Former WTA world #1 and three time Grand Slam finalist, Dinara Safina, spoke exclusively to The Double Bagel Tennis Podcast last week. The 33-year-old Russian, currently in Moscow, talked about what she has been doing since officially retiring in 2014, growing up in a tennis family in Russia, the difficulty of dealing with nerves in Major finals, and why the Russian players of today haven’t yet matched the achievements of their predecessors.
Have a listen to the full podcast here.
Due to a chronic back-injury, Safina played her last match in 2011 at the young age of 25, and officially announced her retirement in 2014. But that didn’t see her walk away from the game completely. Instead, Safina has worked with the Russian Federation and hopes to be a coach on the WTA Tour in the future.
“The last match I played was in 2011 in Madrid. I wanted to see if I would still be eager to come back. Actually, I didn’t have any desire to come back and my back was still not the best and I said “OK. After three years, I don’t have the emotions to come back, I better stop”. said Safina.
“[Since then] I worked a little in the Russian Tennis Federation. I wasn’t involved in coaching, but it was organisational. I’m [now] helping some part-time people [on their tennis]”.
The pressure of being the younger sister of world #1 Marat Safin
Safina grew up in a tennis family. Her mother was a tennis coach whilst her father was the director of the prestigious Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow. Her older brother, Marat, also cast a long shadow having held the world #1 ranking and won two Grand Slams, the US Open in 2000 and the Australian Open five years later. But Safina managed to carve out a memorable career of her own, making her and Marat the only brother-sister pair in the history of the game to have both held the #1 ranking. We discussed whether her family’s tennis background was a help or a hindrance.
“From one part, yes. And from the second part, it was my biggest motivation. Having my brother playing and then having him on top of the world, winning the Grand Slams – it was something that it was always inspiring [me], always giving me the motivation to join him, to play the same tournaments… It was more motivation than pressure”. the Russian said.
Dealing with nerves
One major theme that is prevalent in Safina’s career was her inability to deal with nerves in the biggest matches. The Russian reached three Major finals in her career, but she lost all three without winning a set. We talked about why she thinks that happened, and we went through what her mind was going through in each of those finals.
“[In the 2009 Roland Garros Final] I was so afraid to lose the match… I was so nervous before my match against Sveta (Svetlana Kuznetsova) and I was completely nervous. I wasn’t there. I was too tense. I wanted too win so badly and I couldn’t handle my emotions”.
“[In the 2008 Roland Garros Final] against Ana [Ivanovic], it was a different [kind of] nervous. It was my first final and I was happy I came to the final. It was completely two different matches I would say. Against, Sveta, I was too tense and Sveta played really good tennis”.
In the 2009 Australian Open, Safina played Serena Williams in the Russian’s second Major final. The Russian lost 0-6 3-6 in less than an hour, as Williams clinched her fifth Australian Open title and 10th overall Major.
“At that time playing against Serena, you could only pray she has a terrible day. I knew being on the court, she’s a better player than me. I didn’t have my chances to beat her especially in the final. If it would be clay court, it would be different. On hard court, playing the final against her- you don’t have many chances”.
I asked whether if she had any regrets in her career and what the Dinara of today would say to that young Dinara competing in those Grand Slams finals.
“[I would say] to enjoy more. To be more in the present. Whenever I stepped on the court, I would always think would I win or would I lose. I would like to say to that girl. ‘Go there. Be every point on the court with your 100% concentration and enjoy the moment. Don’t think about winning or losing'”.
Problems in Russian women’s tennis?
Currently, after a long period of excellence led by stars such as Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Kuznetsova and Safina herself, women’s tennis in Russia seems to be in decline. We discussed why this could be and whether it has something to do with the player’s mentality.
“When I see the players, I see them very good. But something there is missing to become better. It’s tough to say what exactly is missing,” Safina said.
“Maybe they are satisfied with their career. They don’t want to be better. ‘I like to be number 50 in the world and I’m practicing one hour a day and I have a great life, and to be world number 1, I need to practice, let’s say, 8 hours and be very tense and nervous’. It’s in their mind. If they don’t want to higher in their rankings it means they don’t want it. When somebody wants [it], they will go higher in their rank”.
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