Safina Must Deal With Her Combustible Side

"She's very passionate about what she's doing. She wants to win really badly," Patrick McEnroe said of No. 1-ranked Dinara Safina, above.
"She's very passionate about what she's doing. She wants to win really badly," Patrick McEnroe said of No. 1-ranked Dinara Safina, above. (By Alastair Grant -- Associated Press)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

WIMBLEDON, England, June 30 -- Of the four women who advanced to Wimbledon's semifinals, only one has lost a set. Only one has consistently berated herself over every on-court lapse of judgment and failure of will. And only one has drawn an umpire's warning for flinging her racket in a high-strung fit of self-loathing.

She is, not surprisingly, Dinara Safina, younger sister of the former No. 1 Marat Safin, whose combustible personality is widely regarded as having undermined his prodigious talent over the course of a career that's drawing to a close.

In the case of 23-year-old Safina, six years Safin's junior, it's still an open question whether her volatile emotions are the key to her recent success or whether she's succeeding in spite of them.

But there she was again Tuesday, slamming her racket on Centre Court after double-faulting to lose the tiebreak of her opening set against German teenager Sabine Lisicki.

Safina managed to compose herself after the outburst, despite double-faulting 15 times, and close with a 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 6-1 victory that sends her on to her first Wimbledon semifinal, where five-time and defending champion Venus Williams awaits.

Asked afterward if she was working on the mental aspect of her game, Safina drew laughs for replying that if she were, "I would not serve 250 double faults today!"

"It's just, my brain sometimes doesn't do the things that I have to do," Safina added.

Few women have worked more tirelessly to improve their games. The 6-foot Safina has trimmed down, toned up and reached the finals of three of the sports' last five majors only to freeze up when it mattered most.

Her most recent Grand Slam loss -- to fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in last month's French Open final -- was so disappointing that Safina can't yet bear to watch it on videotape.

Yet again, it wasn't a failing of fitness, skill or strategy, but one of the mind.

"I knew I had a good chance," Safina said, "but this wanting to win a Grand Slam, it took over me. Instead of just focusing on the match, I went on the court just not to lose because I wanted so badly to win."

Still, Safina's determination to keep working -- and keep putting herself in position to win the major title she covets so much -- has drawn admiration and empathy alike.

Even for non-Russian speakers, it can be painful to listen as she chastises herself on the court. Safina can easily handle early-round matches. But on the three occasions when a major title has been at stake, it hasn't mattered who is across the net. Her fiercest opponent is the demon inside.

Patrick McEnroe, who has more than a passing insight into emotionally overwrought players, is among those rooting for Safina to channel her passion to a constructive end. He thinks she's making progress.

"The fact that she can say, 'Look, I choked! I got crazy! I melted down!' I think that's going to help her beat it, at some point," McEnroe said. "She's very passionate about what she's doing. She wants to win really badly. And I admire her for the way she puts it out there and has dealt with it."

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