Patience. That's the advice Dinara Safina says she would have given her younger self 14 years ago when she began her pro career. Patience to put in the hard work when no one is looking. Patience to believe that the effort will eventually pay off. Patience to endure when the frustration boils over.
But patience, even for great champions, runs out. On Sunday, Safina will officially hang up her racquet at the tournament that was the site of her final WTA match. The former No.1 has been battling a debilitating back injury since the end of 2009 and has not played a match in three years. After a 14-year career highlighted by 12 WTA singles titles nine doubles titles, the 28-year-old Russian is officially announcing her retirement from the game.
Perhaps the best compliment one can pay to Safina and her legacy as a player is that she finished her career outside the all-encompassing shadow of her famous brother, Marat Safin. The duo will go down as the only brother-sister pair in tennis history to both hold the No.1 ranking on their respective tours. But while Marat was gifted with pure ball-striking talent and powerful athleticism, Dinara had to do it the hard way - with hard work, commitment, searing competitive fire, and self-sacrifice. And that's what she'll be remembered for.
At her best Safina offered a level of firepower that few could answer. A power-baseliner with heavy groundstrokes, she remade herself from a solid Top 20 presence to a giant-killer. The turning point of her career came in Berlin in 2008. There she defeated then-No.1 Justine Henin, Serena Williams, and Elena Dementieva - all in three sets after being a set down - en route to her first Tier I title. And with that, the Legend of Dinara was born. Count her out at your own risk.
Then came a miraculous run to her first Grand Slam final at the French Open. There she saved match point and rallied from 7-6, 5-2 down to stun No.1 Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, only to save match points again from 5-2 down in the second set to defeat Elena Dementieva 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-0 in the quarterfinals. If you're keeping score at home, that's five straight wins over Top 10 players in a span of a few weeks, coming back from a set down every time.
She would go on to win the US Open Series that summer with titles in Los Angeles and Montréal and then, having qualified for the Olympics as the No.3 Russian, won a silver medal as part of an all-Russian sweep of the podium.
By 2009 Safina was no longer the journeywoman on a hot streak. She was a legitimate contender for the tour's biggest titles every time she played. All in all, in a span of 16 months, she won seven titles, Olympic silver, made three Grand Slam finals, two Slam semifinals at the US Open and Wimbledon, and took over No.1. Not a bad haul for Marat's little sister.
"It was just coming everything, so new," Safina told reporters on Saturday. "I was so on fire. Those two years, they passed so quickly. But I think they were the best two years. And then after the injury it was tough to enjoy anymore."
But Safina's powerful baseline game took a toll on her mind and body. Mentally, the increased expectations and intense scrutiny would boil over. Her best opportunity to win a Slam came at the 2009 French Open. Wracked with nerves, she lost to her countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova. Months later, signs of the back injury that would end her career began to crop up. She tried to battle through the pain but never fully recovered. The prospect of never being able to return to her old form finally dawned on her over the last six months.
"It was hard because I was not ready for it," she said. "I was thinking 'Okay I'm going to play until I'm 30 and then I'm going to quit.' But then comes the moment when you're 25 and you wake up one day and it's like okay, I cannot go anymore. I cannot suffer.'"
What does the future hold for Safina? Not even she knows. She doesn't rule out a return to tennis as a coach - though don't hold your breath - but for now she is studying law back home in Moscow and helping her brother with his political career. She is enjoying her life, opening herself to learning and experiencing all the things she had to put on hold to focus on tennis.
As for what she'll miss the most about tennis, Safina points to the people, both behind the scenes and those in the stadiums all around the world, who came to watch and cheer her on. "When you step on the court, when you hear the people, when they support you, you will not get that anywhere else," she said. "You play for the people."
~ Courtney Nguyen is a freelance tennis writer based in Northern California. She is the blogger behind Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline and co-host of the No Challenges Remaining podcast.