, domination after domination, trophy after trophy, there seemed to be a collective eye-roll. There was always a reason why what she did didn’t matter.
Going into the US Open, she was ranked No. 7. She reached the semifinals that year, a fabulous and often forgotten feat that showed how consistent she really was becoming. But an in-form and rejuvenated Serena Williams thrashed her, 6-3 6-2. The whispers that had been under the surface all summer began to creep to the surface. The Dinara Safina days were over. It was finally time for her to come crashing back to reality.
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But I told you this was a happy story. In the next tournament after the US Open, a hardcourt event in Tokyo, Dinara made yet another final. There, she dominated Kuznetsova in two of the most flawless sets of strike-first tennis I have ever seen. The win caused her ranking to climb to No. 3 in the world.
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In 2009 Dinara Safina showed up in Australia even more fit, focused, and determined than ever before. With her bordering-on-unhealthy co-dependent relationship with her coach on full display, she showed up in Perth to play Hopman Cup with her brother. Once relegated to his shadow, she was now a more-than-worthy co-star. They made the final of the team competition, and she then went on to make the final of Sydney where she lost to Elena Dementieva.
At the Australian Open, an event where she lost in the first round the previous year and in which she had never made it past the third round, she scrapped her way all the way to the final. She didn’t do it by playing her best tennis, but she did it by fighting until the death despite the fact that all eyes were upon her.
That was the thing about Dinara Safina. Even when she was playing her top tennis there was never a feeling going into a match that she was guaranteed to dominate. There was never any security that she was going to play gorgeous, highlight-reel tennis. But there was always the assurance that she would compete until she didn’t have a drop of energy left in her. She would always leave it all out on the court. This was true even in the 2009 final, where Serena Williams completely dominated her to win 6-0, 6-3 in less than an hour. Dinara was certainly out-classed, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The down-side of Dinara’s meteoric rise was that it caused the expectations of journalists, fans, and even Dinara herself to skyrocket out of control. A lot of perspective was lost along the way. A feat that just eight months ago would have seemed impossible now seemed disappointing. Dinara Safina, Australian Open finalist. What a failure.
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Somewhere along the line a myth arose that Dinara was boring and had no personality. This, of course, couldn’t have been farther from the truth. She just didn’t really have a life outside of tennis. She was so dedicated to the sport that it was charming. You wouldn’t find her launching a candy line or on HSN late at night selling leggings (though that would be amazing and I would absolutely call in and buy some). You’d probably find her out at the practice courts at night-time until she had to be dragged off to go to sleep. In fact, if there was any criticism of Dinara it might have been that she was too committed. Taking notes from her brother she was known to smash rackets and take the phrase “face-palm” a bit too seriously during matches. Her beady eyes would lead her around the court, and nearly pop out of her head when she made a mistake. She was unfiltered, raw, and adorably intense.
But off court she was exactly the opposite. She was a shy, sensitive, and simple girl who loved to spend time with her family. She talked quickly and quietly and often told silly jokes that not everyone understood. She defended herself against criticism, but she was also willing to be self-analytical and refreshingly honest. She was a down-to-earth tennis star that normal girls like me could relate to and look up to. And she really, really loved to talk about chocolate.
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Dinara suffered a bit of a slump after her disastrously triumphant trip Down Under, and after early exits in Miami and Indian Wells the negativity surrounding her was alarmingly high. As Serena Williams had a less-than-stellar spring and Jelena Jankovic’s form began to completely disappear, panic enveloped the greater tennis community as a certain horror became a mathematical possibility.
And then it happened. After Serena Williams crashed out in the first round of a small clay court event to Klara Zakapalova, Dinara Safina became the No. 1 player in the world.
She and her brother became the first brother-sister duo to ever hold the No. 1 ranking. It was a true fairy-tale moment for a girl who less than a year ago was on the verge of dropping out of the top 20. According to the media though, it was a nightmare.
