Like her brother, Dinara Safina has never been one to hide her emotions on court. Just because she will be playing in her first Grand Slam final in the French Open here tomorrow, do not expect the 22-year-old Russian to keep her feelings in check.
“I know I'm not perfect, but people have to like me the way I am,” Safina said today, as she looked ahead to her final against Ana Ivanovic. “I don't want to hide my personality, not to be the way I am. I am the way I am.”
Roland Garros has seen most sides of Safina in the last fortnight. The world No 14 has screamed out loud when things have not gone her own way, taken out her frustrations on her racket and fired herself up to launch improbable comebacks. Above all she has shown herself to be a ferocious competitor, a dogged battler who refuses to acknowledge defeat until the last ball is struck.
Safina knows her approach does not please everybody. “Sometimes I don’t behave nicely,” she said with a smile. “I break my rackets and sometimes I don’t use nice words on court. But I’m like this.”
You could just imagine Safina’s brother, Marat, saying exactly the same. Safin, who won the first of his two Grand Slam titles at the US Open eight years ago when he was only 20, has often seemed to be a volcano on the point of explosion, though he has kept his temper in check in recent years. Unfortunately for a game short on characters, his performances have also been on the wane: he is now No 73 in the world rankings, having once been No 1.
“He's an entertainer,” Safina said. “That's why people love to come to watch him play, because he always gives a show. He's real on the court. If he has emotions, he won’t hide them. He will explode.”
Like her brother, nevertheless, there is much more to Safina than her fiery temperament. This has been her breakthrough season on clay courts and she goes into the final on the back of 12 successive victories following her victory in Berlin last month. She beat three top 10 players – Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva – to win the title in Germany and has repeated the feat in Paris with wins over Maria Sharapova, Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova. In both her victories over Sharapova and Dementieva she came back from a set and 5-2 down and saved a match point.
Ivanovic, however, will start as the warm favourite. The 20-year-old Serb is playing in her third Grand Slam final and says she learned much from her defeat to Henin in the final here 12 months ago. She played much better in losing a tight match to Sharapova in the final of the Australian Open in January and her form in the last fortnight must have strengthened her confidence. She already knows that she will be world No 1 for the first time when the updated rankings list is published next week.
Safina won their only meeting on clay, in Berlin three years ago, while Ivanovic has won their only other matches, in 2006 at Wimbledon and Montreal. Given the age of the two players, however, and their rapidly changing fortunes in the last year their past form against one another is unlikely to be a factor.
How each player deals with the occasion is likely to be much more significant. Ivanovic froze in last year’s final but insists that she has learned to cope with pressure, including that of being the new world No 1.
“Pressure always comes with everything you do,” she said. “When you’re No 2 and No 3 you always feel pressures as well. It's important to learn how to deal with it, and I feel I have done.”
She added: "I learned a lot from Justine and the emotions I was feeling going on the court, so I really hope I can work hard on it and play differently this year. Obviously I feel like a different player coming into this French Open. I gained a lot of experience from that final and from the final in Australia, so I really hope I can step up this time.”
Safina has never been in this situation before, though the Russian believes her recent improvement has been down to her ability to control her emotions better on court. “I’ve started to deal with my emotions and to accept some things if they're not going my way,” she said. “I say to myself: ‘OK, it's not going my way. I have to find something else.’
“In previous years I would have said: ‘Oh, I'm so unlucky. I cannot do this.’ So I would not even start looking for answers. But now I'm trying every time and thinking: ‘OK, this isn’t working, but I'm going to find other solutions to still win a match when I'm not playing my best’.”
Head-to-head record: Ivanovic leads 2-1
2005 Berlin (clay) Safina won 6-1, 6-4
2006 Wimbledon (grass) Ivanovic won 3-6, 7-6, 6-1
2006 Montreal (hard) Ivanovic won 6-1, 6-4