French final, Russian accent: Safina-Kuznetsova
AP Tennis Writer
PARIS (AP) – Dinara Safina cursed at herself in English, muttered to herself in Russian and generally carried on in much the same manner of older brother Marat Safin.
Safina’s face bears a striking resemblance to Safin’s, and she shares his broad shoulders, too. Both have been ranked No. 1 – the only brother-sister combo to do so – and now Safina is one victory from joining Safin as a Grand Slam champion.
Yearning to justify her ranking and live up to her bloodlines by winning a major title, the top-seeded Safina overcame a poor start Thursday and held her temper in check enough to beat No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova 6-3, 6-3 and reach a second consecutive French Open final.
“I’m trying to control my emotions,” Safina said. “I’m not playing my best, but still, it’s not easy to beat me.”
Not lately: Safina has won 20 of 21 matches since rising to No. 1 in April. The only woman to defeat her in that span, 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, will get another crack at Safina on Saturday in the third all-Russian major final in tennis history.
The seventh-seeded Kuznetsova seemed well on her way to an easy semifinal victory, but she stumbled a bit before getting past No. 30 Samantha Stosur of Australia 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.
“She’s going to be favorite to win,” Kuznetsova said, looking toward her match with Safina. “She’s No. 1. She played an unbelievable season.”
Safina holds a 7-4 career edge over Kuznetsova, including a win in last year’s French Open semifinals. The two go back about a decade, to age 12 or 13, when Kuznetsova was living in St. Petersburg, and Safina in Moscow, where her father was the director of a tennis club and her mother was a coach who started Safin on his way to titles at the 2000 U.S. Open and 2005 Australian Open.
“I had no chance playing against her. I remember, I lose to her 6-1, 6-0 or something,” Kuznetsova said. “She was very good then, and then her brother was huge. I was coming to Marat, ‘Hey, I know your sister, Dinara. Can you give me autograph?”‘
In the men’s semifinals Friday, No. 2 Roger Federer plays No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro, and No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez meets No. 23 Robin Soderling.
Federer is trying to win his first French Open championship to complete a career Grand Slam and tie Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major titles. Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in the past three finals at Roland Garros, but the Spaniard is no longer around this year after being upset by Soderling in the fourth round.
“At this stage, I expected I would be in semifinals,” Federer said, “but I was not expecting Rafa to be out before the semifinals.”
The women’s semifinals figured to be mismatches: Neither Stosur nor Cibulkova had been past the fourth round at any Grand Slam tournament until this week – and neither has won a singles title on tour.
“I was just lost on the court today,” Cibulkova said. “I didn’t manage it well.”
The 5-foot-11 1/2 Safina also has an 8 1/2-inch height advantage over Cibulkova, who surprised Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. Yet Cibulkova did well in long exchanges at the baseline, where much of the match took place: Each woman won 15 points that lasted at least 10 strokes.
When Cibulkova lured Safina forward with a drop shot, then flicked a cross-court backhand passing winner, the underdog led 2-0. In the next game, Safina missed a forehand and let out a bit of frustration by whacking a ball into the net. She would do worse later – after failing to win an argument with the chair umpire, Safina slammed a ball off the court, drawing whistles and jeers from the crowd. But it all seemed to get her pointed in the right direction.
Safina won five consecutive games to go ahead 5-2, and that was pretty much that.
“Once I was down I started to play better,” Safina said, “but I think still I have to be much more dominant.”
Her grunts growing louder and longer with each game, Safina double-faulted seven times and made more unforced errors than Cibulkova – marking many mistakes with some sort of yell.
At least twice, Safina said something in English that prompted an announcer on a European broadcast to apologize to listeners. When she plopped one backhand into the clay at her feet, Safina opted for sarcasm, saying: “That was a great shot.”
She hit plenty of good ones, though, and finished with a 24-11 edge in winners, including one lob not all that high but high enough to clear Cibulkova that set up the break for a 3-2 lead in the second set.
Safina broke again in the last game, then covered those Safinesque shoulders of hers with a red Roland Garros towel and headed to the locker room, knowing there is more work to be done. She’s won major semifinals before but never a major final, losing in straight sets to Ana Ivanovic at last year’s French Open and to Serena Williams at this year’s Australian Open.
Safina hears the voices of those – including Justine Henin – who questioned the validity of a woman without a Grand Slam title topping the rankings.
“How much more proof I need to give the people that I think I deserve that spot?” Safina said.
One victory over old pal Kuznetsova on Saturday would do the trick.