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Despite what you might have heard, our modern-day Princess wore the No. 1 crown well at first. Back on her favorite surface, she snapped out of her slump and made the final of Stuttgart and won the events in Rome and Madrid. The best example of her prowess came in her defeat of Venus Williams in the semifinals of Rome. By battling toe-to-toe with such an in-form Champion, Dinara proved that her ranking was not a fluke and that she really could compete with the best. Of course, she’d already proved that time and time again over the last year, but some people needed a reminder.
As she saw a match she should have been competitive in slipping away from her, she looked up to her box with tears in her eyes and muttered, “Why am I such a chicken?”. She lost the match on a double fault.
It was a heartbreaking moment, and not at all the happy ending that so many so desperately wanted for her.
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Two weeks after her breakdown in the French Open final Dinara Safina found herself at Wimbledon. She still had the No. 1 ranking next to her name, but now everyone seemed to be openly questioning it, even other players. But she kept her head down and continued to work hard. She made the semifinals, a phenomenal result on a surface she hated, even taking out Amelie Mauresmo along the way. But grass court goddess Venus Williams awaited her in the semifinals. She lost 6-1, 6-0.
It could have been seen as a triumph by Venus, but instead it was seen as a low-point not only for Dinara, but for all of women’s tennis.
She lost early in Los Angeles, but made the final in Cincinnati. In a period of 14 months she made 13 finals (including three Grand Slams), two other Grand Slam semifinals, and took home seven titles. When she started this run at No. 17 in the world in Berlin, most would have said that results like that were impossible for Dinara. But not even a year and a half later, she was considered a disgrace because she hadn’t won a Grand Slam. For perspective, Lucie Safarova is the No. 17 ranked player now. The equivalent would be if we all met back here in February of 2014 and threw stones at her for being Slamless.
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Her demise began with a coconut. She cut her hand while trying to chop a coconut with a knife and showed up in Los Angeles with an extensive hand bandage. She made the final of her next event in Cincinnati, but fell meekly to Jelena Jankovic. She was having trouble moving. Her back hurt. She just seemed tired, like maybe all of the stress and criticism had finally caught up to her. With her physical style of play, there was no room to be less than 100%. She went into the US Open as the No. 1 seed, but lost to then No. 72 ranked Petra Kvitova in a third-set tiebreak in the third round.
Instead of taking time off to heal her wounded back, Dinara tried to play the fall season in order to retain her No. 1 ranking. She just didn’t know when to stop fighting. Her year ended in tears at the WTA Tour Championships in Doha as she was forced to retire due to her back injury against Jelena Jankovic in the first match. She finished the year ranked No. 2, safely behind Serena Williams.
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Things didn’t get any better from there. I’ll let her tell you about her 2010. In a blog from her website, she broke it down month-by-month.
Well it was one of the worst years of my career. Many things have happened and it feels like my life changed 180 degrees from being #2 in the world to #63. Starting with my injury, of course and everything that followed. Those were very tough moments for me but I want to thank my real fans who have always supported me!!
The blog is an amazingly frank, funny, an in-depth look at her struggles, and is certainly a must-read. (I mean, what other player can you imagine giving fans a personal play-by-play of the fall from No. 2 in the world to No. 63?)
Dinara tried to come back in 2011 a couple more times, before finally taking an extended break that spring. Her back injury still does not allow for her to play competitive tennis. She has not retired officially from the game, but it seems unlikely that she will ever come back.
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I told you this was a happy story. That’s because it is.
Dinara Safina is only twenty-six years old. She was able to build a life for herself with tennis. She wanted to find her own identity and become her own person outside of her brother’s shadow, and she was able to do that.
These days she shares her life with her fans on twitter. For a player who gave herself so completely to the game for so many years, she seems to have settled in well to life outside of the sport. She goes to art shows and listens to music and studies. She travels the world and spends time with her friends and family. She lets herself have chocolate now. She seems like someone who is happy, fulfilled, and appreciative.
There are so many people out there with so much talent who never live up to their potential. Not Dinara. If anything, she over-achieved. She got the most out of her game until there was quite literally nothing left. I wanted her to win a Grand Slam as much as anyone. I still dream that she will be able to come back. But if this is it, it’s been a phenomenal ride
Just because the story doesn’t have the ending we hoped for doesn’t mean there’s not still a happily ever after.