ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Dinara Safina can’t sit still. Three questions into our interview about her work for the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, the former World No.1 and WTA Legend is called away for another engagement, an on-camera correspondence before defending champion Kiki Bertens was set to face an on-fire Elena Rybakina. With 45 minutes before the final, she emphatically promises to return.
A busy Sunday afternoon had already seen her reunite with fellow Olympic medalists Elena Dementieva and Elena Vesnina for a Legends doubles exhibition. The match, which also featured former ATP star Mikhail Youzhny, capped a whirlwind week for the three-time Grand Slam finalist, who is serving as a player relations liaison for a second time, having made her professional debut for the men’s event last fall.
“I think the tournament director is taking tennis to a different level,” she said when she sits down again, praising Natalia Kamelzon, whom Safina has known most of her life. “She’s not only thinking about the players, but also about the people coming to watch the tournament.
“She wants the crowd to enjoy a show. They come, buy a ticket, and not only see tennis, but she also brings music, the entrances that are unlike anywhere else. It’s almost like out of a movie. For me, personally, it’s like boxing. The players are concentrating and then they come on the court. It’s going to be a battle, and the way it looks on TV, the only thing that’s missing is the coach in the corner of the ring, holding the towel! It’s very nice for the people to see.”
In between matches, Safina would pace the halls of Sibur Arena with a notebook and cell phone stacked on top of one another, stopping to confirm various player activities with the WTA’s on-site communications – an admittedly ironic shift for the former player.
“I’ve learned the sort of knowledge that I wish I’d had when I was playing,” she said with a wry, nostalgic smile. “I’ve been in the player’s position, and I was really lazy. Every time I was asked to do an autograph session or something like this, I would try to skip it. I can say now that I made a huge mistake being like that.
“Now that I’ve worked for tournaments and can see how they run, I wish more players would understand how important it is to have that contact with sponsors. At the end of the day, it’s only five or ten minutes of their time, to give that sort of greeting and thank them for what they’re doing for the tournament. It means a lot for the tournament and doesn’t cost the player anything. When a player does make that connection, the sponsor remembers and is more likely to want to continue helping the tournament.
“I think it would be a good idea if they could go a little bit inside the tournaments to see how they run. Players have to do what they can to sell themselves, because it’s not only about being on the court, but also how you are off the court. You come to a tournament year after year, and have those people who support you. The more you connect to people, your fans, you continue having that support when you come back the next year. But, I only learned this after I quit!”
Safina last played a match at the 2011 Mutua Madrid Open and formally retired at that event three years later. In the years since she and Marat Safin became the first brother-sister tandem to hit World No.1 of their respective singles rankings, she pursued her education, worked within the Russian Tennis Federation and spent time living in Manhattan and Monaco, settling in the latter of late as she plots her next moves post-tournament.
“Sometimes I think about being in one place and having a group of players I could work with. I would like to make a player, not exactly from scratch. I would prefer to have someone around 15 or 16. At that age, they’re starting to mature and about to turn pro. For me, I might either make a small group and work with them or I might have someone on tour, which would mean traveling full time. Until the middle of April, I want to breathe out and let it go. In the meantime, I want to clear my mind, do my own stuff, and see what comes. There are these two possibilities, and the closer we get to the day, the answer will come.”
She started the 2020 season with an exciting fortnight at the Australian Open, where she paired fellow former pro Jelena Dokic for the Legends Doubles and befriended eventual champion Sofia Kenin, the Russian-American dynamo who roared to her first major title in Melbourne.
“I’ve been wanting to get close to tennis again. I think the only thing I told her was just to enjoy the final. It’s a unique moment and experience, and I think that’s what was missing for me. I was too tense going into my finals, so eager to win that my mind was completely blocked. Of course, you want to win, but you’re already there, so just enjoy it and have fun. That was missing for me.”
Safina sees that same freedom in Kim Clijsters, who spent her own time with Kenin before returning to action at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and thrilled fans with a competitive clash against Garbiñe Muguruza.
“I like to think a lot about life, why we come to this world, and about our purpose. We only have one chance, and there is no other life. If this makes you happy, why not do it? Maybe someone will think it’s crazy that she’s already had three kids and wants to come back when the body is no longer young. I understand that, but if that makes her happy, she doesn’t have to listen to anyone. It’s better to have tried, whether it works or not, because nobody knows. Until you try, you never know, but at least you’ve been honest with yourself and satisfied that you tried. You can think, ‘I had this dream to try, and I tried it. It didn’t work, but in the end, I can say I’ve done everything I wanted.’
“We can all discuss this and say, ‘Ah, Kim, you’re crazy to come back after three kids. What are you thinking?’ But if she says, ‘Listen guys, this makes me happy. I am happy stepping on the court. My kids are already older and don’t need me day by day. They have their school and do their things, so I want to have my life now.’ The less you listen to other people, the better. Listen to your heart.”
The final is about to begin and we soon part; I later see her standing outside the MatchTV broadcast booth, where Bertens is being interviewed, trophy in hand. As a child approaches asking for a photo and Safina, all of 6’1”, bends to pose head-to-head with the youngster, it looks as though the WTA Legend is as close as ever to following her own advice.